I have always been an advocate for listening to the voice of the customer. In the eighties I was the GM for a bookstore chain. From time to time I would receive letters from customers who had an unpleasant experience with a staff member, or felt our practices, or title selection, was not acceptable. I would answer those letters personally and would spend time with the store manager discussing how an associate could be coached to ensure a better customer experience was waiting around the corner.
On one occasion someone went so far as to write a letter to the local newspaper to complain about certain magazine titles that were on display. The paper published the letter on their opinion page. I was a businessman and those magazines sold well so I didn’t want to give up that revenue. But the community got behind this person which meant I had to find a solution that worked for consumer as well as commerce. I instructed the store to remove the magazines from the rack and put up a sign that listed the titles available and informed the customers they could be purchased by asking any clerk at checkout. We did lose some sales, but I think that was more than made up in political capital with the community for seriously listening and taking action.
While in that store a short time later I overheard customers talking about the incident and noted what we had done in response. Their reaction was very positive. I immediately went back to my office and took it a step further by adopting this policy across the chain. Certainly many people did not have an issue, but it was a public store and as such, part of my job was to create an environment that was comfortable for as many people as possible. That was how community played out in the 1980’s. You wrote letters; yes on paper with envelopes and stamps. My customers taught me an invaluable lesson early on in my career; listen to them. A side note. That year we set a sales record and crushed the competitor, Walden Books, who had a much better location in the mall.
Fast forward to the digital age
One of the first things I do every morning these days is read customer comments submitted through the web site. I read them on my Blackberry at home while eating breakfast. I want to know what my customers are saying before I get to the office. It’s a sobering, enlightening, humbling, frustrating, humorous and an interesting experience. The Customer is Always Right is the classic phrase. Perhaps a more appropriate modern take is The Customer is the Customer. No ridiculous notions here. Businesses need customers, but consumers need and desire the products and services brands offer.
Enter Social Media
It has been perceived, in my opinion, that brands have enjoyed an advantage in the relationship with a consumer. Social media has for some consumers been a way to level that playing field. All well and good, but I have been observing some interesting data over the past few months directly related to all the talk about customers controlling brands and using social media as a bully pulpit to right the wrongs that businesses foist upon them. Just click on customer threads from almost any industry and you will see it. Customers want to tell the brand when they feel they’ve been wronged. Getting in touch with company people, not just the call center reps, is difficult and time consuming. Thanks to social media technology it’s much easier to write a blog post, comment on a conversation some one else has started or upload a photo. Consumers have expectations they expect brands to meet. I’m also a customer and couldn’t agree more. But if consumers decide to go public they need to exercise the same amount of care and honesty that they expected from the brand. If you don’t want your son to turn out like Bart Simpson, don’t parent like Homer. The visual below depicts how consumers move through the expectations / perceptions cycle in the world of social media, as well as what socially aware brands are doing in this new era.
Much of what I read from my customers is anonymous, but sometimes they identify themselves because they are looking for help. It’s fascinating what you find when you tie back detailed customer comments to their actual business records. What consumers write in public does not always reflect what’s on the private record. It’s not surprising. Anger and emotion can frequently overwhelm calm, fact-based thinking. Especially when there have been repeated attempts to solve the problem. This puts the brand in a difficult position. They can’t call out the customer, or argue. The best they can do is apologize for problems and take the conversation off line. My point is that if you find yourself with a new power, use it wisely. Exercise the same honesty and genuineness that you expect from your brand.