My son recently had surgery scheduled (he is OK, thanks for asking). After my family had arrived at the surgery center at the appointed time, 9 a.m., we waited for two hours without help or any sign of progress. I asked the secretary when my son was scheduled to go into surgery, and she gave a few responses, all of them evasive. Then the nurse arrived and she, too, was full of noncommittal answers. Eventually, the administrator offered a full commitment—and his business card. Still, no one had answered my straightforward question: When is my son scheduled for surgery?
After some commotion, we suddenly were asked to enter an office. As an old-fashioned “customer centricity” person, I take customer service for granted. Typically, if a customer gets too vocal, the service organization goes into crisis mode to try to quiet the situation.
That approach is being implemented by many organizations in the evolving social media channel—and, yes, it is a channel. As I go beyond the hype to observe the channel’s evolution, I find that organizations are treating their customers like children. The dominant interaction is fun and entertaining and comes with cheap offers. There is no real dialogue. Social media specialists, many of whom come from public relations backgrounds, are crafting entertainment toys as a way to expose customers to their chosen brands. A recent page 1 story in The New York Times details how Delta Airlines uses Twitter to conduct real-time customer service monitoring. The airline responds immediately to upset customers by offering compensation. Remember the rule: If a customer screams, quiet him through bribery and attention. Delta certainly is not alone in this practice. As I read this story, I asked myself:
1. Why didn’t the customer contact the call center and get his issue resolved immediately?
2. Why weren’t the call center people given vast latitude to resolve customer issues?
In short, why are we raising a new generation of customers who will know the first rule of customer service: noise = attention? The greater the noise, the greater the attention.
The answer to that question is simple. We never accepted the legitimacy of the customer as a partner in the relationship. The customer was, and remains, an object we need to acquire and retain, and his opinions are marginally important only to the extent they support revenue and profit targets. Accepting the customer as equal to your CEO is a notion that your CEO resents. Executives the world over do not accept customers as partners. Instead, customers are considered a revenue stream, a quota fulfillment system, a necessary evil, or the cheapest way to make a company’s numbers.
The newly acquired customer power though social media raises a classic question. Success in social media does not depend on your technological capabilities; for example, you do not have to produce a clever attention-grabbing video on YouTube to attract millions of people. The classic question is cultural: Are you ready for an honest and open dialogue with your customers? The social media challenge is no different than the customer centricity challenge. Are companies and executives ready to accept the customer as a partner? Some already have. Starbucks’ Idea site and Dell’s Ideastorms are great examples of companies that treat customers as partners.
However, the vast majority of companies treat customers as children who need cheap entertainment and babysitting so they will not scream too loudly. Social media might be the last attempt to wake up executives, who have been living in denial. Customers are not children, and they should be treated with respect and openness. Take them seriously, not only because of their newly acquired social tools, but also because throughout the generations, this model has proven more profitable than treating them as immature kids who can be taken for granted.
Lior Arussy is the president of Strativity Group, a global customer experience research and consulting firm. Arussy is the author of Customer Experience Strategy—The Complete Guide From Innovation to Execution (2010).