NextCon 2017: Companies Must Cultivate Customer Service Cultures

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At NextCon, Nextiva’s annual user conference, speakers urged companies to foster work cultures that encourage employees to express personality and think outside the box during their customer communications, especially at a time when customers are prone to sharing their experiences with peers.

On day one of the event, Micah Solomon, an author and consultant, encouraged attendees to avoid providing what he called “Stepford service,” a term coined by Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, to describe a scenario in which agents don’t have autonomy to act off script. “Customers today prefer an authentic style of service,” Solomon said, and not an unnatural one where the customer is put on a pedestal. He pointed out that even an organization as large as Amazon has allowed its agents to experiment and have fun. In 2014, a service agent in Capetown, South Africa, whose name happened to be Thor, engaged in a friendly role-play chat dialogue with a customer who hadn’t received a book in the mail, and who assumed the part of Odin. While this is not something that companies should do all the time, it is the kind of thing that can get shared on social media and create a positive brand reputation. At the time, the story was covered by The Huffington Post and gained the attention of several other websites. 

Acting spontaneously was also encouraged by author Shama Hyder, founder and CEO of the Marketing Zen Group, a web marketing agency. She said that this kind of thinking is what helped the Dippin’ Dots ice cream brand earlier this year, when negative tweets from then White House press secretary Sean Spicer resurfaced on the internet. When The A.V. Club put the company in the spotlight, Dippin’ Dots understood that the worst thing it could do would be to ignore the messages, so it crafted a lighthearted open letter, signed by its CEO, Scott Fischer, posted it to its website, and linked to it from Twitter. According to Hyder, within 48 hours, the campaign had reached more than 1.4 billion people worldwide and was covered by media outlets such as NPR and CNN. “In times of crisis—and every company is different—I would urge you” to be human, transparent, and try to infuse humor into customer communications. “It really pays to think about how you can get creative.”

But to be creative, a company must cultivate a culture that grants employees the flexibility and confidence to do so. This was one of the messages underscored by Nate McMahon, senior vice president of the Motley Fool, a financial services company, on day two. Our customers are often our employees, McMahon pointed out. Therefore, companies should invest in them, as they represent a great opportunity for growth through advocacy.

In agreement was Lane Sutton, a marketing and employer brand strategist, who joined executives from Nordstrom and the Ritz Carlton in a panel discussion on day one. “Companies focus so much on the customer experience, and that’s why we’re all here,” he said. “But we forget the employee experience and the candidate experience. Those correlate into your customer experience.”

Sutton pointed to Virgin Media, the TV, phone, and mobile services company, which discovered that 10 percent of its customers were actually job candidates. “They found that 6 percent of their customers were switching” cable providers “because they had a terrible candidate experience, and that cost them $5 billion in revenue.” 

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