Saturday, July 5, 2008

Customer Service in the Age of Social Media: A Lesson from Hewlett Packard

Providing poor customer service has always been a dangerous proposition for brands. Failing to meet consumer expectations damages brands, but pre-2005 (before social media began to explode) the risks were relatively small. Any single service event could have destroyed brand loyalty for a single consumer and perhaps may have caused ripples with a few people that consumer knows, but really damaging a brand's reputation before the age of social media required significant, consistent, and long-lasting service failures.

Today the game has changed and any single service event can become a PR disaster of national proportions. Hewlett Packard is the latest brand to learn this. As broadcast on CrunchGear, one of the most influential sites among tech-savvy consumers, an HP customer sent his computer that was still under warranty to HP for service. He received a communication indicating that when a tech opened his computer, fluid spilled out and onto a motherboard, so HP claims the consumer owes them $1,099 to repair or replace their motherboard.

Pre-2005, this consumer's complaint would've been heard by a few dozen people at most. Today, CrunchGear's 34,000 daily visitors now know about HP's rather ridiculous and embarrassing customer service gaffe. As noted on CrunchGear, "I’m sure that for every experience like this, there are a thousand perfectly good interactions with HP’s customer service, but that doesn’t reduce the impact when you hear something as ridiculous as this."

Of course, no company ever believes it is providing poor customer service, but they certainly do seek to balance the level of service versus cost. For example, each organization reaches its own decision on questions such as the cost of adding more customer service reps versus the lost goodwill that occurs when consumers are forced to wait on hold and abandon their calls.

As HP's experience shows (and other brands have also found), social media is changing the way we must think about customer service. The cost of poor service, once measured in single consumers, can now have an immediate impact far and wide.

It should go without saying that the answer isn't to solve every consumer's complaint at any expense required. This is not an effective or even plausible solution. However, improving customer service is no longer a question of just limiting costs but one of enhancing brand equity.

Improving customer service in 2008 requires actions that are both traditional and innovative. As always, it is vital to hire, train, and monitor customer service employees. Each must understand what the brand is about, why their interactions with consumers are important, and what is expected of them. We don't know what happened in the HP example, but it seems obvious an employee or group of employees lacked an awareness of what is acceptable and what is not.

Providing customer service that creates a high-quality customer experience requires even more in 2008 than in the past. How is HP using social media to engage consumers where they are already spending time and discussing their brand experiences with others?

For example, just a couple hours ago a consumer on Twitter warned others that they shouldn't "use HP Premium or Pre.Plus papers as they're meant ONLY for Dye printers, no matter what HP says." If HP was on Twitter, they could address this concern or correct the bad information. They could also be participating in the dialogs underway about HP's new TouchSmart technology, which is seeing some positive buzz on Twitter. Alas, HP seems to be nowhere to be found on Twitter, so they are not part of the consumer discussions.

Another way HP can use social media is to be aware of problems and to address them before they become PR disasters. Let's see how they respond to today's post on CrunchGear. Will they be unaware of this issue until it is viewed hundreds of thousands of times and is shared across dozens or hundreds of blogs? Or are they monitoring social media and prepared to take action to either make this consumer happy or to fight what may be incorrect information with positive and proactive communications?

Brands can no longer wait until an issue hits mainstream media to react, nor can they rely on their positive relations with editors at a few media outlets to help protect their brand. Social media is changing the way brands must manage and monitor their brands.

No comments: