Sunday, May 8, 2011

What Companies Get Wrong About Customer Service in the Social Era

The blogosphere is full of horrifying examples of customer service and commentaries about the dangers of ignoring customers in an era when one pissed-off person can distribute their experience to thousands (or ten million).  A friend shared just such an example--a response he received from model company Revell, Inc. It demonstrates a problem common among companies nowadays: Brands don't face social media PR disasters as a result of isolated mistakes but instead create reputation problems with a preventable and cascading series of careless decisions and actions.

In recent years, I've spoken with many corporate leaders who convey a sense of victimization about social media. On the one hand, they have no choice but to be present and part of the conversation; on the other hand, there is almost a feeling of powerlessness and exploitation about the influence that social media gives complainers and detractors.

There are aspects of this feeling that are accurate--no matter how great the investment in quality assurance and first-rate customer service, some customers are bound to be disappointed and spew complaints in social venues.  Even superior companies like Disney, Harley-Davidson and my employer, USAA, are bound to disappoint occasionally. A company cannot welcome 25 million guests at its resort, sell a quarter million bikes or serve the financial needs of 8 million members without falling short of customer expectations on occasion.

While it's true social media has given a larger voice to the average consumer, the impact of this can be overestimated because corporate leaders may obsess about the things they cannot control while failing to act on those things they can. The three things that companies tend to underestimate as levers at their disposal in the face of social media complaints are:

  • It's not the mistake that matters but how you handle it:  Mistakes happen. No one expects a company with thousands of employees selling millions of products to bat a thousand. What hurts reputation isn't the mistake but what you do next. The insult that companies add to injury is the fuel that fires social media PR disasters.
  • Damage is multiplied when many consumers share similar issues: A single complainer can launch a critical and inflammatory tweet to thousands of followers, but what happens next depends on the overall state of your brand and quality of customer service. If the brand generally makes people happy and enjoys a strong sense of affinity with consumers, that tweet likely falls on deaf ears or may even spark a defensive response from brand advocates. But if the brand has wronged many or is suffering from poor perception, others will be inclined to retweet and turn a single complaint into a sizable number of negative brand impressions.

  • Size matters--different situations require different handling:  The one caveat to the first two points is that size matters in two ways. First, the size of a person's influence cannot be ignored--a relatively minor complaint voiced by someone who has true social media influence (and not just 10,000 followers on Twitter) carries more weight. Is this fair to companies targeted by upset influencers? No, but who said life was fair? Secondly, the greater the size of the damage inflicted on a consumer, the larger the risk to reputation. A single rude encounter with a customer service representative is unacceptable but barely nicks a brand's reputation; however, a single mistake that creates a major or lasting problem for a customer greatly increases the risk that a single complaint gains traction and goes viral. Larger complaints or complaints from larger influencers demand special handling.
The email my friend received from Revell demonstrates the danger of mishandling a customer complaint. Given the opportunity to make a customer happy, the brand fumbled the ball and made a mountain out of a molehill. My friend purchased a model Ferrari for his son, who opened the box and ran outside to paint the body. With paint drying, the father and son returned to the box to find the chrome parts missing. My friend didn't turn to social media to gripe but sent a cordial email requesting the missing part. 

Should be an open and shut case, right? Here's the response my friend received:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your email.
We are at a loss to explain why these parts were missing out of this kit.
The first course of action would have been to return it to the store for either an exchange or refund.  However, you choose to start painting your model before doing an inventory of the parts. 
Revell kits are subjected to extensive quality checks during the manufacturing process to ensure they leave the factory in perfect condition.  Because these kits go through a packing line there would be no way that the (chrome) could be missing from the kit without someone catching it at the end of the packaging line.
Anytime a product is assembled the (chrome) is usually the second to last part that gets packed into the box; then the (body) is laid on top of all the parts.  Upon opening this kit you would have know that the chrome was missing out of it, immediately.  At that time you should have returned it back to the store.    Unfortunately, you had already started to paint this model.  Therefore, we will be unable to replace this kit.
However, we will be more than happy to help you obtain the (chrome parts) for it.  There is a processing fee in order to receive them that we require in advance.  The fee is $15.00.  Please remit payment by Money Order (no other form of payment will be accepted) payable to Revell Inc.  Please include a copy of this email to insure proper handling of your request.
Mail to: Revell Inc; Attn: Replacement Parts (-85-4291); 1850 Howard Street, Unit A; Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
We ask that you not mail in the kit to us as it will be sent back and no replacement kit will be in order.
Once payment is received here in our office we will then process an order for you to receive these parts.
Thanking you in advance for your payment.
How many mistakes did you catch in this response?  My list includes:

  • Business rather than personal language ("This is to acknowledge receipt of your email.")
  • No apology.
  • No empathy.
  • Attempt to convince the customer the mistake couldn't have happened, and in doing so...
  • ... subtly accuses the customer of lying or being mistaken.
  • Blames the customer for mishandling the situation caused by the company's mistake. ("At that time you should have returned it back to the store.")
  • Conveys a robot-like attitude by sending a form message with template tags intact! Note the fill-in-the-blank parenthetical sections: " way that the (chrome) could be missing... the (chrome) is usually the second to last part that gets packed into the box; then the (body) is laid on top."
  • Turns a customer service problem into a sales opportunity by offering to solve the problem for $15.
  • Makes it difficult and time consuming to even act upon the unacceptable solution offered--the company requires a money order rather than an easy form of payment.
  • Implies the customer lacks the intelligence to follow instruction ("We ask that you not mail in the kit to us as it will be sent back and no replacement kit will be in order.")
  • Ends a service email with the expectation the customer will pay the fee and does so in the impersonal and passive voice ("Thanking you in advance for your payment").
What makes this response even more egregious is that it differs from the promises made on the Revell web site. The site states

Even with our best effort a part may be missing or broken.
Revell's Parts policy is in place to provide our customers with a quality building experience and was developed to assist with replacing parts that may be missing or broken.
If the kit was purchased from a reputable retailer like those found on our web site and, after removing shrink wrap, a part is missing or broken, Revell will provide a reasonable number of replacement parts at no charge.

Where the web site acknowledges mistakes can happen, the response to my friend does not. And where the Revell site commits to replacing the part for free, the company's response breaks this promise and demands a payment for the missing part. Does the Revell web site purposely misstate its intentions in an attempt to mislead potential purchasers, or did a renegade customer service rep take it upon herself to try to turn this situation into a revenue-generating opportunity?  The significant difference between the promised and actual experiences causes me to wonder if Revell rewards its service reps for generating sales, which would of course undermine the company's commitment to customer service.

Revell had several opportunities to avoid being the subject of this blog post. The company could've sold a complete model kit, could've lived up to the promises it makes, and could've sent a more personal and caring message. To become a social media problem, Revell didn't make one mistake but many. Revell had all the pieces to construct model customer service, but it ignored its own set of instructions.

Companies must recognize the opportunities and risks inherent in their handling of customer service issues. From "United Breaks Guitars" to Dooce's Maytag woes to my friend's Revell model, it isn't a single mistake that creates negative social media impressions but a failure to handle customers' problems with honesty, transparency, empathy and a commitment to do what is right. Getting your reputation right in social media doesn't require you to avoid making mistakes but to avoid multiplying them.


MadMax said...

Many times its frustrating when companies take a higher ground and not revert with something as trivial as this. What they fail to realize many a times is the simple fact that the power is now with the people. More than print media - online media now acts as an influencer in a purchase decision - including the fact that the lines between high involvement purchases and low involvement purchases have blurred with consumers checking feedback for all products prior to purchase.

As a scale Modeller - I take a stand to refrain from buying Revell untill this issue is resolved.

JustinG said...

This is an outstanding post, Augie. From someone who used to manage customer service complaints via social media for a consumer brand, your post is an outstanding template for how these issues need to be handled.

The one piece I would add -- and you alluded to it -- is that a company like Revell must have the back-end process set up and embrace a culture that rewards fixing customer service issues, not generating revenue at all costs.

Customer service via social media has received a lot of play and many big brands do an excellent job with it. But your Revell example shows how much room we still have to grow in this space. I think as companies continue to integrate culture and focus on working together for the benefit of the customer, we'll see more companies taking the right steps and fewer of these ridiculous e-mails. Cheers.

Augie Ray said...

Terrific addition to the conversation, Justin. 100% agree. (I'm sure you're not surprised.) Thanks!