Without Empowered Employees Your Social Media is Half Pregnant

And there is no such thing as being half pregnant.

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research have a great article available at the Harvard Business Review Online on empowered employees which is adapted from their soon to be published book on the topic,  Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business.The concept of the empowered customer is essential to understanding the social world and Josh and Ted site three of the most recent and most illustrative  examples of what can happen when the connected, empowered consumer use social media to highlight the outcomes of tone deaf customer service.

Dave Caroll stands alone at the intersection of customer empowerment and entertainment with United Hates Guitars but Dooce meets Maytag and Nestle meets Facebook were just as damaging even if there is not a sing-a-long tune to reverberate around inside your head. Three of my own most frequently read blog posts are about similar customer service fiascoes with Petsmart’s Banfield Pet Hospital, Hewlett-Packard, and Sprint. The Banfield post dates back to 2005 and gets a ton of search traffic to this day! It’s probably safe to say that they haven’t fixed their issues or improved their customer service. All of these companies spend huge amounts of money on advertising, some of it promoting the quality of their products and their service but don’t seem to have integrated customer service into their customer value proposition.

A possible ROI equation might be the effectiveness of X amount of dollars spent on advertising and promotion is reduced by Y when employee interactions (typically customer service or tech support) negates the expectations of the customer value proposition with indifference, lack of expertise, lack of authority or worse. Further, the real time web can point out these flaws in a nano second and then the challenge can be exacerbated as the whole world watches the resolution or lack thereof.

An Ad Age article this week asked the question: Are Major marketers Training John Q Public to Whine on the Web? Well, I would say that some marketers might just be trying to use “the web” as their customer staff…and some of them are succeeding. However, I think the key point that Empowered is trying to make is this one, “build strategy around empowering employees to solve customers’ problems”….all of your employees, online and offline. This is what the integration of social into not only the marketing mix but the entire business model is all about.

And simply setting up a Twitter channel and designating it “customer service” is not the same as empowering employees nor does it mean that your company is understanding the value of using social technologies. Some recent experiences on Twitter demonstrated the difference. Charter has had notoriously poor customer service and tech support to the point where only their low prices enticed me enough to give them another chance a year ago. Well their telephone customer service is every bit as awful as it always was and their tech support is only slightly better BUT the team of guys they have on Twitter rock ‘n roll! I haven’t had a problem yet that they haven’t solved…they are accessible, professional, and empowered! And positive word of mouth about them is spread not only online but offline.

I can contrast this with two recent experiences on Twitter with AT&T and with Charles Schwab.

Over a recent weekend, with no warning email or even warning web site blurb, the AT&T wireless site was down for “updates”until Sunday afternoon….the announcement said to call 611 on your wireless or the listed 800 number. Both of the numbers led me through their annoying voice system only to both say that they were closed until Monday. I Tweeted that their site was down. I checked to see if they were on Twitter and the last Tweet said, Twitter CustomerCare will be back on Monday.  I finally resolved my issue Sunday afternoon. Monday morning, the AT&T Twitter guy called me and although I appreciated the call on one hand, I didn’t appreciate being kept on the phone to discuss which phone number I had called (the one of the web site that I was told to call) and the fact that he had obviously not been informed about the entire situation.The website was being updated and someone had either decided not to inform customers or had neglected to inform customers, the back up phone numbers went to closed departments closed over the weekend (perhaps a mistake or an over site) and the Twitter folks don’t work over weekends, even this one.

A few days ago, I was having a problem connecting to Schwab’s StreetSmart site and a message came up that said, “if you are having  problem, try again later. If you continue to have a problem call tech support at a given 800 number. Not wanting to waste my time calling tech support if they were having a system problem,  I sent out a Tweet asking them if there was a system problem. The response I received on Twitter was the same one that I got on the web message. Neither the AT&T experience or the Schwab experience were big deals. However, the expectations that I have for Twitter based customer service is that they will be knowledgeable, accessible, and add some value over the other channels. Otherwise, why bother?

The opportunity for businesses is to use the built in advantages and benefits of social technologies to improve their value proposition. Training and empowering employees is essential to success….after all, social business is technology driven by people. People have to turn the keys, align the wheels and steer. Otherwise, your business won’t arrive at the desired destination.

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