Business Week's 3/3 edition (available online now) features a very important cover story by Jena McGregor entitled Consumer Vigilantes: Fighting for truth, justice, and the right to speak to a manager. The issue also includes an annual ranking of "Customer Service Champs" -- many of whom, interestingly, have been profiled in either this blog or my forthcoming book, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000!" -- as well as a provocative (and spot-on) op-ed by Jeff Jarvis entitled "Love the Customers Who Hate You". Importantly, McGregor writes:
"The sting of a bad experience can cut so deep that it transforms an upset customer into an activist no longer interested in just a refund."
As we've probed many times in this blog (see tagged links), and in nearly a dozen ClickZ columns, marketers and business executives have yet to internalize the critical symbiotic relationship between brand/service "experiences" and "media" output (and I'm not talking about paid media). McGregor's piece helps make that connection more obvious and transparent. The propensity to speak out (hence generate CGM or social media) is inextricably tied to depth of consumer loyalty or disloyalty, and its powered by the web's growing arsenal of megaphones that seem to get even more powerful every day thanks to the advent of multi-media (e.g. video, audio, photos) as well as "I second that emotion" community and social-networking capability. The upside of extreme loyalty and brand emotion might be found in places like Facebook's 40,000+ member Southwest Airlines group or the nearly 70,000 member "Addicted to Starbucks" group (more perspective here). The downside of extreme disloyalty and boiling emotion -- what McGregor describes as "venom-spewed tales of woe" -- can be found in tens of thousands of places on the web's digital trail, from message boards to blogs to YouTube. (As Jarvis suggests, just go to Google and add the word "sucks" to a brand query.)
So What Next? Business Week does a great job diagnosing the problem, and the "winners" part shines light on a host of best practices (Fairmont, Lexus, Trader Joe's, Lands End, Enterprise), but I still worry whether there's a big missing piece of the conversation around "what next." Importantly, are the marketing leaders -- the owners of the biggest discretionary budget, and arguably the most influential drivers of change in large enterprises-- internalizing the message, and translating these new insights around consumer behavior into better "media" models. If "service is the new marketing," as they say, what's the blueprint for re-engineering the marketing department along these lines? How should the CMO -- or the constellation of communications agencies (media planning, advertising, PR, digital) -- be incented to move in this direction? And will there be rewards and recognition for the mostly undervalued (and typically non-strategic "cost center") owners of the call-center, email feedback, and more?
First Things First:
Since 2000, I've attended over a dozen conferences of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals, one of the largest industry group's representing corporations and brands that own the "listening pipe." While not nearly as glamorous as the "new media" or Web 2.0 confabs and conferences, these SOCAP events always hit me like a refreshing cold-shower because they are grounded in the real nuts and bolts of listening, training the front-lines, adapting to an increasingly diverse (e.g. Spanish speakers) and demanding consumers, developing fair and consistent methods for responding to consumers, and navigating impenetrably complex legal barriers (and fear). I have also learned that this department is consistently underfunded and under-resourced, and mostly divorced from marketing. As boring and mundane as their work seems, it's hard not to conclude that if a company can't nail the "basics" of consumer listening they'll never get it right, or be credible, in the far more vexing and volatile social media zone. (Remember, most of the vigilantes Business Week's McGregor highlights initially reached out the company, but those experiences were poorly managed and only made the situation worse.) So you have to start with the source. That said, like the CMO, the consumer affairs and customer relations leaders also need to step up to the plate, a point I underscored last fall in a SOCAP keynote entitled "Wake Up and Listen to Consumer 2.0." If they want more budget, more respect, more leeway to nurture meaningful consumer loyalty -- and hence positive word-of-mouth and CGM creation -- they need to make their case, and do so now at a time when the resource-rich marketers are dotting every third word in speeches and memos with the word "conversation." My book lays out a host of strategies for making such a case, but short of even reading a book (or Business Week's story) business leaders simply need to take a long, hard stare at today's consumer and negotiate a new relationship.
The good news is that there's a growing laundry list of best practices in this area I like to refer to as Listening-Centered Marketing, from Dell's Ideastorm to the 800-number-all-over-the-place Zappos.com. We're also seeing new metrics and measurement protocols (this is part of what I do in my day job) that make it far easier for brands to understand and act upon varying degrees of consumer emotion (the building block of consumer loyalty or even defection) flowing across the CGM landscape.
Final Question: And so I end this post with a simple question: how do we shift from consumer-powered "vigilantism" to company-powered "service vigilance." Business Week's piece fires up that conversation, and I really hope it continues down the right path.