Is the consumer affairs department an endangered species? I know, this sounds harsh – but the question is quite honest, and certainly timely. I’m also tossing this out there as a provocative “call to action” at a time when consumer affairs professionals – contact center heads, customer service suppliers -- are assembling from all over the country to the Society of Consumer Affairs Professional’s (SOCAP) annual symposium n Chicago. Normally I’d be there – this is one conference I never want to miss – but I just so happen to be moderating the keynote panel at Ad-Tech San Francisco tomorrow on the topic of “Innovate or Die: Building Great Brands in the Era of Disruption.” (Yes, in light of my opening sentence, there’s irony in the title, and I certainly hope to include a representative of SOCAP -- perhaps President Matt D’Uva or Chairman Pete Edghill -- on the panel next year.)
Here’s the rub. Right now, in 2009, the consumer affairs (or consumer relations) industry has two strikes against it. One, marketers generally treat this group as as “the neglected stepchild,” a term drawn directly from the most important chapter of my recent book “Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000” (Doubleday Business). This is reflected in budget, staffing, and, in many cases, a typically marginalized role at the strategy table. Second, the explosion of social media tactics and strategies – typically led by marketers, ad agencies, PR firms, and the mushrooming legions of Twitter-schooled “social media experts" – has started to eclipse if not cannibalize consumer affairs' role in bread and butter consumer engagement activity: listening, responding, solving, managing feedback loops, and more. It’s not that consumer affairs is doing less that they were, say, a year ago, but their total “share of conversation” relative to other groups is heading south. Relevancy matters!
All of this has led to what I’ve often referred to as a massive “conversational divide.” Marketing stakeholders are jumping into the social media space aggressively, and with no shortage of hype and exuberance (not necessarily a good thing) – from Twitter "service" accounts and corporate blogs to Facebook fan sites and user-generated ideation contests – while the consumer affairs department is barely keeping up. The “divide” is most pronounced in the consumer experience. Direct feedback channels (800 numbers, email feedback forms, online FAQs) are innovating at a fraction of the pace of the external social media “engagement” efforts. Don’t believe me. Just randomly pick ten major brands and ask whether their “feedback interfaces” match the pace of innovation with their social media efforts. Yes, there are pockets of innovation where corporate accounts on Twitter act as de facto “consumer relations” outposts, but with the exception of perhaps Frank Eliason of Comcast (disclosure: a client) it is unusual to find a person with customer service or consumer affairs “credentials” staffing such efforts. Even on the phone front, brands simply are not keeping up with consumer expectations, a point Emily Yellin hits hard (and persuasively) in her excellent new book, "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us" Again, we have a “conversational divide.
So what does this have to do with SOCAP? Now more than ever, the consumer affairs community needs to step up to the plate and grab a real seat at the social media table. The conversation and table-talk at this year’s SOCAP confab should center around the tactics and strategies to realign management thinking about their potential to lead this promising area of innovation, and why they consumer affairs is positioned to do this better than anyone else. That was precisely the theme of my keynote speech to SOCAP at their annual conference in October 2008, and I repeat the point for emphasis here. In fact, the need is more urgent than ever.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blindly taking a position or throwing darts at the corporate org chart. The folks closest to the pulse of the consumers who reach out to companies should naturally have a hand in the “expansion” (e.g. social media) efforts. Brands will slip, trip, or outright fail if they don’t enroll the very same folks have invested years and years of experience in empathetic listening to consumers; in solving problems to retain consumer loyalty, and perhaps even nurturing advocacy. The social media movement needs that discipline. It might even need a wee bit of consumer affairs caution and conservatism. Again, the consumer is in control; we -- all of us -- can't screw this up!
Consumer affairs is well-positioned to make headway, but they can’t take the space – or their birthright in consumer “listening & engagement” – for granted. As I note in my book, “one of the most important imperatives for management seeking top-line growth is to rethinking, and in many cases, reengineer, the entire consumer affairs operation. In fact, this revamping may prove to be a far more efficient, high-return investment than pouring more money into paid media.”
“After all, the consumers most likely to fill out an online feedback form or call the customer service number are the same folks who create online word-of-mouth. In every study I’ve conducted on online consumer behavior, a strong correlation exists between consumers who exercise feedback channels and those who create media.”
Here's a big advantage. The consumer affairs/relations department technically owns what we referred to at the recent Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) listening leadership summit as the “brand backyard.” This is a critical zone of control, leverage, and “sense and respond,” and also one that’s expanding via online chat, brand communities, and vastly smarter CRM tools. This “brand backyard” is where keynote speaker Kim Dedeker of P&G drew inspiration to ultimately become one of the industry’s leading marketing research executives. Turns out her first job at P&G was answering often-challenging consumer calls on products like Downy, an experience that was so revealing of brand insight and value that she used it to open up her speech.
Which leads me to a few final thoughts on “Listening.” Even if the consumer affairs department makes meaningful headway on the “listening front” – and by that I mean better translating the value of it collects from consumer for marketers – we can hoist a partial victory flag. Reinventing “listening” is nothing short of an industry obsession these days, and for good reason. Just ask the Advertising Research Foundation’s Joel Rubinson, who along with CEO Bob Barocci are challenging the entire research industry to rethink the entire listening equation. As the Nielsen chart I presented at the ARF event suggests, listening now feeds many mouths and needs in the organization. That's a huge opportunity for consumer affairs.
So, again, now is the time for the consumer affairs department to step up. I frankly think the marketing folks will meet consumer affairs half-way. Last month I spent half a day with room full of CMOs and VPs of Marketing on this very topic as part of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) "Senior Marketer Think Tank." We asked hard questions about whether "service is the new marketing," and we obsessed over the topic of the "conversational divide." They are ready to engage (pun intended) consumer affairs or anyone for that matter dedicated to forging meaningful relationships between brands and consumers.
So the timing is perfect, and the conditions are ripe. In the end, the consumer will benefit much more from a bridge…not a divide. - PE
Consumer Affairs Reform “Reader” (Select Articles I’ve Published in the Pas
Marketers Love Conversation, Unless the Consumer Starts It! (Ad Age Column)
The “Third Moment of Truth” (Feedback, Expression)