Is Public Shaming Online the New Customer Service Call?

When Twitter came into its own at SXSWi in 2007, it became known by tech geeks and media alike as the SMS of the internet, and the third social network. Over time it became recognized as a valuable news source (Arab Spring anyone?), and microblogging became the marketers' buzzword to entice clients onto the platform. A prediction I could not find in the internet articles of yore was the customer service value Twitter would have for brands that knew how to exploit the strengths of the platform. The case studies of brands such as Dominos and Dell taking to online platforms like Twitter and YouTube became well-worn campfire tales a few years ago, permeating the Social Media Strategist's public speaking and pitch decks alike in a bid to mainstream the technology, and woo potential clients onto the platform and into the age of the digital marketing strategy*. Flash forward 5 years, and more brands than ever seem to have bought into the Twitter customer service game. In 2013, Simply Measured analyzed how the Top 100 Brands (as named in 2013 Interbrand Report, including names like Nike, Samsung, UPS, and AmEx) use Twitter for customer service. They found that 99% of the brands in the report are on the platform, and 30% have a dedicated customer service Twitter handle. Let that sink in – 1/3 of the best global brands in the world are using Twitter to manage customer service complaints. Whoa. The study also looks at response rates, response times – the fastest 42 minutes, the average 5.1 hours – and a myriad of stats that I won't be discussing here but are worth checking out. Note to market research teams: I'd LOVE to see a side-by-side comparison of data from call center customer service complaints vs. Twitter customer service complaints to see how it all shakes out.

*I'll let you in on a secret: there is no such thing as a digital marketing strategy, there is only a marketing strategy.

Not too long ago the headline read: Consumers Force Brands Online to Maintain Their Market Share; i.e., if a brand wanted to remain relevant to the growing demographic with purchasing power – at the time the millenials – they would have to go online to reach their consumers. As brand marketers struggled with what they saw as this new marketing and advertising broadcast channel, another hammer fell: it wouldn't be enough to broadcast to your consumers, to build their trust and earn their business – and more importantly their loyalty – you would have to engage with them. As in dialogue with the consumer you'd held a bit at arms length through a carefully crafted marketing strategy. Again, whoa. But that was then, circa 2008/2009 or in terms of today's lightening-fast technology evolution, the Internet Jurassic period.

Now, as we emerge standing upright in the primordial ooze of Internet evolution, I'm thinking the headline might read: Brands Force Consumers Online to Resolve Customer Service Complaints. A few recent experiences I've had with customer service over the phone vs. online has led me to ponder this. The most clear example is a recent series of exchanges I had with TD Bank. I have been a TD Bank customer for well over a decade, a holdover customer from Commerce Bank, which was merged with TD in these parts back in 2008. I LOVE TD Bank. Or, I at least love the experiences I have whenever I go into my branch. From their greeting "How can I exceed your expectations today?" to the customer-focused service and fabulous hours they offer, I love this bank. Until I have to call corporate, then my head wants to explode; I narrowly avoided splattering brain bits earlier this week when I discovered an error on their part that was costing me upwards of $40 (more like $52). Mistakes happen, and my branch was quick to find, admit to, and rectify the error (yay); however they were not empowered to refund me the additional money their error was costing me (boo). If I wanted funds returned to my account, I'd have to call customer service. Sigh. So I did. Three times. Spoiler alert: this did not go well.

My first two calls to customer service resulted in a combined 52 minutes of hold time, I'm told this happens at tax time due to the volumes of folks calling for statements, and twice being disconnected. Twice. On my third attempt I was connected with a very pleasant customer service rep, who very diligently followed her customer service script. She did not however seem to grasp the situation, stating again that there was no error (it had been corrected by my branch within the last hour), and she would have to put me through to her supervisor. Frustrating, but okay. Another 30 minutes on hold, and then, well surely restitution, right? No. Yes, said the supervisor that error occurred. Yes, he could see my branch fixed it. However, they could not refund me the additional funds that their error caused. Paraphrasing his words, he did not have the power to do credit my account, there was nothing he could do, and no one else I could speak with. So I asked, can you do something else? I've been a loyal customer for many years – can you do something to make me feel better about this? His reply: No. So, not a very satisfactory customer service experience.

What did I do? I did what approximately one in three social media users do – I took my complaint online with this tweet:

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Within one minute, my friend and brand strategist extraordinaire @MackCollier replied with a tweet of his own: Image

Within fifteen minutes of my original tweet, I had this reply from the social media folks at TD Bank:

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By 6:00PM ET they had investigated the matter, called me, and made restitution. All it took was one tweet, one reply and a follow up. And four phone calls over three man hours. But that's not the point, that's just me grousing. The point, or one of them, is that the social media representative I spoke to confirmed that the call center folks were not authorized to reimburse me. In fact, she had to do the research independently and approach her supervisor, an online customer service supervisor, for authorization. So, had I not gone online to complain, and publicly shamed TD Bank to a collective 37,261 people, I would have been left with "Sorry, we made a mistake and we can do nothing to make you feel better"? I can't definitively say yes, but wow that's how it felt at the end of the day.

So I'm left wondering if the tables haven't turned on consumers. We may have driven brands into the online game, but are we now losing out if we don't pursue every, okay most, customer service interaction with brands online? Do we need to publicly shame brands online for them to provide the customer service we expect to remain loyal brand consumers? (Hat tip to Stan Phelps@9INCHmarketing – who's excellent #MENGPhilly presentation led me to thinking about the importance of retention, loyalty, and the link to revenue growth).

PS: not one to only complain online, I also thanked TD Bank for their resolution. After all, manners are important. And yes, I also thanked Mack.

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Jump for joy photo of the day - Mark Hildreth! July 2, 2013