/ Shopping, Technology

Is anybody out there? Companies just aren’t listening

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil

Companies like to boast about ‘listening’ to their customers, but in my experience most of it’s just hot air. Have you ever changed a company’s mind, or got them to answer your question honestly?

A while ago Hannah Jolliffe wrote about social networks, and how companies weren’t engaging with their customers as well as they could. I think that’s a bit of an understatement.

In my experience companies tend to use social networks, blog posts, and videos to make themselves seem friendly and approachable, while at the same time masterfully avoiding discussion of the issues that really matter to their customers.

A typical comment exchange might go something along these lines:

Customer: Hey, why have you started charging extra for paying by card?

Company: Thanks for your question. Along with other companies in this industry, we’ve recently started charging extra for paying by card.

They must know this sort of answer won’t satisfy the average consumer, but it’s the sort of response people regularly receive, not just in the public sphere but in letters and emails too. Why do we put up with it?

British Gas – what was the question again?

When British Gas announced soaring profits of 24% last week there was obviously a scramble in their web team. Their managing director quickly appeared on YouTube offering to answer questions if people posted them in.

This is the sort of thing I love to see – companies who are willing to go a step beyond just putting out a press release and then running away. When they join in the discussion we know we’re not just throwing money at a faceless corporation. So my hat is well and truly off to them.

But, and it’s quite a big ‘but’, in practice British Gas wasn’t nearly as open as I’d hoped. They edited questions down to simple bite-sized chunks, then gave media-savvy answers that didn’t get to the meat of the issue. Having promised “We’re listening!” this was a bit of a let-down.

Could customers post follow-up comments? Of course not. British Gas, it seems, is only listening sometimes.

Twitter – the 140 character distraction

Some people have reported success with pestering companies over Twitter, receiving refunds or free products when their complaints have been picked up online. But not everyone’s doing it well – we alerted Thomas Cook to a customer request recently, and they responded by helpfully linking to the ‘contact us’ page on their website.

Part of the problem with this is that most companies have web teams to run their social media accounts, and the web teams are almost never in the position to really help. I always give bonus points to real bosses using social media, and chatting to their customers directly.

So are companies really listening? I’m sceptical. Most of the time I feel upset for their no doubt frustrated web teams – they’re trying to placate customers, but have little or no power to do anything about their problems.

Often the ‘listening’ face of a company is nothing more than an extra hurdle for us to jump over. I live in hope that someone will prove me wrong.

Comments
Guest
Nigel Whitfield says:
4 March 2011

In many cases, of course, the Twitter or Facebook accounts aren’t even run in house – they’re run by a PR company or dedicated ‘social media’ agency.

I suspect in the case of the PR firms, they say they’ll do it because they want to provide a ‘full service’ to their client, and then it gets dumped on the youngest person in the office, because they’ll obviously understand all this fancy social media stuff.

That’s fine, but you have to make sure that when there are questions, they get sent on to the right person – and it fails miserably, all too often. It can create a worse impression that not using social media at all, in my opinion.

What would help would be if agencies were actually honest about this; all too often you look at a bio on Twitter, for example, and it just gives you the impression that it’s the “Official Twitter account of Brand X.”

Agencies should be encouraged to state clearly “ABC PR Tweeting on behalf of Brand X” so that at least customers are aware that they’re not really speaking to whom they think they are.

Guest
Zerocredit says:
4 March 2011

Interesting article. May be as consumers we just don’t shout loud enough. In 2011, we have an unique opportunity ….. individually, we may be “little things”, but collectively, we are massive. It’s time we stop letting companies get away with it and social media ought to be one of the tools to use.

Guest
Nigel Dawson says:
4 March 2011

New Look consistently promote various offers on their Facebook Page but as a New Look Card Holder I never get any exclusive offers. Ive made numerous posts on their page and never get a response. http://www.facebook.com/newlookfashion

Guest

Hi Nigel – thanks for commenting – always good to get some examples of where people have tried tackling companies directly. I agree with Zerocredit above – we *do* have a unique opportunity so we should use it!

I’ve posted a question on New Look’s facebook wall to draw attention to your comment – let’s see if they join us on Conversation to give you an answer!

And Nigel – you’re right. There are a lot of social media accounts that are managed by PR agencies, and usually even if it is someone from within the company chances are they won’t have the authority to answer your question or solve your problem. I’d really like to hear some examples where people have managed to use social media to get some proper answers. I know there are some examples, but often they get lost in the fog of confusing answers and spin.

Guest
New Look says:
4 March 2011

Hi Nigel,

We would like to look into this for you.

Please can you confirm if you are referring to a New Look account card or New Look Fashion Rewards card?

Guest
Allan M says:
4 March 2011

I tweeted that my easyjet flight was late in boarding and that there was very poor communication to passengers. By the time I got home I had received a message from Easyjet asking for more information , a contact name and email in customer service and a voucher for using on my next easyjet trip. One disgruntled customer turned back into a happy one very quickly.

Guest
Allan M says:
4 March 2011

woops “ebay” should have read next “easyjet” trip

Guest

I’ve made that edit for you now Allan.

Guest

That’s great news Allan – so good to see a company dealing directly with a customer issue, and bonus points to easyjet for giving out vouchers to compensate for problems as well. You’ve given me a spring in my step to carry me through into the weekend =)

Guest
Allan M says:
4 March 2011

I also used Twitter for a rant about Aviva and got a near instant response from them.

Guest
Brian Trevaskiss says:
4 March 2011

I run the risk of this sounding like blatant self promotion, but here goes anyway. I can give you an example of how my company has had conversations with our customers on Twitter. I take charge of operations and marketing at the MoreFrom Group of websites, MoreComputers.com is our best known site.

Earlier in the year, when the courier networks and Royal Mail were still broken after the poor weather and Christmas backlog, we had a handful of customers contact us on Twitter. I man our Twitter account and was able to get my customer service team to track our customers deliveries. One particular customer had a string of courier problems. Failed delivery promises, being out when delivery was attempted and just general rubbish information from the couriers.

I’d tell him what the courier had said they’d do via Twitter and he’d tell me when it didn’t happen. It worked well because of the instant nature of Twitter. Eventually he got his delivery and thanked me for keeping him informed, which to be honest is all anyone wants in these situations.

Our business is growing and Twitter and Facebook are a part of our customer contact plan. I believe we can scale as our customer numbers grow. The existing large organisations need to rethink their call centre operations – which granted is a major task.

At the end of the day if your customers choose to talk to you via social media, you need to be there or they’ll just talk to a competitor who is.

Guest
IrvSwerve says:
4 March 2011

A friend of mine achieves remarkable results by obtaining the e-mail addresses of the CEO’s or MD’s of major companies when he is disgruntled over some product or service. Sometimes it requires some some subterfuge to get this information but sending his polite complaint to the person at the top often achieves the desired result
Surprisingly the CEO is sometimes grateful for the shortfall in the standard of his/her company being pointed out due, I suspect, to the staff keeping that kind of information away from their boss!

Guest

All customer service operations are designed to help the supplier not the consumer. Do whatever the CS people don’t want to take them out of their comfort zone.

Guest

So glad this discussion has had some good responses! Bonus points to New Look as well, who responded very quickly when I posted on their facebook page about Nigel’s issue.

Brian – it’s good to hear things from the company’s point of view. I have heard other examples of companies using Twitter effectively in a crisis (e.g. snow, the Iceland volcano, political disruption) to get messages out to customers quickly. Let’s hope that other companies catch on to the value of listening to customer problems through social media.

IrvSwerve – I like that idea as well, although I imagine it must be really difficult to get that sort of contact information!

Guest
IrvSwerve says:
8 March 2011

Re your reply Nikki, it may not be that difficult. Just putting the query into Google comes up with this long list as one of quite a number:
http://www.connectotel.com/marcus/ceoemail.html
I notice some of the names have changed but the format will stay the same for the latest occupant.

Guest

I have a nice story to tell about LoveFilm.

Their customer service on both Twitter and via email is absolutely brilliant. I tweeted them when I went on holiday to see whether I could freeze my subscription and then move to a cheaper one as soon as I cam back. They couldn’t deliver exactly what I wanted, but after a number of tweets and emails we came to a compromise which involved extending my subscription period (way beyond the call of duty).

So, thumbs up to LoveFilm.