Of Stars & Schmoes: The Mandate to Synch Social Media & Customer Service

IStock_000003108153XSmallAs corporations tentatively embrace the idea of direct-to-consumer marketing techniques via Social Media, they are likely to be encouraged by the warm reception they receive online.  Really, it’s not as scary as it’s made out to be, and as we’ve noted in the past the Risk Of Ignoring will be inescapable for most Big Brands.

But, we’ve also talked about how “Customer Service is the New PR.”  That was a major theme not that long ago, yet it seems to have receded a bit.  Don’t be fooled.  It will come back, with a vengeance.

Here’s the thing: you start to get accustomed to Red Carpet Service.  You tweet, “Comcast Sucks!” on Twitter, and you get the royal treatment from @ComcastCares.  You moan about the “Blue Screen of Death” online and someone from Dell asks, “Hope that’s not one our machines that just crashed? Can we help?” 

As a consumer it feels GREAT to be taken so seriously, and to see such a rapid response.

However when the person treated like a STAR online is subsequently treated like a SCHMOE when they dial the #800 line, the “disconnect” is all the more egregious. 

The brand enthusiast created by great online experiences becomes an even bigger threat when they become disgruntled by the lack of attention paid to all other customer service channels:  “Treat me like a STAR one day, and give me a nightmarish experience the next IStock_000006692046XSmallday, just because I’ve reached out via a different channel?  F* you!  I’m gonna tweet about this — you are a fraud!!”

The message: you can’t be great at Social Media if your service sucks.  But that’s just the beginning of the nightmare.

Let’s say that as a company you’ve decided that you will try to do a few things well in Social Media, i.e., you will actively monitor and enthusiastically respond to bloggers and Twitterati, because they are deemed most impactful.  How do you synch up what happens online in Twitter (etc.) with your existing Customer Service systems??

“Who is @TDefren?  Is this person a he, a she, a customer, a prospect?  How do we figure out that @TDefren is a customer?  How do we figure out that @TDefren is Todd Defren?  What’s his phone #, email, credit card #, the last 4 digits of his SSN?  Has he called before?  Has he tweeted before?  Has he blogged about us?  Commented at another blog?  When?  What did he say? Was his issue resolved?”

This raises obscenely difficult backoffice CRM issues.  But within 18+ months of your decision to take Social Media Marketing seriously, I predict you’ll feel an overwhelming need to put a laser focus on all aspects of Customer Service.  The mandate will come from below, from the people you’ve impressed online.  

But don’t think of all this as “obscenely difficult.”  Think of it as “doing the right thing.”

Posted on: May 11, 2009 at 9:24 am By Todd Defren
53 Responses to “Of Stars & Schmoes: The Mandate to Synch Social Media & Customer Service”


  • Jeff Toister says:

    I came across your post as I was writing for my own blog on the same subject. Interesting to see this is still an issue four years later!

    One thing that jumped out was a survey I found from 2012 that showed only 19% of companies have their customer service departments manage or co-manage social media. The prevailing view seems to be that social media is still within the domain of marketing and PR.

    Here’s a link to my post in case you are interested:

  • Bonnie says:

    Our company is just learning how to use Twitter. As a newbie, my take on companies that manage customer service this way are being reactive vs proactive. By the time a complaint hits Twitter, you are missing the Customer Service boat.

  • Katybeth says:

    I sent your post to PetSmart who is tweeting with a vengeance but has terrible service in Chicago. PetSmart sent me a DM and asked what the real problem was, I explained and they suggested I talk to the store manager–which is where all my problems began. MMM–I think I will just buy on-line.

  • Cindy Kim says:

    I just blogged about this. I completely agree – in this day and age where conversations are taking place online, companies need to understand how to listen and engage to create a two way dialogue. More importantly, PR folks need to constantly monitor the voice of the company across the social media channels and respond and work across their appropriate business channels to ensure they are following up with the “customer” as an action item. By doing so, you’re not only engaging, you’re taking the service to the next level to make sure the “customer” is being taken care of outside the online conversation. Without that kind of follow up, it’s pretty much a lost cause. cindykimblog.wordpress.com.

  • Ali Croft says:

    Your timing with this is uncanny. I just this weekend had a horrendous experience with a certain unnamed satellite radio provider, and looked immediately to Twitter to see if they had a presence there and might be listening if I did decide to vent that way. It doesn’t appear that they do, so instead I opted for a letter of complaint to their investor relations department (one of the few real email contacts posted online). I explained my situation and recommended they a) work on their customer service and b) get involved with social media! There’s nothing more important in this day and age, where unhappy customers can so easily tell hundreds or even thousands of their friends with the click of a button.
    Hopefully companies like this are listening, or are at least starting to think about it. I have yet to hear back on my email. It may take a few more major blunders before they take note!

  • I think it’s fair to say customer service could go the other way as well – great phone support but crappy support through other channels. It’s just as harmful as great online support and terrible phone support. I wonder if better linking between online and off line in the CRM will improve things later on when the online customer has a real link – or if that will make things worse because now they can see you’re only a $10 client and who cares if they lose you? (Which I think is the wrong attitude, but unfortunately it does seem to be the thinking of some organizations)

  • Rich N says:

    Sweden’s equivalent to Comcast (Com Hem) is trying to put customer service in the middle of their marketing and social media, using two PhDs in networking and fiberoptics, as well as using Twitter. It’s in Swedish, but http://webbsverige.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/judit-com-hem/

    The question they don’t answer, though, is what type of training are they putting their regular customer service people through. I think one of the reasons Zappos is so popular on Twitter is that its phone/customer service people talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

  • Interesting stuff Todd. I agree with you. But I wonder if companies will first look at someone’s platform before responding.

    Will they go “Hey @tdefren has ten thousand followers on Twitter and a popular blog so we should treat him better than someone who has ten followers on Twitter and no blog?”

    I’ve been very reluctant to tweet about customer service hassles. Should you or I get better treatment than others?

    • Todd Defren says:

      That concept of escalating service due to an individual’s perceived influence is a WHOLE other post, David. I daresay a can of worms, even. But you’re right that it’s a challenge that follows getting the first part of Cust Svc right!

    • Scott DeYager says:

      I learned right away not to weigh the importance of an individual’s customer service issues based on perceived influence. Just because someone has a small following doesn’t mean they don’t have access to more influential friends/connections to amplify their issue/complaint. It would be a full-time job tracking the “six degrees of influence” someone might have. Every issue should be treated with equal importance.

    • Unfortunately, this is a fundamental issue at the core of CustSrv via social media of any sort. I am not convinced that the follower number is the core issue, but the reach is (anyone can use a hashtag and gain reach quickly).

      I have posted that SocMed (twitter in particular) causes bad CRM practices, because is encourages a company to help the most vocal, not the necessarily the most in need. Any strategy that a company embarks on needs to scale, and answering on Twitter, simply does not scale by current standards – so, change the standards – switch the budget from PR and Adverts to Cust Srv and then it may scale.

      To throw another fun discussion into the mix, there is a question of whether Twitter is even a channel (I am undecided, you can chime in at #scrm to voice an opinion). The reason is that Twitter is simply the notification mechanism, but quickly taken off of Twitter – oh, until resolution when people sing the praises.

      Looking forward to continuing the discussion in Burlington, VT in early June

  • Rachel Kay says:

    This is a great post Todd and an important point. I think a lot of the disconnect comes from the fact that at this point in time, PR and Comm people are managing social media tools like Twitter, while the customer service desks you reach over the phone are traditionally manned by an army of robotic, often outsourced people reading from a script.

    Case in point – for a year I dealt with a technical problem with a piece of office equipment. Time after time I and my staff spent hours on the phone dealing with an uncaring, mechanical-like customer service team trying to walk us through the repair of defective equipment. I proceeded to write several emails to the customer service team that became such dramatic pleas for help that they were really more for my personal entertainment than to elicit any response from this company other than a computer-generated non-answer. Finally out of desperation I Tweeted about it. No less than 3 PR people immediately came to my rescue – calling, emailing, sending me things – and at the end of the day we were able to get a nice laugh out of it.

    Would I call this a social media win? Not really – at the end of the day it took more than a year to resolve the problem so it’s really a customer service fail. But hopefully the result will be a change in the way companies provide customer service through any vehicle.

  • AliSwi says:

    I make a conscious effort to be an informed consumer, meaning I look for feedback and reviews from other people online. Even if I don’t know these people I take their opinions and experiences into consideration when weighing out my purchasing decisions. I think companies have to be accessible online and adapt to the modern-day consumer.

  • GregPC says:

    I don’t know – I think we’re already used to getting different degrees of attention depending on where we interact with a company. For example, if you go to the same Getty station every week and have the same guy pump your gas, pass the time of day, etc. it’s going to feel different from calling an 800 number to dispute a bill. But both are part of the customer experience.

    The fact is the onus isn’t only on the business to learn how to interact with customers better, we as customers have to figure out how to do a better job interacting with them. More people are going to learn that Twitter is a better tool for a quality experience than sending a fax.

    I wish with all my might that customer service issues will be improved across the board – and maybe social media will be the push that companies need to make needed changes. But I suspect that they will first deal with the loudest voices and at this point that’s online.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I think some would disagree that there is an onus on the consumer to “figure out” how to work with a company. I see your overall point though, Greg.

  • Laurel Hart says:

    I think there’s potentially another side to this disconnect. If companies are doing more and/or better customer service through social media, are companies creating a separate but unequal system with some discrimination built in? Are the people using social media to resolve customer service issues more likely to be white, educated, relatively more affluent, in core age demographics, etc.? What happens to the “others” if the non-online customer service is sub-par?

    Synching the two in that context seems like “doing the right thing” on a whole other level.

  • This is pretty well written, although as just everyone that writes about this (I wrote about it last week in my blog and many times before in other blogs and for Gartner), we always end up with a soft recommendation like “try to make sure you sync up your efforts” or something like “make sure you integrate”.

    I am guilty of the same, but I think that if we are going to move this forward we need to adopt a new stance.

    We should tell our clients and everyone reading that when it comes to doing social media (or email, or chat, or anything else in customer service for that matter) don’t even think about doing it until you have a decent, well ranked experience created in your main channel and are confident that you can replicate it in other channels.

    Anything else is just inviting more problems and solutions to your customer service party.

    I will start doing that… as soon as I get someone else to do with with me :)

  • Brittany says:

    I cannot say enough about Verizon Wireless’ hit-or-miss in store cust svc. I have had both good and bad experiences in person, but the icing on the cake was a client of mine who spends $10K/month with them and after asking for a software update on one of their phones, the sales rep said they weren’t “allowed” to do that and if the client wasn’t happy, that he should go somewhere else. I know the customer very well and can vouch for the fact that he was not irate or tough to deal with, just encountered the wrong guy at the wrong time.

    Customer service reps should be the MOST important hire a company makes. They are the face/voice/lifeline of any brand. They also offer the best opportunity to make a good impression of the overall brand.

  • Mike Maney says:

    As always, an insightful and thought-provoking post. Thank you.

    It’s not just the disconnect, though. I think the bigger issue for companies is that we might be on the edge of an expectation gap.

    As consumers get more savvy and more accustomed to getting everything they ask for (thanks to blogs like The Consumerist and the instant reaction of brands on Twitter, as well as high profile customer care examples like Zappos), they run the risk of hitting the same quality break point that they hit when they moved customer service to big, impersonal call centers.

    At some point, having a couple of social media pros (yeah, I used that term) on staff who are empowered to make gut decisions to keep customers happy and their brands untarnished, won’t be enough. The question becomes: How will customer service evolve once social media becomes as ubiquitous as an 800 number?

  • Thank you for this post, Todd; you have wrestled with a subject that is near and dear to my heart. This has been an issue with customers in the past, even before social media. For example, a customer might get treated fabulously in the store, but when they try and interact with someone on the phone, they are treated like just another number. Or you tell a customer they are a VIP, but the only communications you have with them elsewhere are sending out invoices.

    It is a little tricky to track everything you know about a customer, but it can be done. It will be important for customer systems to start tracking all the methods a customer wants to use to communicate with a company, including their Twitter handle.

    Perhaps now customer service will start getting a seat up-front at the strategy table!

    Thanks again – you rock!

    • Todd Defren says:

      “It will be important for customer systems to start tracking all the methods a customer wants to use to communicate with a company, including their Twitter handle.”

      True statement but INCREDIBLY hard to knit it all together at the backoffice level.

  • Scott Bourne says:

    Todd this is right on. I have a question…

    Do you see a time when to make this easier people just get told – contact our customer support team – they’re on Twitter?

    I see one possibility – knowing how business works – that they won’t fix their poor telephone support – they’ll abandon it and send everyone to Twitter. Maybe that’s a good thing.

  • Customer service is much more difficult and expensive than a social media or even traditional PR campaign. It is a cultural foundation and commitment of an organization. To work and be sustainable, it needs to be built in not added on.

    Social media won’t do much for the numerous firms, whose implicit motto is “Screw the Customer.”

  • Bill says:

    Amen – reality is, companies will have to integrate all documentation of customer interaction into one central location – collect as much information as possible i.e email, phone, twitter, address, etc. and use this information for the customer’s benefit. How do you collect all this information? Just like we engage our customers, one person at a time, one question at a time, one search at a time, etc.

  • Mike Spataro says:


    You raise a good point about companies needing to sync up their customer service across all channels. Having worked with a number of companies now in this area, I can say with confidence that many understand this even if they are still figuring out how to make it all work.

    One other point I think is important to mention here. Smart companies with great customer service don’t normally respond to every angry consumer who lambaste their brand. They understand the criteria for when to reach out and when not to. It’s a new world for sure, but one companies are quickly getting the hang of.

    Mike Spataro
    SVP, Visible Technologies

  • C.C. Chapman says:

    As we talked about over dinner this is a VERY hard thing indeed. I know when I get on the phone with any company now I always think in the back of my head about the great companies I’m interacting with online and wonder why everyone can’t do it.

    Customer Service use to be about the person in the store or the person on the other end of the line. Now it is even more places. Companies have to figure out which channels they are going to use and then make sure that on ALL channels they are providing a constant and positive level of customer service.

    The chain is only as strong as the weakest link….

    • Todd Defren says:

      “The chain is only as strong as the weakest link” – DOH! You just summed up the entire post. Now I feel like I’ve over-written the whole damn thing! ;)

      • Julie Wright says:

        I have read recently that Salesforce.com is incorporating Twitter into its CRM module. Is Salesforce.com a Shift client?

        This addition will apparently be in their next release–I think I read this in Information Week.

        In any case, I think Twitter is a better place to intercept the customer issue and address it than waiting until the customer calls you.

        Great post–as always!

  • Jon Clements says:

    Morning Todd
    This very problem is being played out now with companies in the UK such as Carphone Warehouse, which is doing well with its foray into social media for customer service, but continuing to find it a challenge to replicate that level of excellence in other channels. I should know – I was a customer!

    The guy heading up their social media effort talks about it here http://pr-media-blog.co.uk/prwin-carphone-warehouse-gets-social/ and the accompanying comments reflect how emotive this whole thing is.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Just cuz it’s hard doesn’t mean it is not worth doing. The fact that Carphone Warehouse is acknowledging the problem gives hope that they will commit resources to figure it out.

  • I have had some issues with Chase Auto Finance’s customer service last week. When the folks answering their 800 number were not helpful, I immediately turned to Twitter — hoping that they had someone providing assistance online. When I searched for Chase, I found tons of negative complaints — but clearly no one from the company responding or engaging. In this day and age when many major brands are accessible online, it’s even more frustrating when a company has no interest in participating in the online world. Brands need to wise up, or risk further damaging their reputation.

    Heather (@prtini)

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