Social Media Customer Service is a Failure – Frank Eliason, Citibank

As part of SHIFT’s work for the Pivot Conference (cross-posted), I’ve been given the opportunity to speak with several industry luminaries.  (You can file this under “yet another reason why I love my job.”)

First up, I spoke with Frank Eliason, who made his bones as a VIP while leading the social media charge at Comcast.  Now he’s back in the banking field, serving as SVP of Social Media at Citibank.  The edited excerpts from our far-ranging and fun conversation focus on the failures of “social customer service.”  Given that Frank is widely credited with pioneering that very space, you can imagine my ears perked up as he made his case:

62fd77161c7b0ad8976f16.L._V136019344_SX200_Positive change can certainly happen where Social Media is able to take root in a corporate organization, but it requires a number of things. It requires high level support within an organization, and the organization has to be looking at things broadly – whereas they tend not to.

Look at companies going into social media. What do they tend to do? They tend to go in from one of three perspectives. They either go in from a marketing perspective, a communications perspective, or a customer service perspective.  Sometimes each of those units do it, but separately.  But social media is changing more aspects than just those small business units, it’s changing how we interact with people; there’s a power shift.  It’s not really about the influencers, it’s more about the masses.  Now your employees and your customers control your brand image, not something you put on TV!

My view is that social media customer service is a complete failure due to a number of factors. For example you have companies out there that are focusing on people with the high Klout score. I don’t think that works so well.  Look at that concept through the lens of some of the famous instances over the years. I worked for a cable company and at one point there was a video of a technician sleeping.  The person who put that video up had posted two videos, ever. Let’s face it, it was just good content. It was just something we enjoyed watching — so we watched it over and over again. I am not a fan of influencer-based marketing, or providing priority service based on someone’s Klout score.

I hear this all the time: “we want to be where our customers are and our customers want social service.” I say consumers don’t want social service, they just want it right the first time, and if it’s not right they’re looking form someone to fix the experience. What’s going on is these companies are doing social servicing because they think their customers want to be serviced that way but, they’re not taking this customer feedback and fixing what is wrong; they’re not using this feedback to bring about true change!

Think about this: everything we do sends a message to people.  We need to remember that.

We focus on call centers and we look at things like “call handle time.”  That sends a great message to your employees: “get the customer off the phone as fast as possible”; they’re measuring the speed at which the call center rep can end a call, not solve a problem.  This sends a message to the customer because, guess what? – they can tell when they’re being rushed off the phone. And on the PR side, for example, what are they listening for? They’re listening for that next PR crisis. But listening is much broader than one little silo. It is taking this information and putting it in the hands of the product people, the sales people, the C-suite, etc.  All people should have access to and understand this information because it can drive product and support changes, not just PR wins.

Ultimately I believe that as human beings we have a craving to be artistic, but over the years we took artistry out of our work; we made everything about process. We shouldn’t let social media become all about metrics and ROI.  I’m Six Sigma trained; Six Sigma is all about process. But what did I find when I watched my peers use Six Sigma metrics? They would choose metrics that told the story they wanted to tell. Why? — because at some level they wanted to be artistic; they wanted to do these things. We have to find a way to bring artistry back into our work environment. After all, in this new social world, if you want your company to be successful you have to create an experience and have a story worth sharing. It is a story that starts with the people, and extends through the product, the sales and support.

Good stuff, right?  For more, I highly recommend you immediately click this link to buy Frank’s new book, @Your Service. Then, register for the Pivot Conference! It’s gonna be a good time.

Posted on: August 22, 2012 at 8:43 am By Todd Defren
14 Responses to “Social Media Customer Service is a Failure – Frank Eliason, Citibank”


  • Dave tidwell says:

    I vote strongly for the powerful role that social media has in the confines of the overall customer experience. I have had the pleasure of operationalising 3 large fortune 500 brands ability to engage in social conversations in the CORE of the customer contact centre. Not a spin-off of the marketing or sales department; but a tightly integrated, unified, holistic top-down view of the customer experience and journey on all channels like the Phone, SMS, eMail, Web-Chat, IVR, Call-Back, Twitter, Facebook……

    The most profound thing I think I’ve witnessed is the need for brands to realise that Social Media brings with it a new “Voice of the Customer” – on one hand a risk; on the other an incredible reward. Here are my key guidelines;

    Customers SHOUT at you on Social Media – they WANT and EXPECT a response for a wide range of reasons
    Customers TALK ABOUT you on Social Media – they may not want or expect a response
    Customers WHISPER around you on Social Media – it may be beneficial for you to respond and engage

    A Brand must tune its ability to engage, listen and respond against all 3 of these factors; and they must be in lock-step and balance with your marketing, brand, legal, products and service philosophy. Also, the total customer journey must be evident to the business as a whole! Here’s a simple use case

    and hits the IVR, and ends up waiting in the queue for 7 minutes to speak to someone
    -During the wait they tweet “On hold #FAIL @thebrandconcerned”

    Do you think it right that the voice agent that eventually receives the voice interaction have the Tweet routed to them too?

    What about a customer talking about a brand that then approaches the brand? What will you do if they have been particularly positive about your products? What about negative?

    What about a potential customer looking for a product like the one you sell or provide? They may have mentioned a competitor? Would you engage?

    These are key questions! The bottom line – with the correct thought, planning and dedication it is possible to integrate Social Media into mainstream Customer Service. Do it well, do it right!

  • Rick Noel says:

    Nice post. I am especially impressed by the comments where Frank responds directly to Ron’s concerns and even generously gives up his email offering to address further concerns personally. Everyone knows that customer acquisition is expensive and growing business though existing customers is more efficient than growing business through acquiring new ones, much less winning back a former client that has left and gone to the competition (lose-lose). Also, everybody knows that news of poor customer service experience travels fast and social media makes it easy to tell virtually everyone you know in a few mouse clicks as people who experience poor customer service tend to do. Customer service is important through any medium, but would argue that the stakes in social are high, whether or not companies are there to service their clients. Thanks for sharing.

  • Why bother with customer service social media if you are not going to reach out and fix the problem. The Comcast story that you mention is a good example. I have had a company ask me to fill out a survey to let them know how they did and if they could contact me. I filled out the survey giving them all low points, never heard a word. That is a great example of failed customer service social media.

  • Ron says:

    He sounds like he knows his subject but he can’t redeem Citi… As a customer, have to say – what a crappy company, crappy products, crappy customer service… Unbelievably bad. Predatory actually…systematically designed to screw consumers and make it all but impossible to get a problem resolved without a huge investment of time and inhuman patience. I’m pretty sure it’s deliberate too…ROI calculated to two decimal points.

    • Ron,
      Thank you for the feedback regarding Citi. I agree it will be a long uphill battle to regain trust, but you do that over time and not overnight. It must be more than a message but a reality Customer know and feel. I joined Citi because their CMO, Michelle Peluso is nothing short of amazing. Since the crisis, Citi has revamped the vast majority of the senior leadership team with a focus on the Customer. Since joining two years ago I have watched a lot of positive change, but it is imperative for me to see this continue. If you ever want to discuss your specific situation, please feel free to email me.

      Frank Eliason

  • Definitely grabbing Frank’s book – this excerpt alone is full of great insights.

    The best takeaway here is that it’s not about the medium, it’s about service. I still remember working in Communications for a big company (who I’m not going to name) back in my 20s (ghostwriting letters that people assumed were coming from executives) and being told by my manager to focus on “being a little faster and a little less correct” since my QA scores were above the ‘acceptable’ threshold. It’s the same problem now – and that happened to me back when people still carried pagers around everywhere – ‘good’ service doesn’t scale reliably, so I guess it’s not perceived as worth the time at a certain level.

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