Tag Archives: customer service

SxSWi Report – Social Media: Connecting with Customers

Note: This was listed in the catalog as “Social Media: If You Liked it, Then You Should Have Put a Digg on It…”, which I wouldn’t have bothered to attend, but when I walked by the room the title had changed to “Social Media: Connecting with Customers”, which was a lot more obviously interesting to me. This was also one of the few panels that didn’t seem to treat large corporations (and those of us who work for them) as the enemy.


  • Chris Bowler – VP Social Media Lead, Razorfish (moderator)
  • Jordan Corredera -  Director of Online Marketing, Carnival Cruise Lines
  • Paula Drum – VP Digital Marketing, H&R Block
  • Malini Ratnam – Digital Media Mgr, Avenue A/Razorfish/JCPenney

First, each panelist gave an overview on what their company is doing in social media (comments on the companies themselves are partly my own, for the benefit of non-US readers who may not be familiar with these companies):

H&R Block

Well-known in the US as a tax preparation service, H&R Block’s problem is that their business is extremely seasonal, running from January (they kick off their advertising season with the SuperBowl) through Tax Day on April 15th. They are trying to use social media to stay in the public consciousness year-round. The overall theme is customer connections to build lifelong relationships.

Tactics include:

  • a tax news widget for tax professionals
  • YouTube contests
  • online community
  • tax-themed content related to other times of year, e.g. back to school, company benefits enrollment periods
  • provide customer service via Twitter and Yahoo Answers
  • helping tax professionals participate in these programs as well
  • along with the Social Media Club, have organized/participated in Tweetups in 10 cities

JC Penney

Penney is a very old retail company, and is trying to overcome a rather musty reputation with younger shoppers: “Trying not to be ‘your mother’s store’.” They have chosen to actively participate in women’s online communities.

Their first big project is the extremely funny “doghouse” video (which I had seen long before this conference, though I had probably forgotten that it was done by JC Penney):

At the time it had had 4.1 million views with a 60% completion rate, resulting in 600 (new) Twitter followers and 1100 tweets/retweets. It was initially seeded from a Penney microsite using Facebook Connect. Traffic crashed the server and led to higher fees. Offloaded the traffic to YouTube.

They’ve also set up a Facebook group targeted to women, after finding that segmentation by Penney sub-brands did not work. And they’ve got a customer service Twitter account.

Someone asked what was the ROI on the doghouse video campaign. The answer was that brand awareness, not ROI, was the objective; a hard sell would not have been as successful.

Carnival Cruise Lines

In 2005, Carnival set up a group planning tool built on Community Server. The Cruise Talk forum there grew to 500 posts/day, and was followed by a “scrapblog” and a Twitter account with 1300 followers.

Then came a blog by John Heald, a cruise director, which has become immensely popular, as measured by 100 comments a day [visitor stats were not given].This has grown into a multimedia extravaganza including live chats, videos (quality was an issue), etc. Cruising is inherently social, so this has worked well.

[D here: This is an example of how effective social media marketing can be when tied to a real personality. You can also build community around that person: Heald fans want to talk to each other, there are now even Heald-themed fan cruises.]

Then the moderator asked questions:

How do you set up your organization to participate in social media?

H&R Block: You have to figure out where does this fit. Customer service, communications, marketing, field coordination…? The company isn’t yet on board, we’re still in a skunkworks phase. We’re trading off media dollars with human capital – we have only one person for Twitter, which is a 24/7 job. [But she said later that some resources are being shifted to social media.]

Also, the Federal Trade Commission is changing the legislation about blogging [as relates to professional tax preparers]. We’re still figuring out how to train people, what legal disclosures are needed. Ideally, we’d like tax preparers to be blogging. Education and support are difficult. People need to understand that it’s okay to have your own personality.

JC Penney: Similar situation, we have no dedicated social media team. [Some problem of] brick and mortar stores vs. jcpenney.com. Facebook took off for us when it became a two-way conversation, but that takes dedicated staff.

Carnival: We have an online community manager with two moderators and a social media strategist. Not seeing any particular efficiences from online yet.

How can we measure the results of social media?

Page views, links to transactions.

How does this tie back to brand? How do we make the brand relevant to the new generation?

Word of mouth as brand tracker, but it moves over multiple years.

ROI = Risk of Ignoring

creating spheres of influence, measuring awareness

Traditional ROI isn’t the be-all and end-all – Twitter is free! [except for staff time]

Use Radiant6 to monitor buzz.

Facebook charges $300k for a brand page – Carnival elected not to spend this. Buying a YouTube channel can cost $500k plus media costs.

But you can get started for free.

If you’re going to lead social media [teams], you have to be doing it yourself.

Content creation is expensive.

How might employee culture affect the use of social media in older companies?

An interesting question, but, frustratingly, I didn’t note the answers. Maybe there weren’t any.

D’s Conclusions

A good and useful session, one of the few at SxSWi to address the needs of large companies and their employees.

I was very frustrated that Sun was not speaking on this panel, as we have one hell of a story to tell in this space.

And, even absent Sun’s support infrastructure for blogs, wikis, and video, I could have told them that there are cheaper ways to do this stuff than what Facebook and YouTube are charging for branded offerings.

KLM Makes Up, and Other Airline Experiences

I wrote 18 months ago about my disappointment with KLM’s poor handling of a bereavement situation (KLM Tries Harder… But Fails). I’m flying a lot again these days (three trips to the US this year, plus several to the UK, and now India). I still receive promotional emails from Flying Blue, the alliance which KLM and Air France have now become, to remind me that they’re waiting to serve me, but it was hard to get over that incident. (NB: I receive nothing from British Airways, with whom I was also a top-level frequent flyer until 2001; perhaps they’ve lost track of me.)

But… I still had all this mileage sitting around with KLM (58,000+), and some flexibility (for once) in planning my upcoming trip to India. So I hopped on the KLM site to see what could be done.

The awards booking process (which gets good marks on usability) informed me that I needed 70,000 miles to go to India – but they would advance me the missing mileage. This was automatic in the system, though it was a little weird – at first it looked as if that offer was only valid if I flew on Tuesday, but when I tried again a few days later, it was offered for Wednesday (my ideal departure date) as well. So I got exactly the flight I wanted for "free" (still had to pay over €200 in "taxes and fees").

In the meantime, researching other airlines, I had learned, to my horror, that the baggage limit of 20 kg from Europe to India now seems to apply to all airlines. I know that on all my previous trips I have carried two heavy suitcases in and out of Delhi, and only one of those trips was business class. I guess this is some new trick of the airlines to squeeze more money out of their hapless passengers. The standard rate for excess baggage is €30 per kilo (!!!) – no less than Air India’s rate that I was screaming about earlier this year.

However… I’m a Platinum member on Flying Blue. Turns out that that entitles me to 20 kg extra baggage – just what I need to bring Ross her winter clothing and the food goodies she craves in boarding school.

The flight I’m booked on is actually Air France, which is a bit disappointing – I much prefer KLM’s home base of Schipol airport to Charles de Gaulle – and we will have to drive to Malpensa at an ungodly hour Wednesday. I reserve judgement on comfort and service til I get there, but remember Air France as being okay (last time I flew they still allowed smoking on board, which tells you how long ago it was).

In short, treating me well as a once and maybe future frequent flyer has won big points for Flying Blue. Let’s see how well they maintain this relationship.

Share your airline experiences – who do you like (or not), and why (or why not)?

Italy’s Postal Embarrassment

Complaints are common about the Italian postal service, but I thought things were getting better. And maybe they are, measured strictly against la posta’s own previous service levels, which have always been dire.

But consider these events:

I needed to mail two packages from the US this summer, one to Ross in India, one to myself in Italy (too much luggage!). I was staying with friends in San Francisco’s Mission District, so I went to a nearby shop that specialized in sending packages, money orders, etc. to south American countries.

The woman at the counter took the box for India without comment. Then she looked at the box for Italy.

“Do you want insurance on this? ‘Cause the postal service there is really bad.”

(The package did arrive safely in about two weeks, Ross’ got to India a little faster. Can you see where this is going?)

Just now I was on Amazon, ordering a book and a DVD that I want to share with Ross when I get to Mussoorie (a hill station in India’s Himalayas). I’m leaving in 14 days. Should I have them shipped to Italy or India? I looked at both options. Amazon’s “Standard International Shipping” from the US to Italy was estimated to take “9-36 business days”. Recent experience shows that this is about right – some books I ordered from Amazon ~Sept 14th arrived in Lecco ~Oct 18th (and I was charged €6 customs duty, the calculation of which is probably what held up the package).

Far too long for me to get these items before my departure, but the 2-4 day courier service would cost $40. Not worth it.

So I put in Woodstock’s address. “Standard international shipping, estimated 10-16 business days”.

A package from the US will get to a remote hill station in India almost three times faster than to Lecco.

Welcome to Italy, third-world country.

Jan 4, 2008 – Both Amazon packages, plus my new Moo cards, arrived in Mussoorie on time and intact.

Communicating with Your Customers

Someone anonymous claiming to be an Apple employee launched a blog (now vanished) to discuss his/her thoughts on Apple’s communications with its customers. This was big news in the blogosphere, because Apple is notoriously secretive and uncommunicative.

The only Apple product I own is an iPod (I had a Mac SE 15 years ago, my first and last Macintosh), but I have read the few entries on this new blog, and the accompanying reader comments.

Many of the commenters decry the blogger’s anonymity, saying that it proves that the blog is a fake perpetrated by Apple itself as a publicity stunt. Some blogs have recently come to light claiming to be produced by individuals who “just happen” to love a company or its products so much that they would dedicate time to blogging about it, but these blogs turned out to be funded by the companies in question (e.g., Wal-Mart). Such subterfuge cannot long remain hidden in the teeming online world: when thousands of minds attack a puzzle such as “who’s really behind this blog?”, it gets solved very quickly.

The Apple blogger him/herself points out, reasonably enough, that to be identified by the company could cause her to lose her job (most of the commenters seem to assume the “Masked Blogger” is a man, while I, for no particular reason, think she’s a woman).

The Masked Blogger’s avowed purpose is to start a conversation about what Apple could be doing to communicate better with its customers. She’s asking the right questions, and some of the answers are useful. It therefore doesn’t matter whether the blog is genuine, because Apple is reading it. Whether they read it to see how their PR experiment works out, or to try to identify their rogue employee, the conversation about conversation is taking place – and Apple, volente o nolente*, is listening.

Whether they will learn anything is another question. It surprises me that this conversation is still needed. All the “new wisdom” floating around the blogosphere about how companies should communicate with their customers (the current vogue, of course, is that they should use blogs) follows principles that I invented for myself over ten years ago, starting in CompuServe forums (yes, I am a geek antique).

You want to communicate with your customers online? It’s not rocket science.

The basic principles are:

  1. Be honest. This doesn’t mean that you need to spill your guts and tell every company secret, but everything you do say must be absolutely true. And, when you know there’s a problem that affects customers, say so, especially if asked point-blank. Don’t imagine that you can pretend ignorance, or hide behind spin and subterfuge – you can’t.
  2. Be real. Not every problem is going to get fixed quickly and not every customer is going to be happy. If you explain what steps are being taken and how soon you (reasonably) expect them to take effect, customers are surprisingly forgiving. Most will love you just for showing that you’re listening and trying to help. Sometimes you can’t fix a problem; not everything customers say they want is even possible. When I worked for Adaptec/Roxio, I frequently used the line: “Fast, cheap, or perfect – pick two.” Most customers understand that businesses cannot supply everything for nothing. If you can give a reasonable explanation for why you can’t do what they’re demanding, or can’t do it as fast as they would like, they get it. And they appreciate being spoken to like capable adults. Weasel-speak only shows contempt for your listener; no one likes that.
  3. Be yourself. Perhaps because I started out “talking” to people personally in forums (and never wrote marketing copy for a living), it always came naturally to write in my own voice. I was surprised at how well people responded to this, telling me: “we, as customers, like the feeling that we are dealing with a real person, not a machine producing corporate ‘happytalk’.” NB: This did not mean that they wanted to hear about my vacations or what I ate for lunch or my views on politics, nor did it mean that I could tell someone he was an idiot even when I thought so – I represented the company and, when you do that, you ALWAYS have to be polite. And careful: sarcasm usually backfires online, and even mild irony gets over-interpreted.
  4. Be strong. It’s a hard job, representing a company online. You’re highly visible: when the shit hits the fan, you’re the first to get spattered. Because people are accustomed to being treated badly by every other company, their default assumption is that you, too, are out to screw them, that your niceness is just a ploy, it’s all a PR stunt, etc.NB: OF COURSE it’s a PR stunt – everything that you do in the name of your company where a customer can “see” you is marketing and PR (whether you – or your company – realize it). Every employee in any company who ever has contact with a customer has a chance to make or break the company’s reputation – maybe just with that one customer, maybe with many who will hear by word of mouth about that customer’s experience. What is that if not PR?

    Be prepared for suspicion and abuse. Just keep smiling, and nice them to death. Trolls get bored quickly, and they are a small minority, no matter how loud. The silent majority will respect your patience, good manners, and tolerance. In fact, if you hold out long enough, they will start leaping to defend you!

  5. Believe. Being nice under duress does take a psychic toll, so you’d better be doing it for a company, product, or cause that you believe in. And it’s fine to defend your belief passionately: people respond to passion, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you on its target.

Okay, I’ve told you everything you need to know. Now get out there and talk to your customers!

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