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Who Needs Call Centers When There's Twitter?

December 4, 2012

Long story short: Recent mechanical failures of major appliances we purchased from a single retailer resulted in my wife calling the chain's service department to come out and fix the machines.

After listening to her talk to service reps for over an hour and getting nowhere — because, for example, they have a policy of only sending out one repair person even though we (and they) know from past experience that it requires two to move our stackable machines — I took to social media. Within an hour of posting my displeasure online, I received a message from the retailer that someone would be in touch to address our concerns. Not too long after that, my wife received a call from a regional bigwig who easily understood his company's policy would potentially add weeks to the machines being repaired.

So what did I learn from this experience?

  1. Call center reps and their managers at this particular company either don't have the knowledge or the authority to help address issues that are outside their company's policy book.
  2. I shouldn't waste time on the phone with people who either don't have the knowledge or authority to address my particular issue. Instead, I should take my complaints directly to social media sites. If I do that, however, what purpose will call centers serve?
Discussion Questions:

How is social media changing retail customer service? Will consumers taking their complaints directly to social media make retailers reassess call center operations?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How effectively are most retailers using social media to improve customer satisfaction?


When customers use public embarrassment to get an issue resolved (I have done this as well, by the way), it is not about customer service. It's about a level of frustration that will damage the retailer's brand irrevocably.

How many of us are tired of listening to a call center operator go through his or her script, as we know full well he is not hearing a word we say? To tell you the truth, it's one reason I am switching almost exclusively to Apple products for my electronics. With AppleCare, I get someone who can actually engage with me, or who knows right off the bat if the issue needs to be escalated. With [insert PC seller here] I get someone who ends up telling me to reinstall Windows. There are any number of reasons why this is a bad answer.

The purpose Call Centers should serve has been diluted/perverted by the endless quest to find lower cost providers. I think if you're not going to do it right, just don't bother. The customer frustration level has gone off the charts.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Do NOT mess with George!

This is only the tip of the iceberg it seems to me. I must have wondered about doing what George did about four times this week—and it's only Tuesday. He is my new hero!

Call Centers will become social media monitors and won't actually take calls. When a company doesn't understand service and/or has stupid policies, a whole new world of hurt opens up.

Now if we could get the whole nation doing this with our juvenile, 'arrested development' government, maybe we'd get some action from the 'big wigs' there too! Lead the way George.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

Customers are following the path of least resistance. How easy is it to send feedback, questions and complaints to the retailer? Is the information printed on each invoice? Is it featured prominently at the door when the customer leaves. Is it on the website? How easy is it to use?

A customer doesn't want to spend 30 minutes finding out how they can reach you. When they do, they want to give you feedback, not fill-out a survey (remember this is about them, not you).

Customers want to give feedback when they want and on their terms; for many customers, especially younger customers, this means on their mobile, tablet or computer.

If you fail to deliver on these basic expectations, they will take their issues to new media. Can you blame them?

Fabien Tiburce, CEO, Compliantia, Retail Audit & Task Management Software

An interesting take on this issue is around unstructured data or the information that can be collected in forms other than straight numbers. The move to Big Data strategies that collect then analyze and operationalize unstructured data like social media feeds by retailers and others typically have sales growth and improved customer service as primary goals.

As the technology to actually incorporate the knowledge gained from reviewing things like social media comments into ongoing customer service is adapted, companies will not only be quicker to address issues like the one you faced, they will be able to predict problems based on patterns and proactively contact customers that may potentially have challenges with their products.

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Ron Margulis, Managing Director, RAM Communications

I think many customers already do: I know I do. Many brands are actually more responsive in social media than they are to ordinary calls or e-mails. Customers will go where the response is fastest and solves the problem the quickest. Twitter won't be the only channel for customer service but it's a first line of defense that needs to be monitored 24/7.

Lisa Bradner, Chief Strategy Officer, Geomentum/Shopper Sciences

George was careful not to mention the company he dealt with, which is a big factor. The brand he pressured via tweets, monitored their Twitter account and reacted to avoid public embarrassment. Most won't and some will react negatively, worsening a situation. It's completely a reflection of a brand's overall view of customers and interacting with them.

Therein lies the problem of SM as the defacto customer satisfaction tool: in this manner it's forcing a brand to react to public scrutiny. No business will choose to manage customers in that way. In fact, using tweets to force a company's hand would open the channel for abuse, so brands will never want to open up that floodgate to bad brand image. They'll stick with more discreet channels and keep/move conversations offline where they are private and controllable.

So, it's not the tools or the medium, it's the company's true view of customers and their willingness to please them. In my book, it's a matter of committing to user experience, via all channels, which will minimize opportunities for dirty laundry to be aired in public.

(BTW George - how about posting your tweets here?)

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

While most customer service departments are frustrating, others seem to have their act together. So it depends on the company. However, social media plays a big role and will continue to play an even larger role as companies learn to leverage comments made with call center information, sales, returns, etc.

Voicing displeasure on Twitter may help and it may not. Although George had a positive experience, others are being sued for libel. A balanced approach is needed. Also, understanding the complexity and opportunity that company's have with integrating social media data so it can be used to proactively address issues is important. Most companies aren't there yet, but the fact that this company responded so quickly based on one man's tweets, says a lot for the company's direction in this space.

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Janet Dorenkott, VP & Co-owner, Relational Solutions, Inc.

The key to running successful call centers is that the reps need to be knowledgeable and empowered. Retailers and brands that don't do this will find themselves on the wrong end of a social media rant.

There is definitely a place for call centers, which should be able to quickly answer consumer questions and provide additional assistance as necessary. The retailer in this instance should have invested as much effort in its call center as it does monitoring social media.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Absolutely, Twitter is the call center of the future and it is not so hard to understand why.

Social media is giving consumers a voice. If a brand is not standing behind its products and exhibiting poor customer service, then social media allows consumers to let everyone know. Now that the issue is public the brand can either confirm to the public that it has poor customer service or they can step up to fix the problem. In a call center the conversation is one to one and the impact of poor customer service is limited. Twitter allows customers to force the issue.

Call centers will not be going away any time soon but we can expect to see more and more customer care interactions happening on Twitter. In fact there are some brands now, like eMusic, that are using Twitter very effectively for customer service.

Kurt Seemar, President, Analytic Marketing Innovations

It all comes down to this. Retailers respond when they know a customer is taking a bad experience and sharing it with others. When you're on the phone with a call center agent, it's just you and the company (or a third party representing the company). They can tell themselves that whether you had great service or poor service, it's just you and the call center, so it doesn't really matter.

But when you take it to the public domain, whether it's via Twitter, or, as a friend of mine once did, parked his lemon car on the street right in front of the dealer that refused to take the car back, with a big sign on it stating exactly what he thought of that dealer's customer service—well, then you get attention. It's a sad state of affairs, but we see it in RSR's research all the time—this kind of attitude translates into a whole host of cultural implications internally to the company.

Everyone "says" they care about the customer, but they don't all act that way. I think it's always been like this, but now the whole platitude about a customer with a bad experience tells at least 10 other people vs. the 2 she told about a good experience—now it's trackable and visible, and there's no denying it.

Isn't that what customer-centricity was supposed to fix?

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

It sounds like the squeaky wheel got the oil. That is a shame. Social Media—in this case Twitter—has become the place for customers to vent frustration. When you can't get the help you need, take it to a public forum and see how quickly you get a response. The retailer will try to avoid the negative PR that takes place when a customer shares their bad experience.

Truth is (at least I hope it is true), that retailers want to take care of their customers. They would like to do it on the first call. They would love the customer contact them directly. They want to restore confidence and keep the customer coming back. When it doesn't happen, the customers goes public. Maybe that's the incentive for the retailer to beef up their call center operations.

Bottom line: Social media is here. Companies must embrace it. They must monitor and respond. They can take what could be a PR nightmare and turn it into a great story, if handled well.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

George's experience exposes a rather uncomfortable truth about the retailer in question. It has little integration between its social media practices and its call center practices. From this I leap to the conclusion that it is omni-channel-challenged in other ways.

It's remarkable that someone at the retailer was monitoring the twitter stream; that that person took responsibility to escalate the issue; that the company was sensitive enough about public exposure to formulate a response.

Ken's observation is a keen one, however. As more savvy folks figure out they must use social media to extort their way to satisfaction, customer service could become a wholly reactive matter.

This has ugly potential. In this incident, the retailer in question intervened to stanch the bleeding. But if most customers were to routinely bypass the call center in favor of the twitter-verse, overload would soon follow, leading to more frustration, on a more public platform.

For retailers there's no hiding from this. They need to design consistent service response policies and enabling practices that lead consistently to prompt action, regardless of the channel the customer chooses. Not easy, but not optional.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

"Service" sells. When a manufacturer or retailer invests in a strong customer service strategy, and then actually executes it effectively, true brand loyalty ensues.

It was good to see that the merchant actually "listened" to your social channel comments. Too many merchants and manufacturers are not yet in tune with these channels of consumer sentiment.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Bringing Twitter into this situation is an excellent illustration of what I call Big, BIG Data. That is, where everyone can know everything all the time about anyone or anything, anywhere. Total data.

In this case, a complaint about a "service" department not providing service, actually caught the attention of someone with their finger in the wind (sampling Big, BIG, Total Data) and realized that little brother(s) was watching. (Reverse big-brotherism.) That is, the multitudinous crowd is watching and chattering about "authority."

I think this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the social evolution that is well underway. Thanks for the excellent illustration, George! ;-) And life WILL BE even better, as incompetence is forced to accommodate OUR needs.

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor Kantar Retail; Adjunct Ehrenberg-Bass, Shopper Scientist LLC

Retailers who 'get it' have learned that is important to have someone who knows how to get things done and handle all types of issues behind their social media face. Because of this, we now have our 'person' we can go to when their are problems and bypass the customer service hell! These same smart retailers now need to take what they have learned and up the anti in their customer service departments.

I went thru customer service hell with AT&T a while back where i knew exactly what needed to be done but neither the chat person nor the customer service persons on the phone were capable of understanding or getting my fix to the right department. I went to Twitter and the problem was corrected next day. Retailers, time to step up!

Lee Kent, Sharing Insights for Success in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

The retailers who are so out of synch with their customer base to think high levels of frustration are "normal" and a problem to managed are on a downward path. Twitter may advance the day of reckoning, but the problem requires serious work for meaningful change.

Often, corporate silos are so steep that companies lose track of real issues—call centers my be under an operations group rewarded to control costs on a per transaction basis; social media may be included in the marketing group where getting to the "voice of the customer" is rewarded. Meanwhile, we are on hold!

Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

A great example of what is unfortunately becoming the state of customer service.

A well-trained phone rep who listened and understood when a corporate policy didn't fit the customer's need, and was empowered to do something about it, could have solved this problem. Instead: 1)The company spent time and money monitoring social media and review sites to find a customer who they basically forced to complain publicly. 2) They had to get a more senior manager on the phone (much more expensive than a customer service rep) to track down the customer and address the situation as it should have been done in the first place. 3) The solution provided by the senior manager cost the company the same amount or more that the solution the regular rep was not authorized to offer. 4) They potentially picked up some negative publicity. 5) They taught another customer to use this more costly public approach to address any future problems.

A majority of customers still take their problems to the customer service team privately by phone, live chat or email. Those who turn to voicing their problems publicly are still a minority, but with more cases like this they will grow in numbers. As the quantity of those who turn to public media to complain increase in numbers, the quality of even that type of expedited service will deteriorate, yet still be more costly for the corporations. Conclusion: those increases in costs could have been avoided by just giving better private phone, live chat and email customer service in the first place.

Doug Pruden, Principal, CustomerExperiencePartners.com

Retail customer service needs to extend to social media. Ideally a high quality contact center will cover both voice calls and social media outreach. Problem is, many retailers go to lowest cost contact centers for customer service and basically do "diving catches" on social media when they are publicly embarrassed.

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Kenneth Leung, Retail and Customer Experience Expert, Independent

Best Buy's Geek Squad service is a good example of bridging the divide between traditional customer service and the new world of social media.

Twitter and social media can't solve all customer service needs, but many queries and frequent questions and issues can be addressed rapidly, and with the help of other customers complimenting the retailer's support systems.

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Matt Schmitt, President, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, Reflect

I should note that I went online to express thanks when the company addressed the issue in the end. My guess is there are many others who complain and never take that second step, which leaves just the negative comments online for others to see.

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George Anderson, Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, RetailWire LLC

There are some omni channel retailers as well as direct channel sellers who have a "hunt group" specifically assigned to monitor social media, posts on public as well as company forums for key words and are empowered to proactively solve problems. Thus the Call Center operation is that much more important than ever and is trained to respond to customer issues.

Too often call centers get a bad rap, though well deserved for being "policy" vs. solution/resolution oriented. Unfortunately, the cultural differences of domestic vs. offshore call centers personnel constrain the dialogue and choke off any chance of resolving the issue proactively.

Just yesterday I was on hold at 2 p.m. in the afternoon with Sears ShopYourWayRewards call center for 25 minutes to address missed points from my grill purchase. Several phone calls later, with all of the responsibility placed on me, the consumer, I finally got partial resolution with a promise to "see" my points plus missed bonus added to my account within 30 days. I would have preferred it to be 5 days so I could use my balance on Christmas purchases, but I guess I will have to wait. Something very wrong with that picture.

David Slavick, Director, Loyalty & Retention, FTD.com

The businesses who get beaten up the worst on Twitter (and elsewhere) are those who fail to help customers when they have the chance within their own branded customer service pipelines. I would estimate that only a small fraction of consumers default to taking the fight public. The lesson is, if you don't want an endless stream of street fights, get better (MUCH BETTER) at solving your customers' problems immediately and to their satisfaction.

Home Depot, for example, has been praised for its use of Twitter as a CS tool. The question is, why are so many of their customers compelled to call them out in public in the first place?

Doug Stephens, President, Retail Prophet

"No problem George, let me send Charlie and Ed down to your house at the end of the day, I remember installing those machines and you will definitely need two guys, and we should have caught that problem. Oh and thanks for buying from us, we keep on hearing from others that they will never buy from Amazon or Best Buy again—but some of those folks are a real pain—no one wants to pay for service and the internet is killing us. I should get in the blog business like you! Hey wait, do you think anyone would pay for service only? I think I'll look at twitter and learn just how these folks are falling down and design services around that. Maybe a chain will buy me out like what happened to Geek Squad."

Moral of the story: we are in the early stages of the next wave—buy more reliable appliances.

I couldn't resist—this is a real problem, twitter will accelerate retail's "Arab Spring"—just as the CNN effect and transparency is forcing countries to act better, Twitter will do the same. More opportunities for consultants!

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

Social Media is providing collective bargaining power to customers. The power to form communities has increased salience of the media in the multiple channels of call centers. Retailers should be happy that a potential customer trouble is being addressed, without waiting for it to grow to damage reputation permanently.

Chandan Agarwala, Manager - Strategy and Research, iGATE Corporation

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