Better Customer Service Through Transparency, Tribes, and Talent

I confess that I have a warm spot in my heart for customer service operations. It is probably because I met my wife of 29.5 years when she and I were on the customer service phones at the Polaroid Corporation. As an old phone jockey, it is apparent to me that the world of customer service is transforming. If we look back at history, we can see that the central tendency of consumer businesses is to move more and more function to the end consumer and to provide them more visibility to the availability of the product or service. As the phone grew in this country as a consumer device, clever pundits predicted that in order to meet the emerging demand for phone calls, the entire country would have to become telephone operators, and that is exactly what we are: We dial our own service. Likewise, when Michael J Cullen opened his first King Kullen store in Jamaica, Queens with 6,000 square feet, on August 4, 1930 with the wonderful catch phrase, “Pile it High, Sell it Low,” he ushered in the world of supermarket self-service at low prices. When they can, firms let customers roll their own.

Today, technology is enabling new capabilities and I see three trends which are recreating customer service in a new, more responsive, and economically efficient manner: transparency, tribes, and talent.

Transparency is best exemplified by Federal Express’s efforts over the years. They were among the first companies to “expose” their internal systems so that not only could the customer schedule pick-ups, print labels, and manage his account, but he could also see the same level of detail the firm had about the location of his shipment. Many firms could benefit by letting customers see where their product or service truly is. BMW allows people who have configured and ordered a Mini Cooper to check the status of the order, and see it location on the high seas as it is shipped across the Atlantic. So what? Well, just think about how the dynamic with your cable company would change if you could actually see if the service truck was on its way to your house. It certainly would change the attitude between the customer and the company. Heck, even the government enables you to track tagged polar bears!

Seth Godin’s book on Tribes talks about groups of people who are passionate about a topic — and those firms that are great at harnessing tribes change the nature of customer service. Dell famously converted an angry tribe into a happier one. There are tribes ready to be released about any product or service. There is a tribe who cares about airline travel; there’s one that feels passionately about the Porsche; another that obsesses over flat screen TVs. Those companies who have bad customer service are attacked by the tribe. Those who are good at involve the tribe in creating solutions for other customers. As Seth points out, tribes need to be led.

Turning to the third point, I believe unlocking talent is critical to the customer experience. (Godin talks about some of these issues under the term “tribe” but I wanted to separate talent out from tribe.) Let’s face it, most of the content that companies put out about how to use their product or service is often terminally boring, or disconnected to the real audience. Lauren Luke doesn’t have that problem. Who is Lauren Luke you ask? She has over 300,000 subscribers for her YouTube video tutorials on makeup. She has a personality and approach which sings on the small screen, and the YouTube format. The formal star-making machinery of any cosmetics company would never have found this woman; she’s not a famous actress or a model, nor does she fit some other spokesperson stereotype. Yet now she is one of the most well-known make up artists in the world. Talented users can create content that is engaging and useful — sometimes, as in Luke’s case, more engaging and more useful than the company’s own content. There is no reason that my local cable company could not have a contest for the best user-generated content on how to set up a new cable box and program the remote. Some would be fun, others clinical, and with the right contest-like structure, the end users will create something so much more engaging than any internal communications group could generate.

The general message is very clear — open up; involve your audience in crafting solutions as well as the information about your firm’s offers to other customers. The economics of this type of customer care are superior to anything that can be done with internal resources alone. When I did an analysis of a customer service organization at IBM many years ago, the codification of solutions into a knowledge base shifted first call resolution from less than 60% to over 90%. Customers were happier. The technical staff could spend their time on new products instead of chasing down customer problems. What’s not to like?

The future will be more connected, with more ability for people to share their impressions, stories and advice. In an ever-more crowded information market, the natural tendency will be for those people who lead the tribes to become important influencers. Those who generate great new content will be the market movers. Isn’t it time to get involved in this emerging customer service structure now — while there is still time to build a reputation based on “earned media”?

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