Part 1 of this two-part series explored the tendency of some disgruntled customers to air their gripes online.
Last week I looked at an interesting downside of social media. Social media makes it possible for anyone with very little effort to start a blog or social group that thrashes a vendor. Generally speaking, the people behind these sites have a gripe that has a fragment (or more) of truth in it, and it would be harder for a corporation to fight these annoyances than to simply let them be. That strategy implies that the publicity acquired by fighting is greater than what’s gotten if the perpetrators simply do their thing. Twisted up in all this is the concept of the customer experience.
Customers who take the time to start a blog or other social site with the title “[your company’s name] sucks” are more than a little bent out of shape, as evidenced by the effort they spend dragging your name through the mud. In part one of this series I showed how I discovered this trove of social CRM research just waiting for some analysis. This week it’s time for analysis.
The Meta Experience
As I mentioned in part one, it is amazing that much if not many of the critiques of companies have less to do with actual product or service issues and more to do with what I call “Level 2” customer experience, but we could also call it the “meta experience.” The meta experience in on full display at the “BP Sucks” sites where people tear into the oil company for its runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and other issues. People these days aren’t disposed to love oil companies, and the disaster appears to have put them over the edge. Other oil companies have their detractors too, but none except Exxon have a greater negative following. As the largest company in the world, Exxon is in a class by itself.
Even categories of entities you’d think were or should be immune from the phenomenon get rung up. My best example is the Ivy League colleges. Yep, the Ivies. You would have thought that people who get there would have nothing to complain about, but in this free-swinging era you’d be disappointed. Some of the Ivies have suckometer readings that would make a corporation blush. Topping the list of Ivy League schools on the suckometer is Dartmouth, with a very healthy About 1,080,000 results (0.38 seconds).
Why is this?
Well, to coin a phrase, I guess if you live by the customer experience, you also die by it. The entities that have some of the greatest problems seem also to be the ones that have least control over their customer experiences. Many companies today actually try hard to design good customer experiences. In an interview with Greg Gianforte, founder and CEO of RightNow, recently I learned about how hard that company tries to design its own customer experiences and how they try to instill the importance of design in their customers. I think it’s working, too.
But what few of us ever expected is the idea of the meta experience — the experience your customer has as a result of mere insinuations made by your company, usually in a different context. Starbucks is a good example.
Starbucks sells an experience much more than it sells either coffee drinks or edibles, and that experience shapes how its customers perceive the company and — surprise — how they see themselves. Starbucks is not alone in this, and when a company falls down over some issue that affects how people see themselves, fans become detractors.
Holding On to What You Have
Clearly, if you care about what your customers think and say about you, then not only do you need to design the primary experience, but you have to look out for unintended consequences or blowback from every action you take — a.k.a. the meta experience. That sounds hard, and perhaps it is, but here are some ideas to help.
- Understand what you stand for and make it part of everyday life. Companies used to have (still have?) mission statements that often included words about ethical treatment of customers, employees and vendors, as well as concrete descriptions of what they do. For instance, Google is famous for a somewhat tarnished and unofficial one-sentence summary, “Don’t be evil.” People are watching, so it might be time to dig up the mission statement and make sure it influences your business decisions. You know, walk the walk.
- Test your customer experience design with real people. This is really just a quality control step, and I’ll bet lots of companies engineering customer experiences only go so far as to test if anything breaks along the way and see if every sub-process ends properly. You need to ask real people who are not interested in your profit and loss statement to break the design before deploying it.
- Think outside the box. In this case, the customer experience design itself. Use communities to gather data about your customers’ attitudes, needs and biases. If you run the community right (get help if you need it) and people freely reveal their thoughts, the process will reveal things you would never even think about in a million years.
This is important. In market after market today, the pecking order is already established — we know who is number one and who is supposed to be trying harder. In other words, there are fewer green fields to go after and few net new customers to get. The way to growth and profitability today is to keep the customers you have and now and then steal some from the other guy. Providing inadequate customer experiences — even unintentionally — is a sure way to lose in this zero sum game.
Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.