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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Customer service, social media, and branding--why brand makers should never, never give up trying

In an article for Brandweek, blogger Shel Holtz talks about the proliferation of “social media” (online participatory sites), including social networking sites and blogs. He cites a study showing that “22% of U.S. consumers are using social networking sites, a 5% increase in just one year.” What’s more, “19% use blogs, a 13% spike. And use of these channels has doubled among people over 55.”

What this means, says Holtz, is that consumers are more often “experiencing your brand in places where you have no control. What’s more, they’re making purchase decisions based on those experiences.” It’s true: people are going online to learn about brands from bloggers, people who leave testimonials on e-commerce websites, friends, and family. Interestingly, they are NOT learning much about brands from company-sponsored websites. So the situation, for brands, is pretty dire: let’s not even talk about co-creation! We’re approaching a situation of customer-creation.

Holtz pairs this with the fact that bloggers tend to write about poor experiences with customer service/technical support, and consumers tend to read about those experiences online. “Every time someone reads a blog post about a tech support nightmare, he has a brand experience. Every time a prospective customer hears someone tell a customer-service horror story, she has a brand experience.”

For Holtz, this leads to the argument that “customer service and tech support are reporting to the wrong box on the organization chart. These functions are the front line of public relations.”

He couldn’t be more accurate. In an era where social media rules, frontline consumer-facing functions are absolutely critical to creating a positive brand experience.

Holtz offers three ways to ensure a positive customer service/tech support experience:

  • Invest in staffing and training for these company representatives (of course!)
  • Have customer service/tech support actively look for people having trouble on social networks (I’m not sure I buy into that one…it seems like a lot of trouble to go through and then you can’t even necessarily reach the complainer)
  • Make every company employee “a potential customer service or tech support rep.” What he means by this is that employees (as in #2 above) should be online looking for ways to be the face of the organization. (I’m not sure I buy into that one either…imagine a company with thousands and thousands of employees, all wasting their time looking online for people who are having bad brand experiences with the company.)

He makes a good overall point, though: that “When any employee can reach out to a customer and solve their problem, the buzz is even better and the brand grows even stronger.”

I think the key takeaway here is that companies are in a fundamental, seismic shift of massive proportions going on and they don’t even realize it. Consumers are slowly but surely taking away control of the brand from the brand maker and putting it into their own hands. And that is a problem because branding, as I have stated repeatedly, is a matter of the brand maker creating a vision, or position for the brand and then reinforcing that vision in every way possible. The implication of Holtz’s argument, which has also been echoed elsewhere in talk about “curator culture” and other archetypes for consumer empowerment, is that brand makers are losing the ability to create brands in the first place. And that is a scary thing.

What should brand makers do? Should they just yield all control of the brand to consumers? Or should they strive to create an even tighter brand experience, a net if you will that will reach over and drape consumers in its web of positive customer brand experiences? If you ask me, I believe that they should make the effort. This means, as Holtz suggests, investing in training frontline customer service and tech support staff, of course. But it also means more than that. It means creating a special cadre of employees whose entire job is to represent the company online. That means infiltrating social networks (honestly, authentically, as company representatives, but infiltrating nonetheless) and finding ways to generate positive buzz about the organization. It means responding to blog posts; countering negative testimonials; and generally doing everything humanly possible to create a sense of consistency around the brand.

In today’s climate, the job of building a brand is undoubtedly harder than it has ever been before. Marketers, however, have no right to throw up their hands in despair and say “I can’t do it.” Rather, they must redouble their efforts to create positive, consistent brand experiences, both online and offline, through advertising and marketing promotions and creating physical, tangible brand experiences that are memorable in the right way. It means hiring the right people at every level of the organization to create a consistent, positive brand culture that delivers on the values the organization ascribes to in every interaction with the public and with other employees. It means beefing up the website, because even if people don’t view it as the ultimate authority on the brand, it still carries a great deal of weight. It means, in short, making sure that wherever people encounter the brand, they are encountering the right set of experiences, tightly knit, heavily controlled, yet personally liberating, symbolic, and meaningful. That is true brand mastery and that is an art that will never, never go away.