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The modern conundrum: The good customer vs the influential customer

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6th Jul 2011
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Dominic Graveson considers some of the challenges of treating customers fairly in a world increasingly dominated by social media.

Here’s a timely puzzle for those of you who enjoy a moral conundrum: July 2011’s Harvard Business Review features a thought-provoking little story about a global bank executive who reports an encounter with a customer with a complaint around perceived poor value who normally qualifies for the lowest most basic level of service.
However, there was one small detail which made this an unusual case – this individual had over 100k followers on Twitter. Despite the bank not having very much of a strategic or operational approach to social media, the executive was still wondering if the customers ‘influencer’ status merited special treatment.
We don’t hear much more about the details, as I guess confidentiality leaves it to our imagination, but the key point is this: If the customer’s issue with service was justified, and it could be corrected, he might tweet and post positively about the experience in full view of his many followers, but what if his issue wasn’t justified? He would be likely to say less flattering things, and might that constitute a risk to public perception of the bank? In a business to consumer setting, how might one deal with this?
This kind of thing is common in a B2B setting… anyone with an account management background will know that some clients are great business, demand little other than the service they paid for and justifiably expect, a social catch up once a quarter, and perhaps a Christmas card. These are great and rare… most of course require more… regular briefings, long calls where presales blurs into chargeable consultancy (which of course you don’t charge for), nice lunches on expenses, recruitment advice, even long discussions about their relationships or family context, we all have to do it, and it makes up the rich and rewarding tapestry of that role, where personal relationships are so important…
Consumer service
But what about a customer of a consumer service? In the B2C environment, due to the sheer scale of many operations, customer service has to become commoditised to some extent. Scaled and segmented based on price plan, previous and average spend and loyalty to name a few. This is supposed to be transparent so that Mrs Smith who has been a client of the bank for 20 years with a pension, mortgage, etc. knows why she is valued more highly than Jay, an 18-year-old student in his first year of college and on his first current account. However, in light of the case above, this looks to be changing, as new criteria of which customers deserve (or necessitate) higher levels of service emerge.
Another example is that of the hotel in Vegas who upgrades your room based on your Klout score. Of course, there are dozens of similar examples appearing all the time, but I feel that might sit differently with an average consumer. Hotels are (at the middle range upwards) a more personal ‘one to one’ business, but banking has been over the past few years actively commoditising itself through removing the personal touch and introducing call centres and self-service interfaces.
Enough of the theoretical… how you deal with this is, of course, a choice for you as an individual business, in the same way a retail chain will have a policy for dealing with a cross customer raising their voice in a store – by taking them aside, talking, empathising, offering tea, and of course that is part of what makes up the ‘personality’ of that company.
These are the kind of decisions we will all have to be making more and more in the coming years as the criteria as to what makes a ‘good’ customer and what makes an ‘influential’ customer continues to evolve, and in many cases, diverge. This is why it is important for organisations to not only build the act of listening and monitoring of social media into their ongoing BAU processes, but also be prepared to evolve their strategic and operational social media framework.
After getting the basics right: reporting, brand guidelines, naming and editorial convention, language style, etc., one also needs to ensure high level decision makers have visibility of anecdotal case study examples of how the interactions between you and your audience are changing to enable them to engage with and evolve your strategy and processes strategy as the conversation, platform and landscape changes.
Social media is already well established as an increasingly important channel for businesses to communicate with their customers. But it is important to remember this is social media, not just another broadcast media, and the channels go both ways, and radiate outwards into the market. Building a consensus across your enterprise through stakeholder & front line consultation is crucial to equipping your people and developing a business-wide policy framework for monitoring, measuring, developing and responding to conversations.
Dom Graveson heads up Strategy & Engagement at www.cscape.com. Find him on Twitter: @dombles

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