Previously I posted about the rise of support activism and negative word of mouth. There are a several things a company can do to mitigate the risks of support activism and negative word of mouth.

Improve the Product Quality

In the past, all those inconveniences that didn’t actually raise warranty costs (because they didn’t result in a support call), even if they affected the user experience, got ignored by companies. That has to change. Not only does product quality simply need to improve across the board, but the prioritization criteria of customer issues has to change as well. What is most important to fix is what your customers say is most important to fix. And that is not necessarily the same as what causes your customers to call.
Here’s an example from the old days of VHS players: If a customer’s VHS player couldn’t play tapes, that would generate a support phone call or a product return. But if a customer’s VHS player was too hard to program and sat blinking 12:00 all day, they might not call support or return it. They might just live with blinking lights flashing at them all day long, creating a lingering dissatisfier.
People view support calls as an absolute last resort. And since the correct time and the ability to record programs on a timer isn’t crucial, they’ll live without those capabilities. They’ll live without them, but they’ll always be pissed: “I bought product X, and it just doesn’t work.”
Similarly, what is most satisfying about a product may not be what is most important about it. It is most important that my car start when I need to use it, but the six speed manual transmission is what is most satisfying about it. (These are the kind of subtle nuances you’ll learn about reading automotive forums on the web, but which are hard to uncover in traditional customer research.)

Address Support Issues Where They Arise

If a product issue shows up on a blog, in most cases, the best approach is to post a comment on that blog as a response, explaining how to address the issue. You will instantly convert the negative customer experience into an overwhelmingly positive support experience: “Wow, the company found my blog and cared enough about me to post a response for how to fix the problem.” They will tell that story to everyone they talk to that day or week, and any time your company comes up in conversation, they’ll relate that story. You’ll be the company that cares enough to go out and find problems. Here’s a secret: this is what is already happening in the open source movement, and it’s a major reason why open source users and developers are so passionate about open source. The developers and maintainers of a project are not just suppliers of technology, but participants in the community that surrounds them. So they are active on blogs, and discussion forums, and in wikis. And when they see someone having a problem, they step in.

Addressing Issues Where They Arise To Defuse Viral Explosions

The second thing that happens when you address support issues where they arise is that you instantly defuse the viral explosion of the original negative experience: before the original complaint can make it around the blogosphere, your very visible assistance and resolution of the problem, right there alongside the original post, will completely change the nature of what is being shared. It’s no long a bit of sensationalism or inflammatory material, instead it is just a problem and a resolution. It’s not very sexy, and it won’t get shared nearly as widely as the negative-only experience would have.

Alternatives to addressing it this way are far less effective

The alternative methods to address a bad experience shared via the blogosphere are far less effective. A customer shares a bad experience, and the company takes one of these alternative actions:

  1. Contacts the customer directly via email to share a resolution to the problem.
  2. Carefully considers the problem, consults the Legal department, PR department, crafts a response, runs the response by Legal and PR, and then posts the response, but only after 2,000 people have seen and linked to the original issue.
  3. Takes the posting of the issue as a call to action to get the issue resolved in the product, or to get better documentation on the companies web site.

All of these alternatives are better than no action at all, but they miss the biggest opportunities: to give support in a visible way that helps not just the original people who had the issue, but also everyone else who was searching for an answer to the same problem and saw the the issue after it was posted, and to defuse any negative viral explosion that occurs from the original posting. It’s like fighting a forest fire: a bucket of water applied early on in exactly the right place can put out a smoldering campfire. The same bucket of water will have no material effect when the fire is an acre in size or when it isn’t put right on the fire.

But if posting on the blog isn’t an option because the legal department or PR department have previously rules against that kind of activity, the next best course of action is usually to email the customer directly, because this can be done the quickest. The customer may post about it the positive experience, which is a bonus.
Posting on small blogs vs. posting on product review sites
All of this holds true for product review sites as well as blogs, with one crucial difference. When a big company takes the time to post on a small blog, most people will interpret the action as really caring about the customer. When a big company posts on a product review site used by millions of people, most of those people will interpret the action as self-serving: the company is just there to defend themselves. In Web 2.0 research, people reported that one of the reasons they distrust company websites is because the information is biased: the company only ever describes their own products in glowing terms (as opposed to the more neutral treatment they would get by someone without a vested interest on a product review site, discussion forum, Wikipedia, etc.). This means that small, authentic companies can probably post on a product review site and get taken at face value, but a big corporation needs to really build credibility in the social media space before their post on a product review site will be acceptable.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Josh Bernoff, of Forrester Research and coauthor of Groundswell, and Joe Cothrel, VP of Community at Lithium Technologies have a very worthwhile webinar, Join the Groundswell in Enterprise Social Software, available on-demand. Both speakers were worthwhile, and I took four full typed pages of notes while listening to the original broadcast. A few highlights:

  • Josh Bernoff told a story of about Linksys: it was Christmas day, normally one of the highest call volume days of the year as customers unbox their new wireless routers. But there was an earthquake in India that blocked the telephone lines, so no customer support was available by phone at all. It could have turned out to be a customer service disaster. But LinkSys had community support forums online, and customers were directed to the forums for support. So on Christmas day, every customer that needed help went to forums to get their questions answered, and LinkSys did not see customer complaints about the lack of available phone software.
  • Joe Cothrel said that Lithium has seen that you need on the order of mid-thousands of customers sent to a online community for that community to flourish and become self-sustaining. You can start in the hundreds or low-thousands, but it is a very different situation. But in mid-thousands, then a community can drive itself.
  • Josh, speaking on the importance of super-users, told that story that when Dell started their community 9 years ago, they pulled 30 technical support agents to do moderation. But over nine years later, as the size of the community has increased tremendously, the number of moderators has shrunk, not grown. Now they have 5 moderators. The community takes on that moderation role.

Check out the webinar for more really useful tips on launching online communities.

In the 1990s, activists targeted companies like Nike for their sweat shop labor and child labor abuses. Frequent headlines and photos of protestors with boycott signs picketing Nike and other athletic clothing companies and of child laborers found their ways into newspapers, the nightly news, and web sites.

In the 2000s, the focus changed to environmentalism, and the targets changed to oil companies, Monsanto, the WTO, and the worst polluters. The technology segment lived in fear of the day that they, by virtue of their size, high visibility and brand name recognition, and immense electronic waste streams would become the targets of environmental activism. The big consumer technology companies, such as Apple, Dell, HP, and Sony all rushed to proclaim their environmental friendliness and leadership to avoid becoming the next Nike.

But in the midst of this, a million small activists are bringing attention to acts that may have a small impact on an individual basis, but collectively create frustration: the bad customer service of big corporations.

Google “Verizon sucks” (or any other corporation), and you’ll see tens of thousands of hits, as individual customers related their bad experiences at the hands of these mega-companies. People don’t need consumer reports to rate the customer service of a technology company, they just need to start reading a few product reviews on Amazon, or a few posts in the blogosphere. The companies are listening too: using both manual and automated processes, companies large and small are combing the web to find out what customers are saying.

The impact of this is significant. Where once a bad customer service experience might have been related to two or three people in person, now that same bad experience is shared with hundreds or thousands of people. My personal blog post on Verizon’s poor customer service treatment of my mother is consistently one of the top ten pages on my personal blog, accounting for about 7% of all of my monthly traffic six months after the initial posting. From my post:

Every mom out there has a son who blogs and will gladly tell the story of the bad customer service their mom received at the hands of Verizon. The risk and exposure associated with bad customer service is only going up. Not only does Verizon risk losing their customer to the growing number of phone service alternatives out there, they risk losing many other prospective customers who hear the bad customer service stories.

Or take the case of Mona Shaw: Shaw ordered Comcast service. On the day of the installation appointment, she waited for a service representation all day, and he never showed up. He finally showed up two days later, and only partially completed the work. Comcast then inadvertently shut off all service to Shaw’s house.

On the following day Mona Shaw went to the local Comcast office, and waited for hours to talk to a manager, only to be told late in the day that the manager had left for the weekend. After waiting all weekend, Mona Shaw, 75 years old, and with a heart condition, went back to the Comcast office on Monday with a hammer and went to town on the keyboard, monitor and phone of a customer service representative.

The cost of this to Mona? A $345 fine. The cost to Comcast? Far more than two hundred and fifty blog posts and web pages tell the story of Comcast’s poor customer service.

As mass market media has known for years, the inflammatory, sensational, and controversial sell newspapers and gain TV viewers. This holds true in the blogosphere as well. My own experience is that one post ranting about a bad product received more traffic than fifteen typical posts on how to improve the customer support experience.

All of this creates tremendous pressure for companies to provide consistently satisfying customer service experiences in the first place, and develop effective and speedy responses to address negative reactions in the blogosphere and on product review sites, such as Amazon.