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.