Social media are a partial and temporary solution at best to a pair of linked problems that are essentially personal:
- dysfunctional customer relationship management on the vendor’s side; and
- minimal vendor relationship management on the customer’s side.
In the absence of solutions to both problems, vendors still see customers as consumers, and that too is a problem that hasn’t yet come to a head, because we still don’t fully grok the difference between consumers and customers. As a result, we think social media looks like a the good answer rather than a better question. That question is, How can we get companies and media to stop treating us as consumers and start treating us as real customers?
To see what needs to be done, check out Consumers Punish Companies that Ignore Them, by Eric Sass in MediaPost. In that piece Eric sources a pair of Conversocial studies that contain plenty of grist for social media and marketing mills. Here they are, from the Conversocial blog:
- Who’s Ignoring Their Customers?: A Survey Of The Largest US Retailers and Their Use of Social Media
- Consumer Study: 88% less likely to buy from companies who ignore complaints in social media.
- (A third study, A Survey of the Largest US Retailers and Their Use of Social Media, can be downloaded at that link. So can the other two.)
Here are some samplings from Eric’s gleanings:
- “…more than 60% of complaints and question about retailers posted online on social media are ignored, in part because of the sheer volume of content created on sites like Twitter and Facebook.”
- “30% of the retail chains surveyed don’t respond to any questions or complaints posted on social media, effectively choosing to ignore issues mentioned in these forums.”
- “…78% believe that social media platforms will soon replace other means of customer service altogether or at least become one of the top ways to communicate with corporations.”
- “…among the group which has communicated with companies via social media, 32.5% said they were either neglected or totally ignored; that works out to 16.5% of the total…This included ‘inadequate response times, unanswered queries, and overall unmet expectations.’
- “What’s more, ‘respondents were also adamant that such corporate behaviors would have some or much effect on their future decision to do business with offending corporations.’
- “27.3% of respondents said being ignored by companies on social media makes them ‘very angry,’ and 27.1% said they’d stop doing business with the offending company altogether.”
- “88.3% of respondents said they’d be somewhat or far less likely to do business with a company that has visibly ignored other customers’ questions or complaints on social media. That includes 49.5% who said they would be ‘far less likely, and 38.8% who said they’d be ‘somewhat less likely.’”
Note that the blame here is on offending companies; not on social media, or on the absence of something better.
This is understandable because social media offer radically new and helpful avenues both for customer feedback one one side and customer support on the other. Also, social media is where Conversocial is coming from, and what MediaPost reports on. The problem for both — and for all of us thinking and talking about this stuff inside the social media framework — is that consumers are a statistical category while customers are individual human beings.
Individual human beings are all different. They are not categories, and they cannot be treated with full respect only by templates, which is what vendors — especially those serving mass markets — tend to use.
And, while social media do provide ways to get personal (say, though one’s @-handle on Twitter), they don’t have personal relationships with their users. That’s because social media users are not customers of them, because they don’t pay for them. And if you don’t pay, you’re the product being sold.
The actual customers of Facebook and Twitter are advertisers, not users. Because of this, social media has exactly the same un-visited problem that commercial broadcasting has had for the duration: its consumers and its customers are different populations. Financial accountability is to those that pay, which are advertisers, not users. Yes, there are moral and operational obligations to users, but economically speaking those obligations are lesser ones. They are those of a farmer to crops, not of a store to actual customers.
For now social media are a useful and popular way for customers to send messages to companies — and to route around inadequate customer service systems (or, in the vernacular of the trade, using sCRM routing around or to improve CRM) — the failures listed by Conversocial are not just those of companies ignoring social media, but of social media itself.
There is a structural problem as well, because social media are still only semi-personal. They are a weak substitute for direct contact — meaning that, in a person-to-person sense, even email and telephony are better.
Improving each company’s customer service systems and policies (which the Conversocial studies call for) also isn’t enough, because each company’s system is different, and all of them are silo’d. Thus the way you deal as a customer with Nordsrom, Safeway, Amazon and Apple are all different, and incompatible. If you want, say, to change your address or your phone number with all of them at once, you don’t have a single way to do that. You also don’t have a standard way to publish your own terms and conditions of engagement, to say for example “don’t track me outside of your own store or site” or “any data you collect is mine as well as yours, and should be available to me in the standard way I describe.”
Tools for doing that would have to live on your side of the relationship. Not the vendor’s, not the CRM cloud’s, and not Facebook’s. If you are a real customer, and not just a consumer or a user, you need your own tools. You need VRM — Vendor Relationship Management — tools, to work together with vendors CRM tools, not to replace them. The demand chain and the supply chain will work together.
The only case against VRM is that companies serving mass markets can’t afford to be personal, and just won’t go there. This was also the argument against PCs and the Internet. History and enterprising developers proved both cases wrong.
In fact enterprising developers in the VRM community have been working on personal tools for the last five years or more — tools that make customers both independent of vendors and better able to engage with vendors. It helps that the CRM community is aware of VRM developments, and has been awaiting them for some time. This is the year that wait will pay off. We’ll finally see VRM developments mature and start to become useful, both for customers and for vendors. So, watch the space.
Bonus link: Alan Mitchell’s comment below. I love how he says social media marketing is among “the grandest imperialist invasions of them all. The attempt to occupy day-to-day human interaction and turn it into a profit centre.” Indeed.
Also, to answer questions raised below, I have posted Customers are personal, cont’d.