Consumers are social, Customers are personal

Social media are a partial and temporary solution at best to a pair of linked problems that are essentially personal:

  1. dysfunctional customer relationship management on the vendor’s side; and
  2. 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:

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.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Doc,
    I agree absolutely. I think there are few things going on here. First, the role of social media. Your famous saying said that all markets are conversations. But that doesn’t mean that all conversations are markets. That’s something the social media marketers forget, thereby mounting one of the grandest imperialist invasions of them all. The attempt to occupy day-to-day human interaction and turn it into a profit centre.
    Second, there is a vast difference between the sharing of unstructured information on a one-to-many basis (social media), and the sharing of structured information on a one-to-one basis (VRM). As you point out, only the latter allows for real personalisation.

  2. Thanks, Alan. I can see at least two excellent pull-quotes in your comment that I wish I had worked into the book I just finished. Well said.

    To everybody else, Alan has been involved in the VRM cause even longer than I have. Thus, among other effects, the Midata initiative in the U.K. has clearly benefited from Alan’s thinking, writing and leadership there.

  3. Hi Doc, good article and thanks for the mention – I’m the CEO of Conversocial, which commissioned the research. I’m interested in your comment that social media is only semi-personal – could you expand on that point?

    I think what you could be getting at is the current lack of tie up between social identity and customer records, which is a challenge (but one that can be overcome), and one we are working on. Or do you mean something else?

    There can be additional benefits to customers for taking their customer service issues into social media over other channels. Once companies wake up to the fact that there are public complaints and issues on their Facebook pages, in tweets when people search for their company names etc, they will often start delivering better customer service over social than they do through other channels. The fully public nature of the issues and resolutions forces them to deliver the best service they can. I believe this will drive a virtuous circle – as companies deliver etter service through social, more and more customers will begin to use it as a service channel.

  4. Doc, Again a great article from your pen. I also agree on your saying that social media is semi-personal since your conversations are personal yet public. As it is truly said, Social media is media for social interaction as a superset beyond social communication. It has changed the way organizations, communities, and individuals communicate. Even the CRM is getting social as SCRM!

  5. Great article Doc. Good information shared. Thanks. Social Media has been a very powerful tool and is becoming more and more powerful. Many companies be it consumer goods organizations or a b2b business model still utilizing social media to its best.

  6. Great perspective, Doc. Again.

    One additional thought about the future of social media: Today, social media is funded by advertisers (the real “customers”), and provides a mechanism for giving them access to consumers. But this will almost certainly change as more and more social media services and platforms become open source. An open-source, community-developed platform for social interaction will unify consumers and customers, no?

    When Twitter first appeared on the scene, for example, it took many months before the first commercial money began funding it. The consumers it served all worried that without some kind of external funding, the service might disappear. Sooner or later, we’ll find that IT and communications costs have become so low that very little, if any, commercial sponsorship will be required to sustain a genuinely consumer-oriented social media platform.

  7. Excellent article Doc, I learn something new every time I read your writing. A couple of thoughts occurred to me as I read over and considered your points:

    1. The depth and breadth of personal information being shared on social media is creating advertised-based business models that will surpass Google AdWords’ revenue within five years or less. That’s coming thanks to the torrent of data that streams into social networks daily.

    2. Improving customer service systems is indeed not enough because it still doesn’t strike to the center of what really needs to happen. Companies need to translate process efficiencies into more relevant, timely and focused customer experiences. The dividend of process efficiency needs to be spent on greater empathy for the customer. Profits will follow if a company can get its head around the concept of delivering an exceptional experience.

    3. VRM shows potential to make each interaction more relevant, focused and over time, trusted.

    Bottom line: the companies who will emerge stronger for all this turbulent change will stay focused on customer experience, empathy and intimacy as their compass and not waiver from that course.

  8. Many people say that “Social media users are not customers of them, they are the product being sold.”

    I think that we are the suppliers and try to prove it here;

    http://info.org.il/english/The-Users-are-the-Suppliers.html

    Can you please get in touch with an economics scholar you trust and ask her to sort out the difference in definitions?

    Thanks!

  9. Thanks for your patience, everybody. Been busy traveling. (In fact, still am.)

    I’ve answered many of the questions above in a new post titled Customers are personal, cont’d. Head over there.

  10. I liked what you said about the customer and consumer being different populations many times in social media. From this it seams reasonable that a social platform could work well if it got rid of the add based business model. The greatest challenge I see would be in creating enough value to customers that they will pay to be a user of the social platform. Great Article!

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