Friday, June 1

Blogging: Frontline Communication

While I was working on a new blog for one of our clients, it occurred to me that social media (and blogging) is really a new form of frontline communication. If this is true (unless your company's blog skews more toward journalism or op-ed as a model like we sometimes do), then business bloggers might take more care to apply customer relations. Or maybe, the better term might be social media relations. Social media relations?

Sure, I know what some people might be thinking. Anytime businesses see "relations" after a term (eg. guest relations, customer relations, public relations, and certainly social media relations), then they think that the return on investment must be qualitative. And because quantitative results — anything with numbers — are always given more weight than their qualitative counterparts, "anything relations" will once again be dismissed or underestimated.

I wrote about this subject a few years ago, hoping to give more weight to customer relations as applied by concierges. Much of what I learned then still applies today. Yes, we know that direct response offers (or Nielsen ratings for that matter) are easily tracked: the number of redemptions equals success. However, as I said then, companies that neglect the integrity of their communication can also mistake such results as an accurate forecast of the future. They are not. Great offers and "spiked" show ratings only provide temporary fixes, not brand loyalty.

"It would seem a satisfied customer with an emotional bond would be worth more than one driven by other motivations, but some businesses forget to distinguish between the two," said Keith Sheldon, ABC, APR, a professional in residence at the University of California, Chico (when I interviewed him then). "A much more global view is to deliver high-touch service, recognizing the messenger is the message."

Today, years later, frontline communication is still the most important instrument to ensure customer satisfaction. So why not social media? When guests speak to employees (or bloggers engage an audience), the customer's perception of the company still becomes confined to that interaction. The results are the same. Scripted, rushed, uninterested, or negative employee responses create neutral or negative impressions even when their intent is to expedite traffic.

In contrast, customers have a high patience threshold while waiting in line as long as they see that the person in front is being treated extremely well. Employees who practice active listening—eye contact, smiles, and emotive statements—demonstrate such satisfaction because the waiting customer knows they will receive the same service when it is their turn.

"Reflective listening is always the next step in face-to-face communication," says Sheldon. "It goes beyond active listening by offering emotive statements and clarifying responses that demonstrate you understand the customer's needs. Asking questions beyond the immediate needs shows that you really care."

High performing companies have always recognized employee-customer relationships are emotional capital. It can be even be measured in terms of patronage, brand loyalty, and reputation beyond tangible results. Immediate measures can be identified in comments or response cards. Long-term measurements can be included in comprehensive evaluations.

In fact, with adequate measures, all "relations" can be shifted from an expense column into a business development column because they solidify trust, encourage repeat visits, and increase referrals. Just a few years ago, Waston Wyatt, a global consulting firm, launched its Human Capital Index, a study that included 400 publicly-traded companies to determine the relationship between human capital and shareholder value. The study revealed human capital can increase shareholder value by 30 percent.

When I wrote the article, Robert Bacal, CEO of Bacal & Associates and the Institute for Cooperative Communication in Canada, also told me that motivating employees to increase customer contact and satisfaction, or human capital, is critical to the success of any company. To do it, he suggested that companies invest in providing employees skill sets to make jobs easier and enjoyable. Skills that I think can be applied to social media.

"Some managers make the mistake of telling employees that customer service training benefits the company," he said. "It will ... but they also have to explain how it will benefit the employees on an individual level."

For example, teaching employees or bloggers how to deal with angry customers/comments might benefit the company because to reduce instances that have a negative impression on the company. But teaching employees these skills can also reduce the negative impact on the employee. I think we all know one angry customer can ruin our day (if we let it).

"When you tell people customer service techniques will make their job easier, it's more meaningful for them," said Bacal. "I also teach them a sequence of events they can remember called CARP."

CARP is one of several frontline communication techniques that I think can be applied to social media. CARP stands for Control, Acknowledge, Refocus, and Problem-solving. It reminds employees to take control of a situation by accepting responsibility, acknowledging the customer's anger, refocusing from a problem to a solution, and probing for ways they can help the customer.

By employing such a technique, it has been proven frontline employees can even gain a higher level of customer satisfaction with an angry customer than they can with the average customer. (Of course, for social media, this only works with "real" customers and not those that leave anonymous comments. They require a different approach.)

More importantly, as long as such communication is measured beyond numbers, it can demonstrate quantitative and qualitative results that move "relations" away from voodoo economics and more toward applied science.

For social media, that can be great thing because when you boil it all down, customer interaction is customer interaction. It does not matter where that interaction occurs: on the frontline of the checkout counter, on a customer service call, or on the Internet.


Sweet Tea on 6/17/07, 2:23 PM said...

"It would seem a satisfied customer with an emotional bond would be worth more than one driven by other motivations..."
Powerful comment. Of course, my immediate thought was that TV networks should consider this in regards to their viewers. Yes, networks want Nielsen viewers but what if they counted every viewer who had an emotional bond to a particular show? I bet there's be money in that for them.
Great article!

Rich on 6/18/07, 7:50 AM said...

Thanks JS. It seems you've figured out that when I write about one thing, I'm sometimes writing about another (or a few others things) too. ;)

You've nailed where networks are trying to shift their thinking. Most companies today see the move from being product-centric to customer-centric as the next step in delivering a more profitable company. Given the emotional bond any show creates with consumers ... well, it's one of the strongest bonds there is. Psychologically speaking, unless you detach yourself from entertainment, there is little distinction between seeing someone every week or seeing someone on television every week. After a while, they stick.

Taking it away from networks and looking at some successful companies ... Starbucks and pre-Feb. JetBlue really succeeded in these areas. People are as fanatical about them as any book, show, or movie. They bridged the product line and created a brand bond that people identify with.

Hey, and thanks for the compliment! Rich

Unknown on 7/10/07, 8:22 PM said...

Hi. It's nice to be quoted, and as the creator of the CARP model, I have to chip in and say that the P does not stand for Probe, but for Problem-solving. Actually Probe isn't such a bad idea, but the purpose of the model originally was to help seminar participants understand the importance of sequencing and timing when dealing with difficult and angry customers.

The point was to suggest that solving the customer's problem isn't the FIRST thing that needs to be accomplished with angry customers.

For more info you can try

Anyway, thanks for referencing me.

Rich on 7/11/07, 3:19 PM said...

Hi Robert,

You're welcome. Thank you so much for dropping by and offering clarification.

As it was revived from the article I interviewed you for several years ago, I'm not sure why there was discrepancy in defining the P.

Thinking back on it, it might be because we were discussing the importance of asking probing questions. (It may have even been that you had considered changing it at the time.) However, I'm happy to switch it out. Both work very well.

More importantly, I'm thrilled to have found your insight another home; it is as relevant today as it was then and important for people to know.

Look forward to our next. All my best,



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