The trajectory of social media

Originally published at

Way back in the very late ’80s, I was given an intensive customer service training by my then current company which happened to be a Fortune 500 at the time. It was a week-long seminar given at great expense in order to improve the field-level communications to our customers who were retail stores such as Kmarts, Targets, Montgomery Wards, Toys R Us and the like. It took a week because there was a lot of nuance and a lot of practice.

Bear with me. I’m getting to the social media part.

The formula for customer service was fairly simple. The implementation of it was very hard to do well. Needless to say, not a lot of us were good at it at first, but we practiced, we coached, we were coached and we continued our training and re-training for several years after the week-long seminar. The formula was: H-E-A-T.

Hear them out
Take Responsibility

The “hear them out” part was hard for us because as operational managers, we just wanted to identify the problem quickly and solve it. All this yelling and screaming about other stuff that our poor service caused was just a waste of time. The managers who learned how to master the skill of listening and knowing when the customer ran out of steam were really, really good at solving the problems. The ones who didn’t eventually solved the issue, but the customer was still unhappy.

Patience, please; I’ll get to the social media stuff in time.

Empathy was really, really hard, even harder than listening because it was an active part and was not scripted in any way. You had to listen to what the customer was ranting on about and try to figure out what emotion was most pressing. If you got it right, you were in with the customer. If you got it wrong, not only were you really crappy at satisfying the customer, but you were a complete imbecile. The empathy was really hard and took a lot of practice. A lot.

Ok, ok.. I’m getting to the social media stuff, I really am.

The apologize part at first got our hairs to stand up. “I’m not saying sorry for something I didn’t do! What if the customer was wrong!” As it turns out, we didn’t really have to say “I’m sorry.” “I apologize for the inconvenience” would work just as well. Keep in mind this was 1988, so a company apologizing for the inconvenience was rather a new concept.

As you may have guessed, I have one more thing to cover; take responsibility for the situation. I promise that before you are done reading this blog post, I will have explained that last step and the entire H-E-A-T process in full and how it relates to the trajectory of social media. (See how I did that all in one step?)

Now, to the trajectory of social media. If you were paying attention to everything above, you may have found that the only thing even vaguely familiar about any customer service experience you have had lately is that someone at some point — maybe many points — in the conversation apologized for the inconvenience. Were you aware that was not the complete formula?

It isn’t and the apology was never intended to stand alone. In fact, when it stands alone it is utterly and completely meaningless. It is out of context and the weakest of the four touch points above. But, it is easily scriptable and placed in a customer service handbook. Over the course of twenty years, a complete and effective customer service program has been reduced down to its most easily-scripted part that has becomes a meaningless cliché; “I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Now, we see Social Media. It has glowing potential to engage customers on a new level, to raise the bar for brands to become entwined in their customer’s lifestyle, to become friends, to be fans, to be a rock star. I wanna be a rock star!

But Social Media is really, really hard to do well. The essence of what it is, how it connects, how to balance your personal identity with that of your employer, what to say, what you can’t or shouldn’t say is very, very hard to communicate to people. An effective Social Media program — like an effective Customer Service program — can’t be boiled down into a policy and procedure manual. It can’t be scripted.

Even as we become flush with the potential of social media, companies are trying to find ways of boiling down its essence into a trainable script that any monkey willing to work a minimum-wage customer service job can do. “How do we automate determining the ‘mood’ of the tweet, i.e., is the customer complaining/complimenting?” If it is a complaint, how can we quickly automate sending out a tweet apologizing for the inconvenience? What kind of “beads” will the customer accept? How can we create a plan whereby we silence the customer quickly so there is no danger of re-tweeting and twitterstorms? How can we push tweets into a system of escalation so our customer service people aren’t annoyed and bothered by the routine or “nutty” complaint? If the customer is being complimentary, how can we push them into our CRM and Facebook fan page? Remember, folks, we need to get rid of the employees tweeting because they are expensive and focus on maximizing the equity of our brand through social media.

Never mind the community part of social media. Humanizing brands is just a stupid ideal that will never happen. Why do customer think they have a right to be a fan? We sell them stuff, they give us money; that is the contract, although we will be their friend until they buy from us. Then, we’re moving on and making newer friends. That is the way sales works and that is the way sales will always work.

Social Media is on the same trajectory as customer service. About twenty or so years ago, customer service was seen as the silver bullet for customer retention. “It cost seven time more to find a new customer than to retain an existing one” was the mantra of the day. Now, it seems everyone from Facebook to Twitter to popular blogs to cell phone companies only want new customers. Customer service is an expense that is dealt with as a necessary evil and honed to its barest essentials; be invisible and when that doesn’t happen, apologize for the inconvenience. Offer beads only as a last resort.

Social media is already dying because it is already getting too expensive. The ROI can’t be proven in dollars and cents but the expenses sure can. The drive to retain the appearance of engaging in social media while trying to cut costs by automating is already well under way.

Companies still have customer service training. But, the programs mostly consist of informing the customer about the fine print they signed, avoiding escalation and obfuscating and frustrating to them to the point they just give up. Social Media training will suffer the same fate eventually. Maybe not this year or the next, but eventually it will be boiled down by efficiency experts and bean-counters and morph into a cliché much the same as what passes for customer service today. It will become an ineffective script that is easy to train to entry-level employees whose only goal is to get promoted out of the social media department.

I apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused you as a result of reading this blog post. But in all truth, you didn’t really expect any more than what I gave you, did you? It was kinda your fault for wandering in here to begin with. Didn’t you read the fine print before you opened the package?