Today I’m going to share part of a video interview with Wine Library TV's Gary Vaynerchuk. Now for those of you who do not know, this guy is considered a thought leader in social media marketing. He’s also known for having a “telling it like it is” attitude and dropping the occasional profanity. So here I’m just going to post a link rather than embed. By the end of the video you should have an idea of why customer service in social media and modern business in general is more critical than ever, and why companies that think they can rely on past success or technology alone should “go work”.
Sometimes I get asked why I got into social media and developing my Ning network. I used to be a very successful business manager for a company that had been at the forefront of technology integration in our industry. We had managed to incorporate enterprise software to cut our overhead by @ 75%, dramatically outclass all competition with superior service, and the resulting profit model gave us the leverage to grow when most others in our field were doing layoffs or just plain going out of business. That’s not to say we didn’t have many of the same challenges other companies in our line of business were struggling with. Our primary software vendor was more concerned with converting similar businesses over to “paperless”, but since we had already been optimized this way for years, the solutions we needed were mainly enhancements in Customer Relationship Management (CRM). One of my jobs was to try to pull those teeth, and that was the only outcome mandated in my charter that I was never able to effect. When I left that position, I decided to continue researching how this could be done, and I also had a pretty good feeling that I could develop my own proprietary solution to meet the unmet demand.
What I am talking about could almost have been reduced down to something as simple as e-mail. Our company used the standard Microsoft Office Outlook off an internal server, and most of what we needed to accomplish could have been done simply by extending that out to our customers. We had a few constraints such as needing secure encrypted interface so “packet sniffers” couldn’t hack into our accounts’ information, and we also needed the data to flow to and from our non-microsoft information management systems seamlessly. Not a huge stretch of the imagination to get done. For instance, Microsoft Dynamics was pushing out just such a solution at the time. The problem was we were just too vested into our enterprise software which was highly customized to what we did. The thing is, our software vendor had promised us these features when we entered our long-term contract with them. Unfortunately, it just looked like they had never made that a priority for their development teams because nobody had yet had found a use for them until we asked. The most I was able to get out of them was an apology and a couple thousand off our monthly service fees.
The “how” of what we wanted to do and all the technicalities aside, there was still the “why”. You see, part of our challenge in delivering the superior service was that our customers only recognized it as a convenient novelty- a reason to go to us instead of others, but not necessarily something they were inclined to pay more for. They saw our turnaround time efficiency and same day service, but most of the application power was behind the scenes and out of their site. Through a more direct online connection with them, we could make it more clear that we were providing them with distinctively innovative service, and that would be our argument for getting them to pay more & cover the costs of our technology investments. Our market also included a variable tier of different customer levels. So what we also needed to do for our business was attract the “cream-of-the-crop” and basically be the boutique option in our services. For a paperless office, it was amazing how much paper we actually still processed. Internally we were fine, but when it came to dealing with our outside vendors, allied business partners, and the customers themselves- they were all still stuck in the material world. Those that had software were using different systems, and to incorporate them all into our own systems we would have had to manually write our own HL7 interface- and the mutual cost/benefit meant we would have had to get all stakeholders involved to chip in on the expense. So sounds pretty complex, right? Yet, when I came across Ning later on, I saw how such a product could accomplish many of these things and more.
The most critical aspect of the problem I set about tackling was how to get everyone involved to cooperate cohesively as if a whole. Whatever solution had to allow everyone to maintain their autonomies, and the most logical approach was to have a third party platform we could all organize through with a unified theme. So duh! That would be a customized social network in the cloud. The more I researched and developed my idea, the more I realized it could be expanded to include any industry even beyond the one I came from, and the market could all be brought in by defining the niche to something as simple as a socio-geographic theme like my local region. Needless to say, I grew a lot of hair back after leaving the stress of that previous work, and if you were to look closely at how my project has evolved you might be surprised if you knew me before- it’s clear now that I’d rather be playing soccer. LOL!!
So how does this relate to you? Customer service is the key to all the problems I set about addressing, and I think it’s just as relevant to almost anything any of you are trying to do. Just yesterday I was introducing my site to someone new and they didn’t quite realize that what I was offering was personalized online service. When they first see a site, they think just that- it’s just a site. Hard for people to fathom how any given social network is going to be a different experience than what they’ve encountered on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. Yet, having explored all those for years from the lens of how to deliver superior customer service through online interaction, it’s clear as day that you don’t get direct access to the people behind the platforms. Instead what you find is a sincere focus on delivering automated efficiencies- call out tips, help articles, FAQ’s, end-user driven discussion panels, simple click usability, and if you are lucky contact forms.
So case in point: this person conveyed to me a story of how they tried to upload a video to share with their friends and encountered a load stall. Frustratingly they tried to get help to no avail, searched for answers, and seven hours later they just gave up! Sounds ridiculous to a lot of us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if your comfort with a given platform hasn’t been the result of countless similar experiences in years past. The thing about my site is that I always designed it with the idea of having a real person on the other end to make it as optimal an experience for the end-user as possible. It could be as simple as walking a member through how to upload a video or responding to a question when the thumbnail doesn’t show. Or, it could be as comprehensive as helping a business develop a social media marketing campaign, showing them how to make best use of the opportunities, and explaining how at the end of the day that can result to increases in sales of products and services.
Here on Ning Creators it’s interesting because you see a notable differentiation in customer service. It’s not every day you encounter a company that’s going to use the product by example, network alongside you, and do their best to take in your feedback- be that good and bad. At the same time you can also notice the dynamic tension of a software company- the struggle to balance between automated efficiencies, customer support, and online advocacy. Overall, I think it’s safe to suggest we should all be very thankful for what we do get out of this company. Where they are not perfect, perhaps we should be more inclined to meet them in the middle. I was following a discussion the other day where a handful of members started going off point to complain about shortcomings in product development in other unrelated areas. Those would have been more appropriate in a different time and place. So how is it that you get members to cooperate with you as you intend without coming across as too restrictive, etc? How do you get people to work with you to use the site in a mutually beneficial manner and mitigate awkwardness?
I can tell you I’ve thought about this for my own site. For me, it starts with an intimate one-to-one relationship with every member through direct e-mail. Probably sounds crazy once you start reaching 10-20K members, but I think not only is it imperative, but it’s also feasible. If/when I get that big, I expect to have hired someone to be doing that for me. Doing so I could accomplish some basic things. For instance, perhaps I will review my community guidelines, walk people through the available resources, and answer any questions they have before getting started. Thus, that should keep the content and activity reflected on the site on topic. Plus, this way I establish a direct line of communication. I wouldn’t want my members going online into my community appearing to be lost, appealing for help, nor complaining to anyone that would lend an ear. Shouldn’t be an issue if I’ve established that quality customer service relationship from the onset, and my members should know not only that they can reach me directly, but also that if they have a sensitive problem that they actually should do it this way for the benefit of all.
For each of us it comes down to some business decisions, doesn’t it? What are you willing to do, how far are you willing to go, and how much sense does that make based on the resources of time and effort you’re willing to invest? For me, and as you can see based on where I am coming from to my project, it is my very top priority. I’m not alone in this philosophy either. Make sure to take a look at that video I shared. You would think an industry like wine making would be the ultimate in service experience. Yet, past success could be their downfall in the emerging “thank you economy” where customer service is THE differentiating advantage. Easy to grow lazy and complacent until you start to see your customers “care more” for companies that “care more”. The moral of the story just may be not to get too caught up in automated efficiencies whether they be existing business models i.e. print magazine for instance, nor new models i.e. web-based magazine. It may come down to personally mattering to people better, which seems to have something to do with showing them they and their concerns personally matter to you…and I guess you could say comes down to what you personally do. I think that’s what Vaynerchuk was getting at when he said “They should go work!”.
Quite an interesting site you have Badan. Thanks for joining in this discussion.
Perhaps businesses might not be aware of the resources a librarian can offer to help their company. I welcome examples of ideas you might suggest.
One of the most interesting to me would be the idea of intelligent search. Despite all the advances of search engines, I can say from experience that business managers will often spend too much unplanned time on research for information. For instance, there might be a client proposal where you need to put together a quick market study, or some problem that arises where you have to find the best solution. Quite easily, if you don't know where to find the info, even searching online you can find too much irrelevant info, or maybe unable to identify the good from the bad. In those cases, it would be far more convenient, and perhaps even a service someone might be willing to pay for, if they could be directed to a respected expert in the field.
Librarians by nature are professionals in information management. I read a book about 15 years ago called Find It Fast which talked about the quickest and easiest ways to find what you need. Of course, there were search engines arising then, and understanding the different dynamics of the various engines and BOOLEAN languages was a special skill. However, the book went on to discuss the alternative methods of information such as private industry databases and then on to resources that might be available say in university libraries.
So I actually think your comment is quite relevant to this discussion. For instance, part of your challenge might be informing people of the services you can provide to their needs. You might have to balance what you can accomplish in terms of automated efficiencies such as organizing the information or delivering that to who needs it on your site, and actually working to engage people to find out what their needs are, demonstrating how you can serve them, and perhaps even making a good argument that your services are worth paying for.
A site like yours that would probably do much to connect university professionals or even students could represent a very valuable service indeed.