Customer service: the “desk jockey” past vs. the “service ranger” future

I’m reading Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba’s Citizen Marketers on a friend’s recommendation. A lot of folks in his agency are starting to tweak on social media and this highly regarded (and extremely readable) examination of viral and customer-generated marketing activity is guiding a good bit of their thinking and questioning. Good on ’em – a lot more companies need to be exploring these issues, as well.

My only complaint so far really isn’t about the book, which is a very worthwhile read, so much as it is a general idea that all this online activity, and corresponding company attention to it, is a very new thing. To some extent this is true, of course – as I note above, it’s not like engaging the blogosphere and the “citizen marketer” is something that a lot of companies are doing, and even fewer are doing it effectively. I guess I’m frustrated because I’ve been carping on this for years and haven’t seen the kinds of uptake and results that I know are possible.

Here’s an example. Pick up the book and read the passages on Jeff Jarvis and “Dell Hell.” McConnell and Huby do a nice job of laying out how one guy’s frustration with a brand giant led him to create an online forum chronicling a customer relationship gone very wrong. Eventually Dell Hell racked up 10M Google references (wow) found its way into the pages of the Washington Post, Wall St. Journal and New York Times. When the dust settled, Dell had realized it needed to make a few changes. It announced it was pumping $100M into improving its customer service and launching a blog “to learn and improve by listening to customers.”

Now, let’s flash back to 1999, when I was working in the PR unit at US West, Inc. I had convinced the company’s communication brain trust that this Internet thing was real. Or at least I had convinced them that it might be real, and that we should find out to what extent it posed a problem/opportunity for us. We launched an Internet community relations pilot program to do just that, and you can read some of the details in the case study here.

As the case indicates, the program was wildly successful. But in addition to the results noted there, it also generated some more powerful, high-level strategic insights. Let me quote an important passage from the recommendations section.

U S WEST should consider moving away from a “service desk” conception of online customer engagement and toward a “roundup” model, where U S WEST representatives actively search Net discussion groups unhappy customers.

  • There currently remains a significant disconnect between U S WEST customer service and crucial segments of our market (first-tier support for DSL and U S WEST.net seems to be a major concern for both individual and small business data customers, for instance).
  • Customers and potential customers try to engage the company through established service channels, but when they are unable to achieve satisfactory results they log on and complain about us to thousands of others, some of who are no doubt soured against doing business with us.
  • Within the next year, U S WEST Customer Service should begin proactively engaging the Net. The concept of customer service reps roving the virtual countryside actively looking for people to help could easily revolutionize the way not just the telecom industry, but the entire world of e-commerce, approaches customer service.
  • The U.S. is evolving toward a market where many companies are offering services that are virtually indistinguishable in terms of functionality and pricing. As a result, the determining factor for consumers in the coming years will be customer service. Companies that make more frequent contact with customers – even if it’s only maintenance or courtesy calls – will increasingly dominate the consumer landscape early in the next millennium.

Mechanisms should be established immediately to quickly channel unhappy customers encountered in newsgroups to customer service escalation teams.

There, in a nutshell, was the genesis of the “service ranger” model of customer care. Don’t wait for people to become unhappy. Don’t let people with manageable issues grow into brand terrorists. They’re out there, they’re talking, and you have access to those conversations. Invite their complaints. If you aggressively pursue an engagement with the customer agora and address your customers honestly and transparently you need never be surprised by a service issue.

Sadly, I cannot today, eight years after I wrote that report, point to a company that I think has fully evolved its service mission into what seems an inevitability. No, I’m not familiar with all companies out there, and I would love to hear that I’m wrong. So if you know of a case that I haven’t heard about, please let me know. I want to tell the rest of the marketplace about them.

So back to Citizen Marketers. I think I can finish it tonight after the Heroes finale. Meanwhile, if these ideas ring true for you grab a copy of the book or drop me a line.

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5 responses to “Customer service: the “desk jockey” past vs. the “service ranger” future

  1. Pingback: Of customer service, desk jockeys and service rangers « Scholars and Rogues·

  2. Fascinating, Sam. It’s an idea that the journalism biz could use. It still has a reactive model (“send us news tips”) rather than a proactive model.

    Now, reporters have always gone out in search of stories. But I was taught to “touch base” routinely with sources with “courtesy calls” and such. But I never asked this of a source or a reader: “What do you want? What do you need?”

    I should have. In the model I worked in, news and assignment editors always “seemed” to know what the story is and how it should be worked.

    Newspapers have not yet mastered the feedback function represented by new media. And newspapers have always claimed to be better than other media in providing a feedback loop.

  3. I’m not sure what biz you have to be in these days to make the “sit back and wait” approach work. More channels, ungodly amounts of competition from more directions than ever before, and frankly the safety net argument we’ve talked about over on Scholars & Rogues plays in here, as well. If you’re not aggressive, you’re toast.

  4. It seems like you could automate this with a google type bot scanning blogs. Hell, you can already do it with google. Every time I get a weird error on my computer, I google it and find a thousand hits from people who’ve already had the problem, complained about it, and figured out a way to fix it (this seems to happen a lot with Mircosoft security updates, by the way). I suspect that M$ is already doing as you suggest. They just don’t advertise it.

  5. You can build some proprietary tools to ride the fences, or you can use some existing services designed to do just this. Or both – I haven’t seen a tool that catches everything yet. Do a blog search with Google, then do the same search with Ice Rocket, for instance.

    Of course, finding the issues is only the first step. Engaging them effectively is a people-intensive process, and it requires people who are very well trained. It requires people with a certain personality type, as well. This is not something you can run out of Bangalore.

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