Social Media Makes Brands Care More About Their Brand Than Their Customers

There are specialized conferences on ‘social media marketing’. There are zillions of presentations providing ‘insight’ into how to manage your brand in social media. There are panel discussions to debate how to do it best. There are revered international gurus trotting the globe preaching how to ‘maximize ROI’ to the rapt attention of zillions of social media marketers.

There are seminars on ‘how to target influencers’ that are attended by amateur social media experts, not by influencers. (No, ‘amateur social media expert’ is not an oxymoron, there is no ‘social media amateur’.) There are blog posts from experts sharing wisdom on ‘how to listen to your customers’ that are read, discussed, and shared by…social media experts.

The one conspicuous element missing in this grand, gigantic, navel-gazing enterprise is the actual customer.

I will share three examples of my recent interactions with leading Indian brands to support the hypotheses in the title of this post. The intention is not to rant against these three in particular, there is ample evidence to show that their competitors fare no better.

ICICI Bank

After several terrible experiences of customer service with ICICI Bank, I finally tweeted about it. ICICI Bank Cares was quick to respond:

If only they had been as responsive when actually servicing me as a customer when I was visiting their branch to close all my accounts and severe my 16 year relationship with them!

Fact: A brand only appears to care when you, the customer, complains about it in social media, not when you are ‘just a customer’ in their branch or shop.

Vodafone

After using a Vodafone 3G MiFi in conjunction with my 2G phone and iPad, I finally decided to chuck my MiFi and upgrade my phone to 3G, also changing my phone service provider from Airtel to Vodafone. As an existing MiFi customer, one would think Vodafone should have been glad to extend my relationship with them.

No. The process of closing my MiFi account and opening a new 3G phone account did not take into account the fact that I was the same customer who is closing one account and opening another! I had to submit all my identity/address proofs, though I was already an existing customer, for the new account, while also having to resubmit my identity/address proofs just to close the old account.

From Vodafone’s perspective, it was as if one customer had closed a MiFi account, while another customer had started a new 3G account. I found this quite amusing.

Until I started receiving calls from Vodafone saying my MiFi account bills were unpaid.

These calls did not come on my new Vodafone phone, as they had no clue that this old MiFi customer now had a new Vodafone mobile, they came on my landline phone that I had supplied as an alternate contact number when I got my MiFi. After explaining to them that I had closed my MiFi account, they insisted that it was not closed and that I should pay the outstanding bills.

These calls continued despite vociferous arguments and rebuttals. They insisted that not only had I not closed my account, I had neither surrendered the MiFi device nor the SIM card in it. When visiting the store, I had not only carried the device and the SIM, I had repacked all of it inside their original shipping box, including the manual booklet, only to be told that they did not need all that at all. They just wanted identity/address proofs.

All this while, as a new Vodafone 3G phone customer, I was being happily serviced by them by their social media experts:

This was when their debt collector finally landed on my doorstep threatening me to pay my outstanding MiFi bill or else. I showed him my receipt of the closure of my MiFi account, after which they stopped harassing me.

I intentionally did not tweet about the MiFi episode, as I wanted to check how customers are serviced if social media is not involved in the picture. I was also amused with the schizophrenic experience of acting as if I were two different customers of Vodafone, one who is a new, happy 3G customer and another who is a rogue, non-bill-paying customer.

Fact: There was no relationship with the brand as a customer. Identity and address proofs are associated not with a person, they are associated only with an account.

Fact: Social media interactions led to a happy 3G phone customer.

Fact: No criticism on social media about 3G MiFi led to debt collector at doorstep.

Flipkart

I had been a happy Flipkart customer since 2010, always impressed by their customer service, their backend infrastructure, their transparency in order tracking, and their strive to delight the customer. Until my latest experience, where one of my orders has been delayed.

It is not the delay that has disappointed me as a customer. My PC motherboard order on 1st Aug still shows:

Flipkart Orders

As of this writing on Sat, 10th August, Flipkart still says I should be expecting delivery today:

Flipkart Order Status

On Thu, 8th Aug, I tweeted:

After a few minutes, I get a call from Flipkart. After hello, etc.:

<Flipkart Rep> Sir, this is about your tweet about Flipkart

<Me> Yes?

<Flipkart Rep> I see it is about a Gigabyte Motherboard. It seems there is a problem with your order. We apologize for the inconvenience it has caused you. We will look into it and get back to you shortly.

<Me> Thank you. You see, I had planned for my PC assembly to be done this weekend, everything else – the cabinet, power supply, SSD, RAM, graphic card – everything is here but without the motherboard what can we assemble?

<Flipkart Rep> Yes, yes, we apologize for the inconvenience and will get back to you shortly.

<Me> When will you get back to me?

<Flipkart Rep> Umm….give us at least 24 hours.

<Me> OK, thank you.

I was satisfied with their response:

While waiting for an update, I could not help wondering:

You would expect that after so much brouhaha, Flipkart would finally wake up and provide me with updates. No.

No update even after 24 hrs had elapsed. I had to resort to complaining on social media again:

After this tweet at 7PM, I got a call at 8PM:

<Flipkart Rep> Sir, this is about your tweet about Flipkart

<Me> Yes?

<Flipkart Rep> Sir, we have investigated about your order. I can tell you that we have confirmed with the seller and your order will arrive at our Delhi warehouse only on Monday. It will then be shipped to you in 2-3 business days. We apologize for the inconvenience. Is that fine?

<Me> Is that fine?! No, it certainly is not fine.

<Flipkart Rep> Sir, we are sorry for the distress this has caused you and we’re sorry about the delay. Can you please confirm?

<Me> Confirm? Confirm what?

<Flipkart Rep> Sir, we will have the ordered piece at our Delhi warehouse on Monday, latest by Tuesday, and I assure you it will be delivered within 2-3 business days.

<Me> Yes, I got that. But what should I confirm? Do I have any choice? Do I have any option that you are asking me to confirm? I have no choice in the matter except to wait. And it is certainly not fine because you were expected to give me an update within 24 hours and you did not.

<Flipkart Rep> What?

<Me> You called me yesterday and promised me with an update within 24 hours. You did not. It seems you only act reactively whenever a customer tweets negatively about you. You do not act proactively to satisfy customers anymore. This is my feedback and I hope you take it to your superiors.

<Flipkart Rep> I apologize Sir and I will take this feedback. I am sorry for the distress this has caused you. Is there anything else I can help you with?

As noted above, the Flipkart website still says I should be expecting my order today.

Fact: Customer Support Representatives are trained to only utter boiler plate phrases.

Fact: Flipkart does not have any internal alert system to identify delayed orders. Which means they don’t care about delayed orders.

Fact: Flipkart will immediately respond if you complain on social media.

Fact: Flipkart reps are brazen enough to say in the introduction that their calls are about your tweet, not about your delayed order.

Fact: I would have been a disappointed but not antagonized customer if only Flipkart would have updated me with the status of my order transparently on their site or on phone in a proactive manner.

Flipkart Update

After making me wait for 12 days, Flipkart today cancelled my order.

Conclusion

I think my hypotheses in the title needs no more proof. A brand responds when you complain about it in social media, but that response ultimately matters little, because the intention behind it is to protect the brand, not to serve the customer. Navel-gazing in action.

Brands do not listen.

Brands only react to negative mentions in social media. Perhaps that is what the gigantic navel-gazing enterprise is all about: how to just appear to be delighting your customers without actually servicing them in any real sense.

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  • http://abs360.blogspot.com Abhinav S

    Good writeup Mahendra. I had very similar experiences with other brands. Although e-com and other businesses are gaining ground everyday in our country, customer service is probably the last item they have on their list which makes the experience very frustrating.
    And I am sure we have millions of other customers facing the same issues day in and day out.
    I am surprised as to when brands so much worry about negative publicity over social media why don’t they think a bad customer experience will make the customer rant about it in public and will spread with the word of mouth? But then there are always some logical questions that we can never get answer to in our country…

  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    Thanks, Abhinav, couldn’t have said it better! I have no clue to why such logical, simple questions have no answers :)

  • Kunal

    Wow. This is really bad. It really begs the question, why is it so ridiculously bad in India? If it is systems, then Vodafone should be using the same systems that their parent company uses, and I am sure that this level of customer service will not be tolerated in other countries. Is it a policy problem or is it a mechanism problem?

  • manuscrypts

    I’ve had my little battles on social media as well – mostly with ‘offline’ brands, (telecom, electronics retail) and the experiences have been quite bad. However, I also play out the other side of the story daily, and deal with customers who feel entitled to a real time solution only because they’re on social media, hence a few perspectives.

    I agree with you that in most cases, the initial idea is indeed to ‘appear to delight’ the customer, but this can change over time, especially when social begins to prove itself as an early warning system/dipstick of a common problem, and processes are set up to identify, escalate and solve issues. Also, the intent of the brand is probably not to ignore ‘just another customer’, I think they just don’t have systems to surface these. On social, it is seen (by all) and that lights the fire under everyone. It’s a little similar to calling customer care vs shouting at the store. (have done both – the second always works! :D)

    The systems we’re dealing with have been built for a different era, it will take time for them to adapt. Until then, what we’ll generally see are only hasty reactions, not a well oiled machinery with sufficient empowerment at different levels to solve an issue. In essence, 3 experiences are logically sufficient to generalise, but there are exceptions and I think they’re growing in number. :)

  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    Thank you Manu, for reading the post and sharing your perspectives. Because you are ‘on the other side’, your thoughts on this are precious and I am grateful.

    “deal with customers who feel entitled to a real time solution only because they’re on social media”

    Isn’t this precisely symptomatic of the theme of my post? Customers are entitled to solutions (to problems which shouldn’t have existed in the first place) whether they are or are not on social media is the point of my post. However, brands perceive it otherwise, as your comment seems to acknowledge.

    “when social begins to prove itself as an early warning system/dipstick of a common problem, and processes are set up to identify, escalate and solve issues”

    As described in my post, social media need not serve as an early warning system, a simple DB query would do the job. The company need not resort to social media to act as an early warning system, the early warning system can and should be in-house.

    “the intent of the brand is probably not to ignore ‘just another customer’, I think they just don’t have systems to surface these”

    Exactly. An internal software based alert system does not need hiring social media experts to manage the brand’s reputation and would be more effective.

    “On social, it is seen (by all) and that lights the fire under everyone. It’s a little similar to calling customer care vs shouting at the store.”

    Precisely. Because of which companies do not spend a little on software based internal alert systems, but spend zillions on hiring brand managers.

    Most customers, like me, are too polite not to shout in a store. It is easier to complain on social media. Unfortunately, from a brand’s perspective, complaining on social media is equivalent to shouting in the store.

    “The systems we’re dealing with have been built for a different era, it will take time for them to adapt. Until then, what we’ll generally see are only hasty reactions, not a well oiled machinery with sufficient empowerment at different levels to solve an issue.”

    I am not sure which systems you are describing – systems to handle customer complaints or systems to handle a brand in social media. It seems the latter. I think you envision a well oiled machinery with sufficient empowerment that takes a complaint on social media as a trigger to ultimately resolve a customer complaint. I fail to realize why social media enters this idealistic vision. A disgruntled customer is a disgruntled customer whether he/she resorts to social media or not.

    It is irrelevant that systems to handle customer complaints were built for a different era. The earlier era was when a customer could only shout in a store, many of them did not, and quietly walked out. You mention ‘time for them to adapt’ – adapt to what? Adapt to addressing customer complaints effectively or adapt to managing brand reputation when customers complain about the brand in social media?

    Systems to address customer complaints effectively should have existed before the era of social media. That they do not is sad. Developing new systems to address customer complaints over social media are not a solution to the problem, they are a reprieve to salvage the brand, not to satisfy the customer.

  • manuscrypts

    Hmm. In an ideal scenario – and none of my comments are only-social because in this context I believe social is another channel, albeit a thoroughly different one – things would exist the way you have framed them. Problems do not arise in the first place, DB queries would surface issues before they were raised externally and there wouldn’t be unhappy customers. But in reality, as we’ve seen, it works differently, and I think the reactions to these exist the way they do because resources are finite, and the adage of the crying child getting the milk holds. (mildly elaborated in the last para)

    I do think it is absolutely relevant which era a system was built for – there would be fundamental differences of scale (volumes), input mechanisms, all of which would affect the kind of internal processes an org has. These differences require adapting. Examples: CC guys (also) look for social modules in their CRM vendors; CC staff are (also) trained to respond on social platforms – character limits, nuances of communication etc. Good time to point out that scale happens not by hiring brand/social guys, but by adding ‘social’ to the existing core skill set.

    Social media need not be a warning system, but it is, because the voice of a single irate customer is amplified. Nothing before did this at scale, there was no incentive for a DB query (you can count the number of brands who are that proactive in customer satisfaction) and that is exactly why brands are taking notice. I see all of this as an evolutionary necessity – first they acknowledge (at least) the symptoms, then they treat the symptoms; when they realise it cannot scale, they will treat the disease.

    PS: Entitled to a solution is a given, it is the ‘real time’ which was the intended keyword :)
    PPS: Not doing any more escalations here, it’s a Sunday! :p

  • Rolypoly

    You have a very valid point but my little note on your very extensive article would be at least there is a media by which they are/have started to respond to customers quicker. It is possible that as more people complain on social networking sites and these brand loving brands will see they need to look into their customer service and the way their staff are trained & retained in the business. It may be the sort of a reverse engineering where the social media interactions show the top brass the actual sentiment towards their brand and they take action.

  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    I must thank you again for providing insight from “the other side”. I do not see any point where we disagree. As you say, the crying child gets the milk.

    The intention is simply to stop children’s amplified crying on social media, not to ensure that all children are being fed well.

    When resources are finite, utilize them in the best manner possible to salvage the brand. If you envision an evolutionary necessity that all this will ultimately result in treating the disease, I am happy, but alas, I do not share your optimism. I do not think brands intend to address the disease, all they will forever worry about is the symptoms.

  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    Thanks Kunal. I am not sure, but I think it is a policy problem. If true, it is certainly not an Indian telecom policy problem, because Vodafone has an opportunity to know its customer that it doesn’t seem to utilize at all.

  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    Thanks, Rolypoly. You seem to share the same optimism and vision @manuscrypts:disqus has :) See discussion below. The reverse engineering can indeed work, if there were any concern behind it, which I think doesn’t exist.

    Actual sentiment of customers is just not something that “top brass” is concerned about any more.

  • Ashish Mohta

    I had a similar problem regarding my billing with Airtel. 5 different guys called me in to know what is it about. An email which did not took care of taxes. 2 more calls to get that fixed and there was a tweet behind every call. Go Figure