Rachel Friend, Weber Shandwick: Keep the customer satisfied

The trick to successful customer relations is to go out and find those with a complaint.

What's our national sport? Football? Cricket? Horse racing? No, the one thing that unites these fair shores is a good old moan about customer service.

Collective moaning is part of our psyche. It doesn't matter which company you are, how much you invest in top-notch customer service training, how cheerful your frontline staff are - people will always be able to find fault with you. Unless you're John Lewis, which has famously 'cracked it'.

When we used to have a complaint, we'd go to the customer service desk and talk to the lady, who would listen, smile sweetly and sort out our problem. If we couldn't get to the store, we'd wind up in a call centre queue, seething at being passed from pillar to post before eventually being cut off. But social media have changed everything. Now when we moan, we post it online, blogging, tweeting or venting our frustration on a company's Facebook page. Not only can everyone see, but everyone can join in too.

According to a YouGov survey*, while 41 per cent of people will make a complaint by phone and 63 per cent by email, 20 per cent take to social media sites. This is only set to continue, with 18- to 24-year-olds leading the charge.

What I admire about the way Dell has responded is that it has become proactive in seeking out customer complaints so it can help people sort out problems. The initiatives it has launched show a genuine commitment to becoming a customer champion.

It is interesting that Stuart Handley says Dell has no conflict internally about who handles social media. I'm sure there are many businesses still trying to grapple with this. Customer service people are fantastic at dealing with customer complaints, but it takes a different mindset to have the confidence to post your usually private responses to an audience the size of which you will never know. Any slip up could go global in an instant.

There are guidelines for how to deal with complaints in social media: make it a private conversation as early as possible, apologise if you get it wrong, be transparent, solve the problem quickly, know the customer is right.

Getting a customer complaint wrong can have a devastating effect on a firm's reputation and take years to recover from. But getting it right, and quickly, not only minimises the damage - it can actually enhance a reputation. One of particular note in the UK is First Direct - search for it on Twitter; people literally eulogise about its customer service. It has recognised that comms in the new social environment is the responsibility of all business functions. The strength of the brand - as is the case with John Lewis - is such that consumers expect and receive brand interactions that are human and consistent.

Our digital specialists have helped American Airlines adopt a similar proactive approach. We discovered that disgruntled travellers were often going online to vent their frustrations while on the move, so we helped the airline seek out customers with problems and offer solutions. We found that people are not only pleasantly surprised when contacted, but delighted when their issues are resolved, resulting in a happier customer and an enhanced corporate reputation.

The key is not to wait for customers to knock on your door, but to go out and find customers who are moaning about you. That way you surprise and delight them, and stop the individual moan becoming collective.

*The YouGov survey, commissioned by technology provider Avanade, surveyed 1,998 UK consumers about their attitudes to customer service, as well as the types of company they tend to complain about most.


Which consumer trends (social, economic or political) are having the greatest influence on your current campaigns?

The economic situation continues to have a devastating effect. Consumer confidence is low, high-street spending is tumbling, household expenditure is down, unemployment is rising. But brands have always had to remain relevant and social media have created the opportunity for brands to talk directly, immediately and with both sincerity and humour as appropriate.

If your agency was an animal, which would it be and why?

A cheetah - fast, clever, strong, adaptable.

Rachel Friend is managing director, consumer marketing, at Weber Shandwick

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