New Rules for Effective Customer Service

A couple of weeks ago our 2-year old daughter threw my wife’s phone in the swimming pool. The resulting journey through the Vodacom customer service labyrinth to replace the phone was frustrating, but it also gave me a new level of understanding and empathy for the immense challenges of providing customer service to hundreds of thousands of people.

This is an article about social media, customer support channels, and the principles every company should establish in their culture to serve their customers better. And (spoiler alert!) I do manage to get a new phone for my wife.

“Umm, So, Our Daughter Threw My Phone In The Pool”

What’s most surprising about getting a call about my wife’s phone suddenly finding itself at the bottom of our pool is how completely nonplussed I was about the whole thing. When you become a parent the kinds of things that upset you change significantly. I think I’ve discovered a pattern: if there is no blood involved, there’s really no reason to get upset. So after establishing that there was no blood involved, I proceeded to the next step – trying to replace the phone.

My wife had an LG Generic (or whatever it was called) on one of Vodacom’s cheapest plans, and the thing has been driving her nuts. She’s had her eye on my iPhone for a long time, so I decided to try to upgrade her. The problem is that I’m not eligible for an upgrade until the end of December. And that’s where this journey starts.

My first step was to walk into a Vodacom store to ask for assistance. This is pretty much the extent of the conversation that took place with the support representative:

Me: “Hi. My daughter threw my wife’s phone in the pool, so I’d like to get her an iPhone please.”
Rep: “Your contract isn’t due for an upgrade until the end of December.”
Me: “I understand that. I’m saying that my wife’s phone is now wet and doesn’t work any more, so I would like to give you more money by going onto a more expensive plan.”
Rep: “It’s against policy to do an early upgrade. That’s why you should insure your phone.”

Imagine that conversation with a “Sucks to be you!” look on the representative’s face, and you’d have a really good idea of how it went down.

Having failed with the first point of contact, I took to Twitter:

Vodacom Support

The response was very quick, asking me to DM my number so that someone could call me. I sent my number, and a representative called me the next morning. I thought this was getting somewhere, and I was already starting to write this post in my head. My headline (“Social media works!”) needed some work, but it was going to be great.

But not so fast”¦ I told my story to the representative, who looked up the account and told me the same story: “Sorry, it’s against policy.” (At least this time someone was sorry about it). I threw out what would become my standard line throughout this process: “You realize I’m trying to give you more money, right?” But no luck. The conversation ended when the rep told me, “I will ask the upgrades department if there is anything we can do.” Translation: “You’ll never hear from us, ever again.”

After not hearing from the “upgrades department” I sent another DM, and got a call from another rep. Same story. Against policy. “You realize I’m trying to give you more money, right?” Sorry, against policy. I then took it to the next level and told the rep that I will be taking my business to MTN, convinced that this statement would trigger some script alarm somewhere and get me a free ticket to a ride up the “escalation path”. Not so much.

Rep: “Oh. Well that’s not good.”
Me: “No, it’s not. Anything you want to do about that?”
Rep: “Well, this is our policy. Can’t be changed.”
Me: “You don’t want to tell someone that I’m about to take my business elsewhere?”
Rep: “I’ll make a note in the system.”

At that point I gave up and decided to wait until I am eligible for an upgrade. That decision lasted about 3 days. I decided to give it one last shot, and tweeted Vodacom’s CEO:

Vodacom Support CEO

And this is where the story gets boring, in a good way. Pieter Uys tweeted me back (in my first language, which means he looked at my profile and thought before responding). 4 hours later I got a call to say we can do the upgrade. End of story. No questions, no statements about policy. I can do the upgrade = happy customer + more money for Vodacom.

Your Call Is Not That Important To Us

Before moving on to the main point of this article I want to tell another quick story. I’ve been banking with ABSA all my life. I’ve also been unhappy with ABSA all my life, but that’s a story for another day. I recently mentioned ABSA on Twitter and linked to this post. The post got retweeted a few times, and then I got this:


That really interested me. Here is a bank (FNB) that monitors what people are saying about their competitors, and joins the conversation in relevant ways. Notice that he wasn’t pushy, he was merely getting in on the joke. I tweeted back:


I said this would be a short story, so I’ll just say this. One week later someone from FNB was sitting with me, filling out forms to transfer all my accounts from ABSA to FNB. They took care of the whole thing, I didn’t have to fill out a single form. All because of a tweet. And I’m pretty sure ABSA doesn’t even know (or care) that they lost another customer.

It’s All About The People

All customer support revolves around people, processes, and tools.

CRM and community tools like Salesforce, Get Satisfaction, and Twitter give support reps the means to communicate with customers. Processes set guidelines for what those interactions should be like. But all of that is useless unless the people doing the support understand and live out the culture of the organization. The ease of establishing that culture also depends a great deal on the support channel used.

Synchronous, 1:1 support like in-store interactions and phone support is expensive and extremely difficult to manage. Unless you’re Zappos and call yourself “a support company that happens to sell shoes”, most companies don’t have a deeply ingrained support culture. So it’s very hard to filter the right processes and culture through to the 1:1 support channels, since they are generally pretty far removed from “management”. They are therefore very rarely empowered to make decisions that might not follow policy, but would be the best thing for the customer (and the company).

I would argue that my early upgrade situation is a good example of this. That representative in the store should have been empowered to ignore policy and upgrade me on the spot. It’s not her fault that she’s not allowed to do that, it’s just the way it is.

On the other hand, asynchronous, 1:many support like live chat, online forums, and social media platforms are much cheaper, and I would argue also easier to manage from a support culture perspective. You’re able to set appropriate guidelines (more on that later), and in general the people who manage those channels have a much more direct path to different resolution scenarios (and therefore more decision-making power).

All this to say that I am not upset any more about my bad experiences in the store and initially on the phone. Because I recognize how incredibly difficult it is to nurture a true culture of customer-centric support. And to find that balance between empowering everyone in the company to break policy when they feel it’s needed, while still having enough process in place so you don’t give away control of your short-term and long-term business strategy.

I don’t have an immediate solution for this, but I want to write about it because I believe it’s a very real problem that a lot of companies are struggling with. Especially now that social media support channels are getting so much adoption.

Lessons In Customer Service

Even though I don’t have the perfect answer, I do want to spend a little time discussing some recommendations I have for better customer service, based on my recent experiences with FNB and Vodacom.

1. Understand what engagement really means

There is no substitute for authenticity. When Pick n Pay asks what I’m going to be doing today, it doesn’t feel like real engagement. Why would I want to tell a supermarket that? When Vodacom sends me the scripted answer “I heard about the problem you experienced”, that tells me they didn’t really take the time to think about the response when sending it (“Well, of course you heard about it, I sent you a tweet!”).

When FNB joins a conversation in a natural way, or when the CEO of Vodacom responds to me by name – that’s engagement. It’s such a simple rule: read, think, respond like a human.

2. Web governance is essential

Web governance “defines decision-making processes for the web, and sets policies and standards for web content, design, and technology””in a way that respects subject-matter expertise” (from Web Governance: Become An Agent of Change). Defining user-centered standards for every touch point with an organization is enormously important to those who want to succeed, and it’s not getting enough attention at all.

One part of web governance that needs more attention in particular is content strategy, which “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content” (see The Discipline of Content Strategy for more). Among other things it defines the tone and language and underlying principles for talking to customers. Every company should do this before they open their Twitter account or create a Facebook page. (Btw, if you’re in South Africa and need help with stuff like this, talk to Kerry-Anne)

How you talk to your customers makes a huge difference to their experience, and if you don’t define a strategy for it, your community will define you and you’ll have no control over it. That’s not a good place to be.

3. Empower support representatives

I want to come back to this. As mentioned earlier, I recognize how difficult it is to walk the line between empowerment and total loss of control. But I think there are ways to test this out as a strategy without giving the whole house away.

Start with one specific department, call center, or representative. Allow them to make some decisions based on what they feel is right for the customer and the company, and see what happens. If they break some rules/policy, ask them why they did it, and follow up with the customer to see how they felt about the exchange.

This kind of empowerment isn’t a binary switch for the whole organization. Start small, test, and see if it might be possible to build a culture that encourages doing The Right Thing.

All’s Well That Ends Well

My story had a happy ending. But I know there are an enormous amount of customer support stories that don’t end that way. The rise of cheaper, more efficient channels for customer support can make experiences better not just for customers who engage in those channels, but for everyone. We can take the lessons from the asynchronous channels and apply them to the 1:1 interactions.

Be authentic, get in on the joke, and break some rules every once in a while. Because they did that, FNB has a new customer and Vodacom didn’t lose one. I think that makes it worth it.