I popped into M&S (Marks & Spencer) Food at the station, and along with about ten other people, tried to quickly grab something to eat for dinner. As we queued to pay, I noticed that there were only two people on duty, despite there being six check-out points. The two members of staff were positioned next to each other at adjacent positions.
Furthest away from me there was a polite, friendly, courteous and helpful young lady serving a customer, and next to her was a tall and confident young man who was inviting only customers who were paying with a card to come forward because he had no change. People called out to enquire what the minimum payment was that he could take on a card, but out of everyone queuing up, nobody was paying with plastic. So he just stood there.
So we all had to wait for the young lady – who seemed to have plenty of cash in the drawer of her till. Now, I know what you’re thinking… because I was thinking the same.
When it was my turn, my items came to a total of £10.11. I handed over a twenty pound note, apologised that I had nothing smaller and asked if she was able to spare the change. “Yes thank you” she assured me with a smile.
“Could your colleague possibly borrow some change so that these other customers can be served?” I enquired.
“Oh, we’re not allowed to do that. There are lots of rules.”
“It sounds like simple common-sense to me” I added helpfully.
“We’re not allowed that either” came her reply with a friendly wink.
I smiled back, thanked her and went on my way as she added a cheery “Have a nice evening Sir.”
In the great scheme of things, this isn't a particularly remarkable story, but a simple demonstration of how some businesses put rules before common-sense solutions to help customers. But what is remarkable and exciting, is that in this day and age, through Social Media and blogging we can share folly like this with other people and hopefully prompt a change in a company’s approach to customer service.
I work with both large and small businesses to help them to increase sales through LinkedIn and other Social Media. Some industries really struggle with Social Media, and are literally terrified of what might happen when they start using it to truly engage with today’s Internet-savvy consumers. Some industries have other reasons to be cautious because they also have to consider regulation and compliance.
The common denominator amongst these businesses is that for the most part, they see Social Media as a broadcast tool – to communicate messages, to sell, to promote and to articulate marketing messages. What they often ignore or forget is the massive potential to be gained by using Social Media to listen to customers rather than to talk at them. But often they don’t listen – or won’t as the case may be.
Quite recently, a global corporate client (who wasn't in a regulated industry) told me that whilst they are keen to use Social Media, they consider communications from customers who are using Social Media to be less important or significant than those who communicate with them through traditional communication tools such as the telephone, letters and email. In fact, “we deliberately ignore customers who contact us via Twitter”.
I wanted to be clear on this and checked:
“So you choose to ignore customers who want to engage with you through Twitter, but you respond if they contact you through more traditional means?”
“Yes” was the answer.
Their reasoning turned out to be that they felt Twitter to be a trivial and less serious form of communication. Perhaps I’m biased, but something tells me that this just isn't tenable in this day and age. Am I wrong?
But what these companies are conveniently forgetting is that their customers on Twitter and elsewhere are far more concerned about customer service than the means by which they communicate, and are using Social Media to talk about them, their brand, their products and their service out loud and it would seem behind their backs. And yes, they use Social Media to talk about brands and companies when they do things well too.
So not only are these companies failing to engage with customers at a human level, but they are missing out on hearing feedback, ideas, and valuable pearls of wisdom that might make their business or customer proposition even better. In short, whether people use Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, Google+ or something else, Social Media is merely software. Behind every communication to a company or brand or organisation – however that communication may be articulated, is a real person – a customer or potential customer who just wants better service. Nothing more.
I tell you this story of an otherwise uninteresting trip to M&S Food, because I can. You may have experienced something similar and I’d be interested in hearing about it. But the question has to be, does M&S and other big brands want to hear about it, so that they can do something about it, or is Social Media just an irritant that they wish would go away?
Social Media works both ways. Yes, there are fantastic and exciting tools to broadcast information to customers, but the price to pay for having powerful broadcast tools is that customers will also use them to tell you their feelings about your product or service. And they can shout a lot louder than you can online.
If brands say they are serious about using Social Media to talk to customers, then they also have to be serious about using it to listen to customers too.
By Philip Calvert