Customer Reviews Set Consumer Expectations

Expectations of your business will literally shape the whole consumer experience for your customers.   This is nothing new. In my post, “Social Media – It’s a Moral Imperative” I wrote about how a movie’s marketing campaign painted an unrealistic expectation of being a comedy – and then delivered scenes of horrific violence and very little “humor”.

The same is true of your business.  Marketing sets expectations.  If you deliver on the promises – if expectations are met – then consumers will be satisfied.  Fail to deliver – and consumers will complain.

While this is nothing new – what is new is that we’re living in a world where communication is lightning fast and ridiculously easy thanks to social media.   This creates a world where your consumer’s unmet expectations (realistic or not) can mean an avalanche of negative online reviews .

Setting realistic expectations of your products and services is essential to your business survival.

I’m seeing a worrisome trend – one which is not only being recommended by various “gurus” but also being practiced by business owners who obviously are not aware of the danger involved.

Many businesses – big and small – are engaging in creating their own “reviews” for their business. One popular info product recommends  this course of action – especially if customers aren’t online actively participating in online reviews.  This popular resource recommends that SEO professionals and business owners go out and actively create the reviews they “know their business deserves” by leaving reviews under pseudonyms.

Here’s the hidden danger with this troubling trend.

Let’s say you’re a physician concerned about your online reputation.  You hire someone to  create 5 star reviews for your practice.  Those fictitious reviews are prominently displayed in your local search listing.

Your multiple reviews make your local search listing tops with Google maps and this begins bringing new patients to your office.  These patients are expecting 5 star service because – after all – that’s what it looks like others have been saying about your medical practice. They’re expecting short waits in the waiting room, they’re expecting considerate, competent staff – they’re expecting the doctor to have a great bedside manner – but when they arrive – that’s not what they get.

Perhaps a “real” review of your office wouldn’t have given your practice five stars on every options.  Perhaps a real patient would have rated your office wait time as “moderate” – but real patients didn’t write those reviews so the new patients who came to your office – expecting a brief stay in the waiting room are now fuming as the minutes tick by and they still haven’t been seen.

Trust me when I tell you…

The online review of the consumer who has been disappointed will be far worse than the authentic review of a dissatisfied consumer.

I’ve observed what seems to be a bit of “social justice” happening on these social media review sites.  It seems that when real consumers encounter exaggerated claims of service and satisfaction – they seem to be motivated to respond.  While my personal evaluation of a particular business may have been a 3 out of five – I’ve seen time and time a glowing 5 star -obviously fictional-  review followed by a scathing 1 star review.  Was the 1 star review accurate?  Probably not – but it seems to frequently be issued in response to an undeserved 5 star review.

The worst part about the glowing – but fictitious  – 5 star review is that it unnecessarily sets unrealistic expectations for your product or service.  While a 3 or even 4 out of 5 star authentic review my not be a huge boost to your ego – it is authentic and not only can it serve as useful consumer feedback but it also sets a more realistic set of expectations for your product or services.  This more realistic set of expectations means higher levels of consumer satisfaction which leads to positive online reviews.

After all – authentic online reviews on only a reflection of what is being said about your business in other areas – not only other online sites but offline as well.

When a Pest Control Company tries to Exterminate Negative Customer Reviews

Truly Nolen couldn’t kill the bugs in my house – and they can’t kill my negative review of their service either.

Quite a while ago – I created a post where I shared my experience with my pest control company – Truly Nolen.  I was HORRIFIED by the service I received and shared the experience here in, “When the Pest Control Company is your most Annoying Pest.”  It generated a LOT of response at the time.  Even years later, new comment show up on that post quite frequently – and some appear to be clumsy, pathetic attempts at online reputation management by Truly Nolen.

Last week, I got what at first glance, appeared to be a comment from a satisfied customer of Truly Nolen.  They’re rare -so I quickly approved the comment.  After all – I wanted to be fair to the company and by nature – satisfied customers don’t usually go “trolling” to find blog posts of negative reviews and leave comments.  While Truly Nolen’s treated me with contempt and disrespect while I was a customer – they did make things right with me quite promptly after the blog post appeared so in the spirit of fair play – if a satisfied customer had really found the blog post and wanted to add their voice to the conversation – I was more than willing to share it with the world.

Later in the day, I started really reading the comment – instead of “scanning” it.   When I got to this part of the long comment …. “Maybe you should have read it before you agreed to it. Truly N. does have a corporate number that you can call and make a compalint to. Maybe they can do something about the tech issue. Sounds like you might have gotten one that really doesn’t like his job.” I started to wonder… is this comment legit?

Truly N.?  Maybe I should have read the fine print?  I should have called corporate?

Those “clues” set off alarms inside my head.  They kind of fall into the category of:

Maybe I should have worked harder to be a “good” customer…

Hint for business owners reading this post – your customers aren’t going to work harder to make your life easier.

The comment just didn’t ring true… so I unapproved it (easily done) and sent an email to [email protected] to confirm the comment.  (After all – if Stacy really was a satisfied Truly Nolen customer – I wanted to allow her comments to appear on the post.)  The email sent to the email address provided promptly bounced which caused me to take a look at the IP address which was registered as part of the comment.

A search for other comments from that same IP address – found comments made by Truly Nolen staff early on in defense of their company’s practices.

So it appears that one of the RARE comments claiming to be from a  truly satisfied customer of Truly Nolen was simply a shill.

There have been many shill comments made on that blog post since it was posted.  Most I’ve “caught” quite easily.  I will give them this – they are getting smarter. This latest began earnestly – but it didn’t take long to determine that it was a shill.

There’s something about “authentic” comments that is – well – authentic.  Even though the comment above had a typo – a typo still didn’t make it feel “authentic”.

I remember a while back when a blog post from this blog was scraped and posted on another blog.  By the time I got to the post, it already had a few comments.  I was surprised to see those comments.  They were along the lines of “this is a real change in direction for you… good job.”  and “I like the way you’ve changed your writing – keep up the good work.”

I’ve got to admit – I was surprised that readers of that character’s blog could pick up so quickly the “change” in voice.

You’ve got a voice – even when your vocal chords are not engaged.  It comes through in your blog posts – your tweets – even your updates on Face Book.  Recently one of my friends’ FB account got hacked.  She sent out emails warning her FB friends not to respond to her most recent “updates”… because they weren’t coming from her.  The thing is – almost everyone responded with “I knew that didn’t come from you.”  The spam program wasn’t speaking in her “voice” – and because she had spoken frequently on FB – it was easy to see it wasn’t her.

As for the pest control company Truly Nolen trying to exterminate a negative customer review – on the one hand – I give them a big hand.  They’re concerned about their online reputation and are trying to protect it.  However, the MANNER in which they are doing it is sad and clumsy.  Is it really so difficult to find a satisfied customer willing to speak up?

The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is more true today than ever.  Treat customers with respect – and you don’t HAVE to worry about trying to put out the fire of a blog post after the fact.

Social Media Tells Customer Service Stories

transparency in social mediaWay back in 1980 – long before the days of the internet – in a time when “social media” meant a party organized around watching a sporting event on television – executives at Braniff had a problem.  They needed to find a way to differentiate their airline from other airlines.  The question they asked was simple,

“What can we offer to our customers that they will perceive as having high value yet costs us virtually nothing to provide?”

The answer to that question is what we now know as the “frequent flier miles” program.  It was a GREAT idea so  – of course, other airlines quickly copied the concept.   While in Braniff’s case it was a great idea which came too late – other airlines instantly recognized the brilliance of offering repeat customers an intangible which cost virtually nothing yet was valued highly by those customers.

The success of the customer loyalty programs in general is well documented.   Since the cost to acquire a customer is commonly accepted to be from 4- 15 times more than the cost to retain a current customer – finding a way to retain current customers by simply providing discounted fares – on seats that normally would be empty- was nothing short of a marketing miracle. When one considers that a business traveler may spend over a half a million dollars on airline tickets during the course of his/her career – it’s easy to see why frequent flier programs are a staple in the airline industry.   The airline industry as a whole has struggled over the past decade as the dual horrors of market maturity met national security for the sector.   However, while airline executives blame fluctuating fuel costs and labor woes on their troubles- a quick trip around the blogosphere reveals quite a different picture.

With the exception of South West – the major airlines are struggling to provide basic customer service – and customer service woes make GREAT blog fodder.  Dave Carroll created a social media shit storm with his “United Breaks Guitars” music video.  The creation of that video wasn’t the result of a single “dropped the ball” in the customer service department at United Arilines – it was the result of consistent and blatant disrespect of the customer.  No amount of frequent flier miles could placate Dave Carroll. On the heels of that debacle – United’s social media woes continued to make news when Wang Jianshuo – a famous Chinese blogger – documented his horrific experience in flying United Airlines.

Now  however – the customer service horror stories are moving from the plane to the computer and the lack of customer attention is infecting the very lifeblood of a major airline’s frequent flier program.   Matt Cutts documents his own Bad Experience with U.S. Airways Dividend Miles and the post does not paint a pretty picture for US Airways.  The post is acting as a sounding board for others who feel free to share their bad experiences inside a US Airways flight as well.  For those of you don’t know – Matt Cutts is Google’s “front man” who blogs frequently about how to get your web site to get better visibility with the search engine giant.

Talk about a worst case scenario when it comes to social media in action – if there’s one blogger I would HATE to have “bitching” about my business – it would be the man who is the front man for Google’s search.

The PURPOSE of the frequent flier program was to create customer loyalty.  By implementing this game of “bait and switch” – US Airway’s frequent flier program is beginning to look like a shell game.  Matt Cutts is blowing the whistle.  It will be interesting to see (if) how US Airways responds.

If there’s one thing business owners MUST know about social media – it’s the unadulterated view of your business it provides.  You can sit in your office, close the blinds and tunr off the lights and tellyourself that your vision of your business is shared by your customer.. However, a quick trip via social media airlines will give you the “real” picture.  Whether or not it’s a picture you want to see is another story.

If there’s one lesson for businesses big and small to learn from social media – it’s that your customers are talking just as they’ve always done.  However, thanks to social media – you now have an “insider’s view” of what’s being said when the customer service stories are being told.

When Customer Feedback is like Drinking from the Firehose

phone as social media toolLast night, I was talking on the phone with my best friend from high school.  She refuses to join Facebook – despite the fact that about 1/4 of the members of our graduating class are communing there and despite considerable pressure from friends who still live close by for her to join the social media revolution.

My friend cited an interesting anecdote as a compelling reason for not joining Facebook .  A woman in her social circle was having serious marital problems and was considering divorce.  Despite the fact that this woman had set her Facebook profile to “private” – one of her friends posted a well meaning “wall to wall” communication which effectively broadcast as fact the possibility that this woman would soon be  filing for divorce.  This news quickly  jumped”offline” as church members and co-workers who were friends of Facebook started burning up the telephone lines with this juicy piece of gossip.  This is how my friend found out – via an “old school” social media tool: the telephone.

So my friend’s reasoning for not joining Facebook is simple:  there’s no way for her to control her privacy there because there’s no way to control what other people are saying there.  Even though my friend can control what she says – she can’t control what others say and that is reason enough for her to “sit out” when it comes to joining the social media revolution online.

While my friend can decide to “opt out” of the whole social media game to preserve her online reputation – it’s not an option for business owners.  When you make a sale to a blogger – ready or not, your business must be prepared to enter the wild, wonderful world of social media.

Long ago, you could tell yourself that because customers weren’t calling, they didn’t have any complaints.  However, it’s important to note that your customers have NEVER contacted you first when they were unhappy with your product or service.  They have ALWAYS bitched to their friends and family first.  The first course of action has NEVER been to pick up the phone to call the company.

What’s new now is how easy it is to spread the word via social media.

In the days of picking up the phone to communicate, the tales of customer mistreatment would have to be carried one person at a time – like leaky buckets of water. Today – social media can carry those tales of customer service and deliver them with incredible intensity.

I’m not saying your business has to be perfect to thrive in this new world of social media.  No person – no business – is perfect.  None of us is able to deliver 100% perfection in the world of customer service.

With that said, it takes a LOT to frustrate a customer to the point of  investing the time and expense Dave Carroll did when he created a social media shit storm with the “United Breaks Guitars” music video.  That wasn’t the result of a single “dropped the ball” in the customer service department.. it was the result of consistent and blatant disrespect of the customer.

Fortunately for Dave Carroll – he was creative enough to create a music video.  Two years ago when a woman was frustrated by Comcast’s blatant lack of respect – she went berserk with a hammer in the Comcast offices.  A new meaning emerged for the term “Comcastic“.  Instead of meaning a satisfied cable customer, the word began to take on a new meaning –

“willing to delay or deny services to which customers are entitled.”

Is it any wonder that Comcast no longer USES that term as part of their marketing message?

When these tales strike a collective nerve –  instead of receiving customer feedback one glass of water at a time – a business can be overwhelmed by a flood of customer feedback.  This flood of feedback can be overwhelming –  almost like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.

I’ll illustrate this with a clip from the movie UHF from the twisted mind of Weird Al-

Customer Service in the Age of Social Media

Social media all about is providing advanced communication tools which allow information to travel faster than a speeding bullet.  When a celebrity dies – the news travels fast. However, it’s important for business owners to recognize that the same communication tool that allows the world to be notified in minutes to the King of Pop’s passing can also be used against your business. Disappoint a customer these days and they might believe it’s their moral imperative to start a social media shit storm with your business as the target.

Now more than ever, customer service has GOT to be a top priority for ANY business either online or offline.

Thirty years ago, if you were a business owner and your staff offended a customer, you only had to worry about the 16 people that offended customer would tell about the bad customer service experience.

However, you could count on the fact that at some point in time – the offended customer’s passion would wane, he or she would stop spreading the word about the mistreatment he or she suffered at your place of business.

That was then – this is now.

More an more people are “connected” online now.  Social media tools have made communication easy for all.  It’s no longer just geeks and freaks online.  The Pew Internet & American Life Generations online in 2009 report (PDF opens in new window – click save as if your browser can’t open a PDF), shows that that anyone who thinks that only the younger generation is online is sadly underestimating the impact of the internet.  As a matter of fact, the biggest jump in online use is in the age group of those 70 – 75!!!

Unless you’re a bingo parlor – catering to am exclusively octogenarian crowd – you’d better be concerned about your “online image”.

A few months ago, I wrote about a particularly horrific customer service experience I was having with my pest control company. It’s interesting to watch the comment thread of that post.  Truly Nolen’s director of marketing Barry Murray was the 2nd comment on the post.  I give him credit – he was there to “defend” Truly Nolen’s online reputation within hours of the post being published.  In addition to responding online,  Barry handled my problem offline as well.  He did so promptly and professionally.

However, the match had been lit – the fire had begun.  Over the course of the next few days – the comments kept coming in. The thing is – that blog post is going to be there for as long as I keep the site up.  Unlike a complaint to a neighbor over a backyard fence – this customer complaint is now a part of the company’s online DNA.

When Cath Lawson had problems with Sky TV, she wrote about it on her blog.  When Betsy Wuebker’s friend had horrible customer service at the hands of a moron employee of Wells Fargo, Betsy took up the cause and wrote about it on her blog.   Those customer complaints arem’t locked away in a  file cabinet – they’re out in the open – on the internet –  availabel for everyone to see.

On the other side of the coin, when a business goes above and beyond – social media users will sing their praises as well.   That’s what Betsy did in her post Considering a Staycation with Hotel Minneapolis and Resaturant Max.

Ah, the power of the new web, where communication is becoming easier – more people are connected and word travels FAST!

Ever since the dawn of time, people have wanted to share their experiences.  What was once etched on cave walls is now posted on blogs.   Unlike the cave walls though, the blog posts and other social media communications are being indexed by the search engines and archived in the Web Archives.

Which is why it amazes me to watch as some in the corporate world are viewing blog as a source of lead generation and nothing more.  “How many new sales can this thing generate?” seems to be the question of the hour.   Your company blog is more – much, much more than just another form of direct marketing.

Social media is bigger than just the potential to generate leads.  As Jason Cohen brilliantly points out, your corporate blog is a way to recruit more corporate cheerleaders for the company brand .  The fact that it can also gather leads should be viewed as a bonus – not it’s primary function.

Of course – cheerleaders come at a price.  The price you pay for cheerleaders for your business is exceptional customer service.    Hotel Minneapolis would be well served with a corporate blog right about now.  Betsy could have linked to it in her rave recommendation  just as she did when she raved about Linmar Gardens.

Companies need to recognize that the social media connections built today can possibly last – well, a lifetime.