Thanks To Social Media, Your Customers Have The Power. Embrace This Fact.

Lauren McCadney cdw Head Shot.jpgLauren McCadney, Senior Segment Manager, Small Business, CDW shares her insight on how consumers (that’s YOUR CUSTOMERS) have a lot of power, thanks to the growth of social media.
A friend of mine recently vented to me her frustration about a premium-brand company whose products she has used for years and a change to one of its long-standing customer service policies. She always willingly paid a premium for this company’s products because it offered programs and benefits that were unmatched by competitors, such as free, lifetime service and repairs for its products. In her mind, the reassurance of knowing product repairs were free of charge made her feel comfortable with paying extra.
Then, things changed without her knowledge. When she attempted to have one of the company’s products refurbished, it resulted in unprecedented repair costs and an increased shipping fee.
Further, the customer service representative that she contacted claimed to have no knowledge of the long-standing, previous policy. This drove my friend to the Web to see if others were having the same experience, and to share her own.
As a marketer, I listened to this story with empathy for my friend, but also for the company – we all make mistakes. I also took away four valuable lessons about consumer behavior in the era of social media:

Lesson 1: Today’s consumers are influenced by people they will never meet

The heart of social media is “word of mouth.” With the Web, however, consumer voices have an endless reach, in both time and space. Ten years ago, you might have vented this kind of complaint to a handful of friends, one-to-one; several of them may have mentioned it to several others, but the chain would fizzle out quickly. However, today’s consumers seek the advice and opinions of complete strangers via a host of sites on the Internet, and one customer’s rant regarding a brand or product can affect the perceptions and decisions of countless other customers. Plus, that rant may linger online for years.

Lesson 2: Customers will tell you what your brand really stands for

We may know what we want it to be, but our brand is not what we say it is – it is what the customer says it is. While a particular company may aspire to a brand position of “quality” in its advertising, a loyal group of heavy-use customers can project a different emphasis. In my friend’s case, customers who purchased and used the brand’s products heavily year after year were more passionate about its warranty and its implied reassurance than about the advertised quality of the products. At CDW, for example, we recognize that our customers’ primary portrayal of the organization emphasizesthe significant role our account managers play in the lives of our customers. We see this show up consistently in internal research, reviews, and conversations on the web.

Lesson 3: When things go wrong, customer loyalty can become customer anger

When significant problems occur, customers will not just stop buying your product or service; they will likely work to unsell your company or, worse yet, to promote and sell your competition. I have noticed an interesting phenomenon with reviews: upset customers do not stop at sharing their discontent. They often also advocate for the product they now believe to be a better alternative. If you think about it, people read reviews or research products to avoid making a mistake. They share via review sites, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, because they believe in the collective good: “I will help you, and in return, when I need help or information, it will probably be available.” Therefore, it makes sense that alternative solutions are a central component of any
review. In the long term, a negative review may not be the worst of your problems. The more pressing risk occurs when your once loyal customers begin promoting your competition.

Lesson 4: Open, honest communication is best

Most people are reasonable. Simple, open communication easily solves many consumer problems and mitigates or avoids backlash.
In a past job, working in a customer satisfaction group, I realized that the majority of customers do not expect perfection – they know that mistakes happen. They simply wish to avoid surprises and feeling left in the dark. They want to know what is going on and when the problem will be resolved. When a customer already feels disconnected, the way you respond is critical.
In the example of my friend’s experience, the company first went off track by failing to inform its loyal customers adequately of its change in policy. If she had known in advance that the company would charge her for repairs, she still might not have been entirely happy, but she would have had the option to act differently on the information.
Next, the customer service representative could not explain why the policy changed. More importantly, she claimed that there was not a policy change to begin with, all of which reflects that the company did a poor job of equipping its own staff to deal with a very predictable customer response. Situations like this one will only increase your customers’ frustration, encouraging them to turn to the Internet and social media sites to seek out anyone who will listen to and understand their situation.
Every business owner walks the fine line between good intentions and finite means as they attempt to satisfy customers while running a profitable business. Policies sometimes have to change, and of course, mistakes happen. Even the most competent attempts to inform customers will not get through to everyone, and no company can anticipate every problem their customers may present.
Consider the reach and impact that today’s social media savvy customer has and how much their opinion, loyalty and voice means to your company. If you keep these considerations in mind and make an effort to facilitate open and honest communication, you will keep customer relationships alive and maintain a positive public image.
Lauren McCadney is the Senior Segment Manager of the small business sector at CDW, a leading provider of technology solutions for business, government, education and healthcare. McCadney joined CDW in 2005 and is responsible for the company’s small business marketing strategy and program execution. She is also the 2010 recipient of the Corporate Executive Board’s Small Business Marketer of the Year Award, and a graduate of Howard University and the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in marketing and her MBA, respectively.