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BW Businessworld

Changing Equations

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Sales rule number one: the customer is always right. As a slogan, it looks very pretty next to the company president's portrait, specially if you capitalise the customer. As a marketing line, it does fine when you can't think of anything else. In practice, when it really comes down to it, it's a different story.

Think back to the last time you had to return something to a shop. Or to the last time you had to complain about a service not being good enough. Did the service provider or shop give you the unequivocal feeling that you were in the right or that your point of view really mattered? Did they listen wholly and intently, taking note of what could be valuable feedback? Unlikely.

I can't remember a time when this has happened. For many years, my ISP, Hathway, has been driving me up the wall. Weekly long downtime, speed that was less than half the promised, features not working — all were apparently my own fault.
There must be a virus on your computer. You're probably downloading something you shouldn't. You need to pay extra to connect wirelessly… etc. No problem was ever followed through, unless I became loud and obnoxious about it, making myself an absolute nuisance. Unable to fix it, the customer service guys would finally, in effect, tell me to take it or leave it. With no options available, I had to mostly take it. There were no other ISPs in my neighbourhood. Now, finally being able to shift to a new provider, the story will probably start afresh. Two weeks after signing on, I find my speed neatly halved. Here we go again.

In the same vein, I had to return semi-precious jewellery as all the clasps and hooks tended to fall off if you as much as touched them. The seller, instead of being contrite or wondering what was making this happen, came straight to the point: just what was I doing to those pieces and why did this always happen just with me? There was no attempt to consider the possibility that the product could have been made weakly. This attitude wasn't atypical. I can think of many occasions when I had to take back a product only to have the vendor tell me that everyone else buys them happily.

Last month, a retired gentleman I know bought an LCD television. The person installing it had obvious trouble with what seemed a rather shaky base. After he left, the proud new owner reached out to take a plastic sheet off the screen. Disaster. The television set fell over on its face and the screen shattered. We wait to see if the customer was right.

Today, the seller-customer equation is changing. Social networks have given the customer a voice, one which thousands from the relevant target audience will hear, if the seller doesn't. One angry customer can create a tsunami of dissatisfaction. This impact will be felt on large organisations first. But in time, small businesses will also have to factor it into their everyday working. And larger firms will be quicker to learn how to handle this new relationship by dint of the many examples that quickly become common knowledge. There are already lots of customer-company social disasters described in thorough detail on the Web along with how to deal with similar situations. A better idea, however, may be to try and prevent such situations altogether.

Businesses should have a good hard look at their customer communities. So, first thing, know these groups afresh. There's a new way of getting to know how they think, what they want and what bothers them; so, allocate resources to re-learning your customers. Next, monitor what is being said about your company. If your customers are just beginning to be online, simpler and readily available tools will help. More sophisticated tools that mine social media more deeply will be needed as your customers get more active online.

Most importantly, though, management should regularly take stock of what customers (or employees, for that matter) could get upset about, and prevent bad situations. The democratisation brought about by social media gives one the perfect excuse to stop for introspection that assess whether there are any reasons customers could be unhappy. Look particularly at the customer-facing departments. So, meet to social-ise.

And finally, as it isn't humanly possible to please everyone all the time and because it may take time to get one's house in order, be ready with a plan on how to respond to customer reactions that will go rapidly social and viral. Make sure someone is trained how to respond to bad social situations, steering the company out of troubled waters and actually turning a negative situation into an advantageous one.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-11-2010)

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