The Future of Customer Service: What 'Social' Looks Like in Real Life

This past summer, Amazon turned a video playback failure into a genuine feel-good moment. It was a great illustration of how customer service is transforming from a one-way, generic model to a two-way, personalized approach characterized by more social, transparent, and meaningful customer engagement. How Amazon dealt with this particular service failure offers many lessons to other companies trying to transition to a more social, relational model.

The following are four key ingredients that characterized the Amazon experience—all of which are critical to more effectively engaging customers.

Customer centricity: Following the service failure, Amazon emailed its customer saying it was sorry for the inconvenience caused by the poor video playback and that it would refund the full cost of the video rental. This email was spot-on. It put the customer first by taking responsibility for the issue, apologizing for it, and making it right based on what the customer would want instead of what would have been easiest for the company.

Immediacy: Amazon responded to the situation within minutes of the service outage. Taking action in near–real time shows a proactive approach that tells customers they are a priority. It also eliminates the need for customers to spend more time finding out what, if anything, a company will do about the problem. This is the fastest way to turn an unhappy customer into an enraged one—one who is not only likely to drop the service altogether, but also share the bad news with as many folks as possible (enter social media).

Automation: Amazon offered a refund without the customer having to take any actions. This was brilliant, because often a company will have good intentions by offering something to the customer, but then ruin the experience by making him or her jump through hoops to get it. I recently experienced this very thing when I purchased Wi-Fi service from an airline that failed halfway through the flight. A flight attendant suggested I visit the Web site that listed an 800 number for me to call. Needless to say, the thought of having to do all that extra legwork while traveling was a big bummer. Had the airline been able to detect the issue and refund my money automatically, I would have been a much happier customer. Instead, I was left feeling burdened with a negative brand impression.

Element of Surprise: Amazon got it right by incorporating all of the above elements into its response. Unfortunately, this kind of response is pretty unique. When customers end up pleasantly surprised after experiencing a problem, they tend to remember it. This element of surprise breeds major customer loyalty, while helping companies turn customer service into a competitive advantage.

From a company perspective, it's important to note that Amazon's response didn't likely require a huge effort or monetary investment. It did, however, require the company to be intentional about developing a well thought-out customer engagement strategy based on specific service objectives. It also required Amazon to take action and break through traditional organizational barriers to execute on its strategy.

The bottom line is that customer expectations are changing. Smart companies are finding new ways to meet these expectations so they can deliver a more engaging and social customer experience that sets them apart from the ordinary. It's time to reinvent the customer experience or run the risk of being left behind.

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