The Crisis of 240 Million Cell Phones: Customer-Service Meltdowns in the Social Age

You know that nightmare where you get up in front of an audience and find out you're naked? Every major company in the world is becoming aware that the nightmare is real. Or can be. Here's what it looks like: a bunch of customers pointing their cell-phone cameras at you.

It's been a rough year for customer service, but one thing is clear about the role of social media: it holds companies accountable. With mobile phones, no outburst or rudeness by someone wearing a brand-name uniform will go unnoticed. In 2017, there have been some high-profile corporate meltdowns, from airlines to fashion lines, in which miscommunication and inefficiency built up and, when faced with the need for profit at all cost, imploded spectacularly. Because most everyone has social media accounts and phones with cameras, the rest of the world has front-row seats to many companies' ridiculous blunders. And then the media picks up the story and it becomes a national conversation.

What can be learned from these breakdowns of the corporate order? What traps do companies keep falling into when it comes to customer service? And how can social media be used not just to keep companies honest, but to improve the customer experience?

Is There a Cure for Customer-Blindness?

While brand-shaming is a recent phenomenon, the cause of that anger is as old as business itself. When customers fall through the cracks, they're going to get mad. (When that experience is shared, everyone else gets mad, too.) The problem is that companies often don't know where customers arein their journeys. They've got customer-blindness. They have visibility when the customer first purchases or signs up, but then that customer is off the company's radar until something goes wrong and the customer has to reach out. This is why customer service has historically been such a negative experience: companies are meeting customers when something's gone sideways.

Companies don't have enough context for customer experiences, and thus they don't know how to solve their problems. Some companies are figuring it out by using artificial intelligence in their email marketing and social media campaigns to create tailored, ongoing relationships with customers and to anticipate and act on problems before they appear. But in general, this idea of companies putting themselves in customers' shoes is rhetoric. Everybody says they do it, but their policies indicate otherwise.

While technology can give companies greater insight into that customer journey through AI and other predictive software, companies have to make some decisions beyond the IT level and up in the C-suite.

And that hinges on one question: Where's the line between making the customer happy and sticking with policy?

Why Do Bad Profits Happen to Good People?

Think of all the costs that everyone hates: late return fees for rental cars, overpriced bottles of water in hotel rooms, charges for carry-on luggage. We think of these as bad profits. Sure, the company is making money, but it's clearly at the expense of the customer. We feel like we're being put through the ringer.

Problems arise when companies build their customer-service strategies around processes that economize that interaction and see the customer as merely transactional. If the only goal is to make money off the rubes coming in the door, well, people are going to figure that out.

We see some of the worst examples of transactional service where there are slim margins. In the case of airlines, the costs of maintaining a fleet of aircraft and buying fuel and paying employees has forced them to make sure every seat is sold. And that means overselling seats to be sure every plane is full. That's standard operating procedure; airlines know an hour before the flight that they're oversold.

Bad profits happen when companies try to exploit customers so much that they overstep their bounds. When that happens, the phones come out and the Facebook posts fly.

The Problem Contains the Solution

If yours is a company that has customers and you want to make money, but you don't want to ruin the days or the lives of those customers, you must decide, as a matter of corporate culture and ethics, where that line falls between customer satisfaction and profits. You must ask yourself some version of this question: Can you live with a couple of empty seats?

People do not want to be dragged off airplanes or charged $10 for a bottle of hotel-room water. But recognize that they are willing to pay more for a better experience. Just don't force them. Don't blur that all-important line between profit and exploitation.

There are two ways to overcome customer-blindness and to shift away from bad profits. The first is to understand that social media represents for companies a kind of departmental hybrid: part marketing, part customer service, all in real time. Customers live there, and expect their favorite companies to be there, too. That's where the important conversations are going to happen.>

Social media is also where your company will gather the necessary intelligence to avoid meltdowns. With the data-crunching help of AI, you'll be able to see that there's, say, service outages or flight delays or whatever it is. And you'll be able to get ahead of it, to serve the customer before they can get angry. This pre-emptive service acts as a kind of marketing, showing current customers (and future ones watching on social) how problems are handled.

The second thing companies need to do is empower frontline employees with everything they need to serve customers. What works is structured empowerment, giving employees a window of response options, like the authority to credit a customer if a billing error is up to $25, for example. Open-ended empowerment throws too many options out there; employees freeze up.

But if they can make decisions and solve problems where customers need it, when they need it, small issues don't escalate into public crises. To put it another way, frontline employees and social media can shift companies from crisis management to customer-service management. Social can be used as a tool to connect with the customer journey rather than as an outlet for anger when that journey is interrupted.

Keith Pearce is vice president of product marketing for's Service Cloud.

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Posted January 19, 2018