This a guest post by Bill Bergman, President and CEO of the Bergman Group, a Richmond, Virginia based marketing and communications company, and an adjunct instructor at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business.
If a product or service lets me down, my first instinct is to pick up the telephone and talk to a customer service representative. In college, I even called General Motorsheadquarters in Detroit to complain when the local Dallas dealership didn’t service my Vega properly. They gave me a free tow and service.
But lately I’ve noticed that the rules of engagement have changed. Now the more I shout on the telephone at my bank, the airlines, health insurance companies, or cable operators, the more my blood pressure rises, but without any resolution of my consumer complaint. Having spent decades honing my irate telephone persona, I find that skill is as out of vogue as my loose-fitting blue jeans.
During the past six months, I learned to ratchet down my voice and use social media to channel my fury. With the sage advice of some of my polite millennial students and younger employees, I have added digital tactics to my arsenal. The results have been stunning.
This road to enlightenment was paved with humility. Last summer, my marketing firm had a problem with GoogleAdWords. I asked our AdWords manager to call them and work it out. He laughed at me and explained that he would “open a ticket” online and they would respond within a couple of business days.
After two weeks, we had no resolution, so I called the Google office in California, ready to use my “special skill.” It took about five minutes to get a live person on the phone who quickly informed me that it was “against company policy for customers to call in for help.” Instead, I had to “follow the appropriate digital protocol.”
Following “protocol” drove me crazy. We clocked 41 emails with a Google account rep. The company offered us a measly $500 credit on a $20,000 billing error. Our team even started an office pool to bet on when we would resolve the problem. Then, after much complaining around the water cooler, I got some good advice about using social media to put pressure on Google to respond, on the theory that if any negative tweets were out there, Google would find them. I funneled my outrage into a new medium with tweets like this one.
@Google is the best for helping our clients build web traffic. What about #google billing dept.? Why will no one help us? Any suggestions?
— Bill Bergman (@BBergman) August 5, 2013
After a morning of tweeting, my AdWords manager received an email from Google explaining that a call was being set up to resolve the issue. No one at Google ever reveals his or her last name or direct telephone line to a customer. But our three-month ordeal eventually led to a phone call with a Google representative who authorized a full refund.
I was placated – that is, until my shave club let me down. I am signed up for delivery of four razors a month, but one month I did not receive my razors. I went to their website to find a telephone number to call. Unfortunately, the only option was to email customer service and wait for the promised response within 24-hours.
After sending two emails and waiting three days, I again took to social media for help.
@DollarShaveClub hasn’t sent me my blades this month. Are they having problems? Even emailed them with no response.
— Bill Bergman (@BBergman) February 21, 2014
It took a morning of tweets in a similar vein until I received an email with an apology and notification that my razor blades were on their way.
The next demon was my wristband that measures steps and sleeping. When it stopped taking a charge, I went to the manufacturer’s website, followed the prompts, and sent an email with a plea for help. Within a few hours, they responded with instructions to solve my problem along with an offer to replace the band if the instructions proved unsuccessful. Their new instructions worked. By then, though, I was a calm, practiced expert in accessing help without speaking to a live person.
These experiences have made me a convert to customer service without human contact – call it digital dispute resolution. Here are the steps to take.
1. Don’t call.No matter what happens, don’t succumb to your first instinct. Let your anger dissipate before you do something irrational like trying to have a conversation with an automated phone tree.
2. Go online. After a few deep breaths, go to the company’s website and try to calmly figure out the protocol for issuing a complaint or asking a question. Note the promised response time. It can range from a few hours to a few days.
3. Apply social pressure. Most companies are good at responding to email requests. If the company doesn’t respond after you make at least two attempts, then turn to social media. Use a hashtag: a word or phrase proceeded by the pound sign (for example, #google); it tags a topic on social media for those monitoring it, including staff members inside an organization. If negative comments start “trending” (social media speak for appearing often), someone will quickly contact you to mitigate any negative chatter.
4. Make no assumptions. As my Google experience illustrates, the protocol varies from one company to the next. Just because something worked for you with one organization, don’t get too comfortable and think it will be equally effective somewhere else. It’s up to you to get with the system.
5. Say “thank you.” If you complain in public, say thank you the same way, as I promptly did when the Dollar Shave Club made good:
@Ask_DSC You guys are the best. Thanks for the credit. I’m a loyal fan!
— Bill Bergman (@BBergman) February 21, 2014
At the end of the day, it pays to be nice. Who knows, the company may have an “open ticket” on your behavior.