Points North: Ruth Shearn, managing director of RMS PR
Each Friday, Points North gives a senior media figure a platform to air their views on a topical or relevant issue.
This week it's Ruth Shearn, managing director of RMS PR. In the week that the UK Customer Satisfaction Index confirmed a further decline in customer satisfaction levels, she argues that much of the blame should be placed at the door of corporate social media teams.
Once upon a time, great customer service really did exist. Not that long ago, the customer really was king.
Personal service at shops - whether independents or multiples - was the order of the day. If you had a complaint, you popped in and spoke to a real person in the flesh who cared enough to sort it out. Your custom mattered to them. But we are now seeing a marked downward trend in the satisfaction of UK customers.
So what happened?
A complex mix of factors, that’s what, including population explosion, consumerism, the rise and rise of uber brands, and, of course, the digital revolution that brought with it e-commerce (AKA faceless trading).
Sadly, dishonest consumers have also contributed to the decline in customer service standards.
They have abused the rules to such a point that companies no longer trust anyone, not even those with a genuine complaint.
The arrival of social media finally brought hope to consumers who’d become frustrated at having to deal with eternally long waits on automated telephone systems and uncaring, scripted ‘computer says no’ voices at the end of the line.
Yes, social media finally gave us a voice. A way to ‘out’ and highlight bad service. A channel to publicly express our frustration and shame companies into facing up to their responsibilities and deal with our complaints.
Rather than resorting to extreme measures to get noticed by impenetrable corporations, consumers merely penned a tweet and were virtually assured of an instant response.
It was great. Or so we thought.
Savvy companies initially dabbled with social media to ‘engage’ with their consumers before quickly taking on whole teams to help protect their business from attack. These teams - called such sweet things as @BTCare and @ThomsonCares – have grown into extremely slick and well–oiled entities.
Utter the merest critical or negative word about their brand on Twitter and the @o2intheUK team is straight onto you, reassuring you that they really do care (insert name) and will do anything they can to help resolve your concerns.
They urge you to tell them about the issue, to spend yet more time explaining your complaint... no mean feat when you’re trying to spread it across several 140 character bursts.
You feel better. You feel relieved that someone is finally listening. You feel they care.
Then the moment of disappointment when your new BFF tells you to direct your issue to customer services for them to resolve.
Let’s face it, as cute and engaging as these social media teams are, they are powerless and exercise no influence when it comes to actual customer service.
In fact, these ‘white-wash’ teams actually make customer frustration worse, not better!
Admittedly, they do serve two important marketing functions. They act as a line of defence, protecting brands from negative commentary. They also exist to make consumers feel they are cherished.
In this often insincere and superficial digital age, consumers are getting a raw deal but are led to believe they’re getting great service. And who wants to tell the Emperor he has no new clothes?
The great empowerment we hoped social media had given consumers has turned out to be an illusion. Ironically, with consumerism at an all-time high, retailers aren’t too bothered about your loyalty or promiscuity because another customer will be along very soon.
If big brands truly care and want to retain the loyalty of their customers, they must stop using their social media teams as mere mouthpieces of the organisation, and empower them to make judgments and take action.
That really would be a step in the right direction to crowning the customer as king once again.