Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

The Expectations And Implications Of Real Time

Do we need a bit of a reality check?

I was in a client meeting a few days ago where we collaborating on their 2010 social strategy. The social strategy ultimately is tied to the overall marketing strategy and thus the well defined business objectives. As we were plotting out a fairly robust and comprehensive plan, our client paused and asked a great question, “We don’t know if what we have behind the door is a drip or a flood; how will we scale to meet their real time expectations?”

Think about that question. It’s profound really. When we mailed in comments to companies we might have accepted a 30 day turn around for feedback. When we email customer support, it’s reasonable to expect anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for a response. When we call the 1-800 number, we’ll tolerate 15 minutes to hours (depending on call volume and your need) to connect with a real person.

But, in the social space (twitter, Facebook, etc.) we demand, not expect, INSTANT feedback. So, again, I ask, do we need a bit of a reality check? I even find myself expecting immediate feedback when I tweet a company, comment on a post, or make a request via a forum/message board. Is that right?

Let’s consider a few things:

  1. Customer service is important and consumers expect great customer service
  2. Providing great customer service is expensive – technology while an enabler, still requires REAL humans to deliver on that great customer service experience
  3. Customers want value…and by value I mean they don’t want to spend a lot
  4. Quality customer service is derived from both what is said/done and how quickly service is provided

There seems to be a gap here, no? Let’s assume you’re a company that offers a service. If you have 10 customers and 1 customer service person, you’re probably ok. But, if you have 1,000 customers and still that 1 customer service person, you’re going to be stretched. Ok, so what happens if you have 1,000,000 customers and still only 1 customer service person? Well, you aren’t going to be able to provide great customer service. Hmmm…ok, so we’ll just hire 99,999 more customer service people to bring us back to our ratio of 1 customer service person per 10 customers. Cool, but we’ve got to pay these people. For the purposes of round numbers let’s assume each person costs the company $100,000 in salary, benefits, and operations. Well we just went from $100,000 of customer service overhead costs to $9,999,900,000. That’s a big jump, no?

Is the company going to eat those costs? Of course not. They’re going to pass those costs on to you. If amortized equally, each customer will now be paying at a minimum $9,999.90 more. Guess what’s going to happen? Yeap, we’re going to have some pretty ticked off customers.

Look, that’s an extreme situation, but the round numbers show us that customers like you and me need to be willing to do 1 of 2 things:

  1. Pay more for better service
  2. Have more realistic and lower expectations

Surely, there’s a middle ground. Companies like Zappos, Comcast, Southwest and others are showing us the way. But, you can’t simply copy someone else’s model. If you’re a company you need to find your own model; one that works for your culture and customers. And as companies are developing these models what are we to do as customers? Should we change our expectations? I think we should. If we don’t, companies will be reluctant to enter the social space. After all it’s easier to keep us using older and more familiar tools for customer service, like email, letters and the phone.

There’s a reason Apple isn’t in the social space. Part of it is arrogance. But, the other part is they don’t have a model for how to make it work. Think I’m wrong? Consider the Genius Bar. Have you ever tried to walk up and get help at a Genius Bar? If you’re like the majority of Apple customers, it’s a rare occasion when they’ll simply help you on the spot. A more likely situation is the Apple employee will ask you to schedule an appointment at the Genius Bar. Granted, that appointment could be for a time 15 minutes in the future. The point is, they schedule, slot and meter your ability to get customer service. And, while they’re doing that, they’re also getting major kudos for offering amazing customer service. Not too shabby, huh? Imagine if Apple was on twitter and using the platform for customer service…an extension of the Genius Bar, if you will. Do you really think customers would accept an exchange like this:

Customer: “Hey, having a problem with 15″ MacBook Pro. The screen keeps shutting off randomly. Any thoughts? Thanks.”

Apple: “Thanks for your tweet, unfortunately all of today’s, tomorrow’s, and the rest of the week’s slots are filled up. I can tweet you back in about next Thursday. Thanks.”

No customer would dare accept that. After all, if you have time to tweet me that, you should have time help me out. If Apple, instead ignored the customer’s tweet until next Thursday, the customer would still be irritated because of the time lag in getting a response. See, it’s the expectations of the medium. Almost feels like a no win situation.

So, what do we do?