The following conversation I overheard recently says a lot about how far most companies still have to go to become social businesses. I'll call the speaker Sally. Sally: “It's a sucky job at sucky pay, but I need it.”
Companion: “What do you do?”
Sally: “Customer service for [a student loan company].”
I tried to imagine what Sally's job is like. Every day, she drags herself to work to spend hours on the phone with customers. Many of her callers are nervous about meeting loan obligations in a down economy. Like most Americans, they regard financial services companies with attitudes ranging from suspicion to hostility.
Sally has no reason to dissuade them. She hates her job and her employer. She probably also hates many of the customers she speaks to. She's cynical and helpless. She's also the company's principal customer-facing presence.
We've all talked to Sallys on the phone, and we may know people like her in the office. Customer service is one of the least appreciated and most cost-controlled operations in business. Effectiveness is often measured in the number of calls processed rather than customers satisfied.
That reality is out of step with the evolving thinking of business leaders. IBM's new Global CEO Study reports that “empowering employees” and “engaging customers as individuals” are two of the top three objectives identified by the 1,700 leaders interviewed. A Temkin Group survey of 255 business leaders found that almost 60% expect to deliver best-in-class customer experience within three years.
They've got a long way to go. The same Temkin report said only 7% of those companies are “truly customer-centric” today. A.T. Kearney Inc. recently reported that 28 of the world's top 50 brands didn't respond to a single customer comment on their Facebook pages in 2011.
In the early days of social media, many companies assigned responsibility to their marketing departments, reasoning that this was just another one-way communications channel. That decision may have been appropriate at the time, but customer conversations have become too central to the way business needs to be done.
Business leaders are turning the corner in their perception of social business' potential, but they aren't yet taking their organizations with them. A March survey of 329 North American businesses by the Economist Intelligence Unit reported that more than 60% still invest primary social media responsibility in marketing and sales. Less than 6% let customer service lead the charge.
Social media is no longer a channel; it's a 24/7 conversation. Until people on the front lines have the power and incentive to delight customers, the promise of social business won't be realized and there will continue to be a lot of Sallys quietly sabotaging dreams of excellence.