The Twitter Tax

Are Online Complaints a Result of Innovation?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
I recently had a brief but fascinating chat with a digital-media guru about the utility of social media as a tool for customer empowerment: He was practicing what he peaches, complaining online about the shoddy treatment he had received from an airline and extrapolating that such posts helped keep companies honest, would help other consumers make better decisions, and that the reality of social sharing should prompt improvements in customer service (my words, not his).

I said that it sounded like kvetching and that he'd gotten pretty much the experience he'd paid for. But it was our quick back-and-forth that gave me an epiphany: Tools like Twitter aren't some dream of customer empowerment, but rather the nightmare reality of the broken relationships between consumers and brands. Responding to online complaints is a tax that companies pay because of the chronic mismatch between what consumers expect from brands and what they ultimately get. An individualized response might momentarily bridge the gap, but it won't fix it. Never will.

Most companies have been aggressively innovating for years now, at least the ones that are still in business. Innovation is a fancy term for cost-cutting, generally, as companies have often survived by "innovating" cuts in staff, services and quality:

Consumer-facing actions have been either automated (IVR phone menus), made purposefully difficult (websites with no contact numbers), or only available for a charge (now you pay for that airplane exit seat).

Much of what else was once considered customer service has been outsourced entirely, couched in the language of consumer empowerment, so online FAQs replace help from the company, and God help you if your cable or telephony provider visits your home and finds a problem it decided you should fix on your own.

Stores have fewer employees and leaner inventories, while back-office staff at service businesses are forced to work harder with less resources (and a greater constant threat of job insecurity), making it less likely that consumers will have the experiences they once enjoyed.

Ingredients get leaner and cheaper, and materials used to make products are replaced by less costly ones (again, taking out expenses in manufacturing is a core canon of innovation).

Consumers have always wanted a great deal for what they buy, and all of this innovating has enabled companies to offer them competitive prices ... but at the cost of consistent or consistently improved experience. But we've never admitted this truth to them, never explained how paying less for a hamburger means there's less staff to ensure that it has the perfect amount of ketchup on the bun, that no living soul can wait around at your bank for you to chance upon a checking issue and call, and those cheap airline seats mean they're going to be served by overworked and underpaid flight attendants. These disconnects can't be overcome by novel new technologies or brilliantly creative marketing (at least not often, and certainly not consistently). Empowering your customers to complain is not the same thing as taking responsibility for what they're complaining about.

Instead, we tolerate a vicious circle: Just as our customers' lives get more complicated and difficult, their tolerance for complexity and difficulty decreases. Everything is a disappointment of one sort or another, and the downward pressure on the threshold after which inconveniences become complaints is only strengthened by the increasing challenges our innovating throws at them. For every tweet we catch, there are likely dozens or hundreds of consumers just simmering on the edge of an online kvetch.

I remember years ago a story a PR friend told about an airline customer who'd complained that his in-flight soup only had three chunks of meat in it. "There weren't supposed to be any," he admitted to me. How do you respond to complaints that originate in the stark reality of the way things just are?

As a CMO, you might choose to ask the question differently: How effectively am I setting and then managing customer expectations? Do we make brand promises that can't be fulfilled, whether done explicitly (I can't help but think of those vacation commercials that show empty beaches and calm hotel pools) or implicitly (funny online spots could lead consumers to think that insurance policies are fun, which isn't quite true, is it)? Are we making promises that are just irrelevant?

Today's creative marketing challenge isn't to find new ways to distract, entertain or engage with consumers as much as it is to get them to not only comprehend reality, but learn to love it. How your 2011 strategy accomplishes this goal should be top-of-mind for you.

If I'm right, it also suggests the probing questions you should be asking of your fellow C-suiters. Truly, you need to be the voice of the consumer in the next Six Sigma process-innovation meeting. Be the human being in the room and remind everyone that nobody uses technology the way they're supposed to. Stop being the mind-manipulation genius and admit that your marketing experience has taught you that changing behavior is practically impossible. Tell them that those spreadsheets that show all the cost-savings from innovation are fantasies; they just shift costs to other areas, like yours.

When you promote your online social monitoring you're agreeing to pay the tax for the failures of your company's operators to do their jobs. This means you're not doing yours, either. Customer service starts and ends in operations, not marketing, and innovation is not regularly your customers' friend. Paying the Twitter Tax doesn't change this fact, and any newfangled marketing theory that tells you to flip the pyramid, telescope, or funnel really amounts to flipping your customers the bird.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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