What Best Buy Learned About Service as Marketing and Empowering Employees

This Holiday, 'Tis the Season for a Twelpforce

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
As the high season of holiday shopping pain (or gain) arrives, I find myself fixated -- perhaps irrationally, and certainly emotionally -- on Best Buy's Twelpforce.

This is the viral army of 2,200 Best Buy employees who answer questions and solve customer problems via the customer-care channel we know as Twitter. Self described as "a collective force of Best Buy tech pros offering tech advice in Tweet form," the program has nearly 15,000 "followers" and it's growing. Think Apple Genius Bar but without the physical counter.

There's more going on here than meets the eye, a point reinforced last week while spending time with John Bernier (@Bernierjohn), the leader of the Twelpforce program, at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) summit. John anchored a keynote panel I moderated on the growing relationship between customer service and word-of-mouth that also included Frank Eliason of Comcast (aka @comcastcares), Tom Asher, head of consumer relations for Levis, and Lisa McCloud, VP of Marketing for coffee-equipment manufacturer Bunn.

Twelpforce has only been in place for six months, but it's grounded in an effort, started several years ago with employee-only Blue Shirt nation, to institutionalize social media into all aspects of Best Buy's business. Importantly, it's also grounded in a commitment to serving and helping customers, whether in the store aisle or in-steam via social media.

How does it work? Employees sign up to participate in the program and are empowered to respond and engage with online consumers, primarily through Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook), who have service questions or problems or seek knowledgeable recommendations about the potential purchases. Think of it as a social media concierge service designed to ensure you really do make the best buy. According to Bernier, any employee is eligible, but there are protocols, guiderails and principles in place to balance employee passion and "authenticity" with branding objectives.

The program's not perfect -- it's hard, for instance, to find any reference or connection to Twelpforce on the BestBuy.com website -- but it's an important case-study to study and, dare I say, follow. Amidst the fire-hydrant of almost unstoppable marketer activity in social media, Twelpforce tops my 2009 list for breakthrough holistic marketing. Here's why:

  • Service is the New Marketing: Let there be no mistake -- Best Buy views customer service as a marketing and brand-building opportunity. In reviewing hundreds of tweets, Twelpforce members did everything from route consumers to website content, demonstration links, or the latest Best Buy advertising.

    This program also serves as a reminder that pain points are opportunities. The best way to nurture loyalty and advocacy is to show evidence of addressing a concern, solving a problem or fixing an issue. Just ask Zappos -- or think about all the times hotels somehow find "larger rooms" for upgrades. Best Buy recognizes that in the consumer electronics space, there's no shortage of opportunities to get this right. Social media should be used for solutions -- not the hard sell -- and it should capitalize on "pain points" to connect with consumer.

  • The Blending of Paid and Earned Media: Twelpforce syncs offline and online marketing efforts and demonstrates how paid media can reinforce or catalyze earned media, and vice versa. According to Bernier, most of the paid Best Buy TV advertising is anchored to Twelpforce. Moreover, most of the TV copy concepts are drawing directly from the stories in the earned media stream. This symbiotic relationship, when viewed together, forms a powerful ecosystem that increases reach, fine-tunes messaging and adds a welcomed human-touch to its marketing efforts.

    Even more to the point, if you skim the roster of Best Buy TV spots indexed on YouTube (there are many), you'll note that they all draw from a "service narrative." This is the hook for great, dramatic copy and that's a big "a ha" for brands looking for opportunities to engage consumers. Focus on areas where consumer have genuine needs; capitalize on the insight; translate it into great copy.

  • Consumer Relations Pushes External: In many respects, Best Buy is pushing the boundaries of what me might typically call the "call center" to a much more expansive, and inclusive, frontier of consumer need and participation. Along the way they are dramatically raising the bar of expectations.

    "The promise we're making... is that you'll know all that we know as fast as we know it," Best Buy explains online. "That means that customers will be able to ask us about the decisions they're trying to make, the products they're using, and look for the customer support that only we can give. And with Twitter, we can do that fast, with lots of opinions so they can make a decision."

    Interestingly, with or without bold commitments along these lines, most brands on Twitter or Facebook -- even those with more "promotional" objectives -- are inevitably defaulting to acting as a de facto call-center. A recent Nielsen study we conducted for USA Today found that nearly two-thirds of brand Twitter accounts deal with some level of customer service, and over half are interacting with consumer in off-hours, including the weekend.

  • Dramatic Expansion of Service Channel to Employees: Best Buy's Twelpforce raises an important and strategic question: are passionate employees one of the most effective advertising channels? It's worth noting that employees carry a relatively high "trust" factor with consumers.

    This is a big deal, as we may start thinking more about HR as a marketing input. With 2,200 employees actively participating in the program -- even the CEO, Bernier revealed -- one can only wonder whether brands have a largely untapped competitive advantage in "subject matter expert" employees. The key here is making sure policies are in place that frame the right balance between authenticity and sincerity and brand objectives.

    Southwest, drawing from a foundation of employee empowerment to solve problems, does this particularly well. Patagonia, too, I learned in listening to a WOMMA keynote. Comcast (disclosure: a client) is moving in this direction, using Twitter and other social media as a beachhead.

  • Failure as Competitive Advantage: During our WOMMA panel, Bernier talked a fair amount about the role and importance of failure. "Being empowered to fail is important. We instinctively know there is huge potential in getting our smartest employees in-front of the customer, but the current models are still open for refinement."

    Moreover, he added, it's really important to "start, listen, try, adjust." This is a critical point, and most brands have little appetite for failed experiments, much less criticism. That needs to change, and we should take comfort (and confidence) in the fact that these more agile, flexible social media platforms position us to learn fast and learn fast.

At the end of the day, with or without the "Twelp," it always pays to help. And maybe the future of advertising is less about buying impressions, than it is about making impressions through service. That's my big take-away from this vast employee-service experiment. It's not a bad lesson to tuck under your hat during the upcoming holiday season.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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