Game of Trolls

How can I scale human-ness? What parameters can I use to guide relationships with consumers? What should I prioritise when it comes to customer experience?

Dr Nick Coates

VP, Creative Consultancy Director at C Space

Dr Nick Coates is a key practitioner of what is known in the trade as Industrial Judo (or turning problems on their heads). He has a vastly creative toolset, more than 20 years research experience and a prestigious AQR Prosper Riley Smith Award under his belt. Nick has a doctorate in linguistics and keeps language, psychology and culture close to his heart through the course of his work. More than anything, Nick’s an affable agitator who keeps his clients coming back.

In the so-called “age of the customer”, we’re led to believe that more choice + more tools = more freedom. Customers are taking back control. It’s a seductive promise. And factually it looks right – we do have more channels, more SKUs, more options. But I think we need to look twice at the new relationship between brands and customers. They undoubtedly have more power, but do they feel more in control? I think this tussle for control is leading, in many instances, to a toxic relationship – where brands feel got at, and where customers feel compelled to antagonise. So who’s controlling whom?

Let me tell you about a recent experience I had: Until November, I’d been a Virgin Media customer for 13 years. Pretty decent experience most of the time. I even quite liked the TIVO box. I definitely didn’t like Sky’s shiny brashness and I don’t need sport; so we didn’t want to switch. And then we bought a new house! Worried about wifi coverage in a bigger place, we phoned up. They promised us a next generation router and an expert installer who’d sort it all out. And a discount into the bargain. So far, so good.

The day after the move, the installers arrived. I asked about the “expert installer”. “Oh the sales people would say that, he said. It’s just unrealistic”. Before rushing the job, leaving a big hole in my front wall and a box hanging off the wall not even screwed on properly. Oh, and the broadband wasn’t working. 20 phone calls later and after constant attempts to point out how patchy the broadband signal was, and their insistence that everything was fine, we’d had enough. A switch to BT and we haven’t looked back. With hindsight the nadir was when the “relationship manager” said, “Oh, if I had to read all your notes, I’d be here all day”. So much for “relationship”; taking the time to listen, or understand.

Bad customer service isn’t a new thing, but one thing that has changed is social media. More and more when I spend time with customers I hear about the importance of being able to craft a brilliant tweet. The perfect 144 characters that gets attention and (ideally) a reaction from a brand. In response brands are investing in their social channels. But it’s a struggle. According to EPTICA, 45% of retailers are ignoring customer enquiries on Twitter because they don’t have the resources, and Forrester claim that 67% of companies see social media customer services as their most pressing priority (for the contact centre).

So back to my story…having left VM for good, I decided to have a twitter dig, to get my own back in a place where I hold all the cards and they might be powerless. Of course I tweeted Richard Branson too, hoping that might get their team more antsy than usual (“might Richard actually be reading my tweet?” I wonder, with a little frisson of hope). What ensued was a frustrating exchange where the Twitter people kept saying “we’re sorry”, “let us know if there’s anything we can do” while repeatedly ignoring all of my suggestions about how they could repair the damage. Being at a distance gave me more confidence to put them through the wringer: I’d become that person – the vengeful troll!

“More and more when I spend time with customers I hear about the importance of being able to craft a brilliant tweet. The perfect 140 characters that gets attention and (ideally) a reaction from a brand.”

So what’s going on here? Well, if Eric Berne, the father of transactional analysis is right about the “games people play”, and I think he probably is, then we’re seeing the emergence of a new game following rather old and elemental human rules. Child is feeling moody or unloved. (Critical) parent blocks or dismisses them. Which brings out the petulant or rebellious child (“well, screw you then!”). Or perhaps the absent / uncaring / Victorian parent ignores them, or offers some platitude. Similar outcome – either rebellion or aggression or flight (“I’m off. I’ll do my own thing”). It becomes your job to fight the brand for your rights. Take to Twitter. It’ll be quicker, more visible, more annoying. Call up and get multiple conversations on record. Build up the file. Get a reaction. You could really only characterise this relationship as dysfunctional.

Does it have to be this way? If it’s true that the sum of brand-customer interactions feels like a relationship to the customer, then customer experience professionals should be using human relationships as their guide. And humanising the experience – modelling the attributes of high-functioning relationships – should be their yardstick. Put the social media listening to one side for one moment, with its seductive yet misleading dashboards, and focus much more on listening to the humans in the data.

It’s no surprise to us that our CQ[1] research proves the link between human factors (openness, empathy, emotional rewards…) and business success. While human-ness is hard to scale there are models we can look to for inspiration. You know, Aviva saw an unprecedented improvement in NPS scores a few years back by binning its previous call-centre targets (get the customer off the phone in 5 minutes) and replacing them with a “first-time resolution” policy. What Aviva did was substitute a business-problem mindset for customer-problem one. Because problems demand solutions.

The worst part of my Virgin Media story was how it ended. Pathetically. With no change. With their team trying to maintain face and look sympathetic, but powerless to do anything that would make a difference.

“This is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

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