Last week the data services with my mobile service provider, Three (“3”), went down for half a day. An unforeseeable service outage could happen to any company, but it is not only a technical crisis; it is also a customer relationship one. How prepared you are to inform customers through different channels will affect their perception of the company, and ultimately their loyalty.
Like I do a few times per week, I was working with my laptop out of my favorite coffee shop. I use this time to reply to emails and find inspiration to write. Since the coffee shop doesn’t have Wi-Fi, I use my iPhone’s Internet connection. Just as I was about to send a long email, my phone’s Internet connection went down. Usually restarting the phone fixes the connection, but this time it didn’t. The normal voice calls were working so I tried to call the “Supreme” hotline (which I have access to given the steep monthly bills I run) but the number led to a busy signal. Thinking the number may have changed since the last time I called it, I tried the general service hotline number, but that too gave a busy signal.
Since I needed an Internet connection to send the email I went back to the office. Then, wanting to find another contact number for Three I looked up their Website. But the Website was apparently down. The homepage took forever to load, and when it did, it was little more than a large ad for their 4G services.
Running out of direct company channel options I decided to try Twitter. The last post from their @3HK official account was almost a year old. As many companies scramble to catch up to the reality of social media and set up dedicated teams to respond to customers, I thought it was unthinkable that Three had abandoned their Twitter account to rot. Knowing it was a shot in the dark I sent out a Twitter update including their Twitter name, in the hope perhaps they’d pick it up and provide an update. A few other customers apparently had the same thought.
To this day, their Twitter account is still silent.
It turns out that the company had used Facebook to post updates. Given their Facebook is used solely as a one-way channel to post advertising and promotions, it appears to be owned by the marketing department. And the tone of the update looked like it was marketing people forced to post a status update on their marketing channel, and that they did so half-heartedly. Hours into the outage they posted a dry update that the service was down because of some data-transfer-component-something, please check the Website for updates. The Website was down, hadn’t they tried it? And only hours after the service was restored did they post a second update, reiterating the issue with some component, we apologize. Their Facebook posts received hundreds of angry responses, many of which were customers stating their determination to change service provider as soon as their contract expired. Three left all of the angry posts unanswered, and resumed their promotional posts.
I wouldn’t have thought of using Facebook for network status updates. Facebook is not for immediate, timely communications in B2C. Twitter is better suited for that.
A few days later, I called the Supreme hotline again for an unrelated question, which was answered fairly quickly. But since I had a company representative on the phone I thought of asking about the service outage. The representative wasn’t able to tell me why the service went down, only that it was fixed. I knew that. So I asked if she was able to write some customer feedback in the CRM system, to be forwarded to the appropriate department. She didn’t understand what I meant by CRM so I explained it was the screen she was looking at, with my information; can she write my comments there? She told me I could go to the Website leave my comments in the comments area. I’m already speaking to someone from the company with access to my company records, why would I go on the Website?
If I had somewhat forgotten about the outage, this customer service interaction reminded me. It reminded me how uncaring and unprepared the company is and how they lack not only a holistic customer experience management process, but even a basic service recovery process.
Since they couldn’t take my comments on the phone at the time I wanted to give them, I’ve written them in this post.
Major service outages could happen to any company. The issue is not so much the service outage itself as how the company handles the customer inquiries. Technical difficulties and outages are certainly a crisis. And I am sure various technicians responsible for fixing it will give their full attention to the issue. But such an outage is not only a technical crisis. It is a public and customer relationship one, and relevant departments should be in panic mode just as much as the engineers. Yet, what were people responsible for internal and external communication channels doing?
Here is some advice I give to Three, and to any other company in a similar situation, to mitigate negative customer reactions:
- If you’re going to use social media, use different platforms appropriately and update them frequently;
- Don’t just post ads or updates in social media. Social media is not a one-way advertising channel. It’s an exchange channel. Respond to people. They’re talking to you directly in front of thousands of other customers. Remaining silent will only give the impression you don’t care and negatively affect other customers’ perception of your company. Which is why;
- Social media channels should not be owned only by marketing;
- Explain the issue more in more friendly way. After all your TV ads give a promise of a customer-caring, loving, fun company. Keep your communications in line with the brand. Why would service updates be any different? If anything, these need to be even friendlier given the upset predisposition of the customers;
- Quickly update your Website. If you know the Website is overloading with customer requests, simply put up a light, fast-loading webpage to inform of the service outage. This only takes a minute;
- Sort out your priorities. During a service outage, what is it? Showing your 4G ads for customer acquisition, or responding to a crisis with existing 3G customers? This can tell a lot about a company;
- Give attention to customer retention and don’t only focus on acquisition. Retention effort is not only about renewal offers when contracts are about to expire. If is an effort throughout the length of the relationship and if you don’t service them during the contract, they will fall to the competitor’s acquisition efforts when time comes;
- Don’t let customers hit a busy signal over the phone, especially during a crisis. That only increases frustration. Quickly putting up a short message at the entrance of the IVRS will mean less people waiting on hold to reach a person, which will leave more open lines for others to hear the update message;
- Inform the customer service representatives during and after the outage of the status and cause of the outage. You should expect customers to ask about the issue, and the representatives should know what to answer;
- Train your customer service representatives in the bigger picture of customer service, not only in answering questions. How can a service person not know what the system they are working on is called?
- Take feedback, from any channel. Feedback should be seen as a gold mine. Implement a process to gather customer feedback across channels and feed it back to the appropriate departments;
- Finally, make your apology a sincere one. Construct it carefully. Consider offering some form of compensation. This doesn’t have to cost the company millions but shows goodwill. It really has mitigating effects on customer dissatisfaction, and it costs a lot less than losing customers.
These are just a few points. Of course there are many aspects to customer experience management, but these few guidelines could already greatly improve the customer relationship during a crisis. Feel free to share your experience or advice.
David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.