Being at Your Customers' Service

Customer Strategy
Customer Service
Citibank's Frank Eliason talks about how organizations can better connect with their customers, including through social media.

In an ever-changing world customers are taking control. But rather than being daunting for organizations, this shift presents an opportunity for customer service leaders to step up and give their customers a voice, Citibank senior vice president of social media Frank Eliason believes.

In his recently published book @ Your Service, Eliason writes about the importance of keeping customers at the core of the organization and always being prepared to be there to serve their needs. In an interview with 1 to 1 Magazine, Eliason highlighted the importance of treating customers as humans. "They're not a number, but a person, and I will be their advocate," he said.
Throughout @ Your Service, Eliason capitalizes the word Customer, to stress its significance. "I want everyone I interact with to know that I find the Customer to be the most important part of the long-term success of the company I work for," he said.

Here, Eliason spoke about how organizations can better connect with their customers, including through social media.

You write about the shift in the way that products and services are marketed so "the control resides in the hands of your customer." What does this mean for organizations?
We live in interesting times. Social media is prevalent in everything we do. Consumer reviews are everywhere on the Internet. Companies are asking Customers to "like" their brand, or share the experience. But are most companies share-worthy? Do you want to share information in that manner? Do you want to tie your reputation with your friends to some of these companies? Why would I share good things about a brand, when I just called for help and they were so stuck on selling me that they never fixed my [problem]?

I know customer service departments everywhere are trying their best to create the right experience, but many factors are making this difficult to do. Our service teams don't have access to the right leader to influence the organization. Rules are set up in ways to be unbendable, even when it may make the right business sense, [because] when the rule was established not every scenario was thought through.
Years ago service was simple because Customers had to call for basic information, such as checking their account balance. Today many of the simplistic items are handled through the Web or IVR (interactive voice response unit). The calls that are coming through are usually much more complex and don't always fit the standard process flow established [years ago]. Through all this, Customers have grown frustrated.... It's time to change that. If we as service leaders don't guide the shift, our Customers will, and they [already] are.

Some organizations are still wary of social media, thinking that bad reviews will negatively impact their business. What are your recommendations for the best use of social media to connect with customers?
If companies want to win in social media, they should focus on their product and on customer experiences. Listen to your Customers through every touchpoint and deliver for them. Create share-worthy moments. I also think that it's imperative for companies to provide their Customer a means to share feedback in a way that isn't a black hole, but fully reviewed in a timely manner and responded to. One of the best ways to stop negative online conversations is providing Customers a means to share feedback with you.

What are the biggest mistakes that companies make in connecting with their customers?
There are mistakes on many fronts. Let's start with some of the offline communications we have with Customers. Often everything is wrapped in fine print filled with legalese, knowing that Customers won't even read it and if they do, they won't understand it. Offers are done to lure people in, but changed later. Then communications spins the changes to appear positive, even though everyone, including the impacted Customers, knows they aren't. We need to treat people like smart human beings, and start building trust with our Customers. This is one of the key reasons I see rebellion via social media.

When I look at social media, companies are not recognizing how people use the space. They're spending millions of dollars in advertising on Facebook. When was the last time you clicked an ad on Facebook? I know I never have. It's not how I use the space. Companies are also trying to force their message out instead of having a dialogue with Customers on what matters most to the Customer.

The biggest challenge is that companies like to say they're listening, yet I see very little evidence of change. What I see in social media is companies listening for the next brand crisis. They deal with that, but they aren't driving change based on what they hear. We're keeping the information in our typical silos. It's time to break down the silos.

You write: "The best way to combat any negative reviews is by creating the right experience for other Customers." What else can companies do to show that they're willing to change and improve the customer experience?
People worry about negative reviews, especially ones that are unwarranted. I have found over the years that if Customers trust your brand, they'll come to your defense. If they don't [trust you], they won't. They wouldn't want their reputation tied to yours. The key is building trust.

Customers are defining the values of your business. If I asked you [about the values of a] cable company, you would probably respond constant rate increases, missed appointments, long appointment time windows, etc. Businesses have to redefine the expectations for their Customers, and live up to them in everything they do. While I worked at Comcast, we implemented the Customer Guarantee as a way to start changing this dialogue. It's a great way to ensure that everyone's on the same page; and the Customer can have a better idea of what to expect.

What's the biggest lesson you've uncovered working in the customer service field?
It's key to create an empowered workforce that has the ability to share the Customer story with key decision-makers. In the book I tell the story of my work at a call center. I was horrified by a customer experience created by a policy. When I shared my thoughts I was told "it is what it is." This was because the team tried to change the policy numerous times but it fell on deaf ears. Over the next few years I continued to try to change the policy with similar luck, until one day I used our call recording equipment to play real calls on the topic. The policy was changed the next business day. Stories can have huge impact, especially when they're told directly by the Customer.