Encouraging Customer Conversations

Remember that the Internet is a social medium: people don't just talk about your company to you, they talk about it to others. The old maxim that a dissatisfied customer tells an average of six other people is outdated - in the internet age, it's more like six thousand.

The same is true to a lesser degree about happy customers. Though they are less likely to spread the news, it's of much greater value to your company, as Internet users value word-of-mouth from their fellow customers over any company-originated communication.

An Unhappy Customer Is An Asset

One important concept is that a customer who expresses their dissatisfaction is an asset to a company. Such complaints give the company the opportunity to make amends and retain that customer. And it's been well proven that making a service recovery with a disappointed customer engenders a great deal of goodwill. Also, if you receive enough complaints on a specific topic, this is a red flag that calls your attention to a blind spot that may be costing you customers.

The author classifies complaints into three categories: fans of your company who are trying to be helpful, customers who are disappointed and want to give you the opportunity to make amends, and cranks.

He kind of stops it there, but other sources have suggested that all complaints should be treated seriously, though you have to keep an eye out for individuals who won't be appeased by any reasonable measure. However, the latter are the vast minority.

Customer Bonding

The author provides a brief summary of another book that discussed the concept of "bonding" with customers.

The concept of bonding pre-dates the Internet - but as bonding is built on communication, the internet can be a useful tool in building and maintaining bonds with consumers.

Customer Service In Public Forums

In the early days of the internet, USENET was largely a discussion forum of individuals sharing information, and it often related to problem-solving: people were asking for advice and assistance, or sharing solutions to problems they encountered, believing the information could be helpful to others. In instances where they need help (or encounter difficulties) with specific products, they have no hesitation in mentioning the product by name, and widespread problems can spark a grass-fire of bad PR for a company.

The author does not suggest participation in public forums (which ios a good idea), but instead, he recommends bringing the discussion in-house by creating forums on your own site that you can moderate, or hide behind password-protected "customer only" areas. IMHO, this is a mixed bag: moderation can do more harm than good if done with a heavy hand, and it won't stop people from posting information elsewhere. Other sources offer better advice.

Should you bring the conversation in-house, the following guidelines are suggested:

In addition to a bouncer, most forums need a host, who can keep the party going. It may be necessary to nurture conversations, provide content proactively, and encourage people to participate by asking questions of them. This may be a task for a moderator, or a separate person may be assigned to specific forums.

Advice to conversation hosts is to ask questions of others - many people love to talk, and just need an excuse. Ask them about their experiences with your products (good and bad), solicit their advice for improving your service, etc.

Moving To A List

The author discusses interactive mailing lists (LISTSERV, Majordomo) as alternatives to newsgroup-style forums as a method of keeping the conversation private and closed-off to others, especially when the topic is prone to complaints by unhappy customers.

I'm skipping over this, as it's a bad idea for a number of reasons. Primarily, mailing lists are a lot more awkward for most users than discussion forums - it's an archaic technology - and the desire to hide "bad" conversations from the public eye is generally regarded as a form of dishonesty.

When To Move It To E-Mail

There may be times when a discussion in a public forum would be better settled in private.

The author suggests that a discussion should be taken private when it deals with sensitive issues, such as pricing, that may be unique to a customer. My sense is that being secretive about pricing is a form of dishonesty, and a company should be more transparent.

The author suggests that it may be necessary to move to e-mail to address behavior problem. This seems reasonable, as "counseling" a person about their personal conduct is not appropriate in a public forum.

The author does not suggest, but should, that a conversation should go private when it requires communicating information that may be considered personal or sensitive (account and invoice numbers, order status, etc.)

And finally, the author also overlooked the need to go private when any conversation is of no interest to others in the group.

Manning The Effort

The author draws a parallel between the Internet and voice channels: there was a time when it was critical for a business to have a sufficient number of operators to handle the volume of inbound telephone calls: a customer would only wait so long on hold before hanging up and calling your competition. As channels shift, it remains important to have sufficient personnel to handle inbound internet communications in a timely manner.

The need for such personnel increases when you shift additional communications to the Web site. Interactive chat, for example, requires 24/7 moderation, especially if it is used to provide customer support, and especially if your company ships product to customers overseas.

It is likewise important to assign the formal responsibilities of keeping the information on your site up to date with your product line and business practices.


EN: There are a couple sections in this chapter about specific "breakthroughs" in internet-based communication technology: internet "whiteboards," two-way streaming audio, videoconferencing, and other such technologies that probably seemed like the way of the future, but never caught on. The author doesn't have much to say about them (frankly, he seems awestruck) and it's moot anyway, given that these gimmicks never caught on.