How customers came to feel entitled to a voice and a choice.

“Your customers are not where they used to be, and they are not who they used to be. They have changed beyond recognition.”

When you provide a customer a direct line and say “Call anytime if you need anything,” you better have somebody on the other end ready to answer that call. As it turns out, oftentimes social media is a faster way to get a response than a mobile call.

Last year, I was heading out on a business trip to our office in London. After a tiring, long-haul flight from New York, I stepped out of the airport and hailed a car through a ride request app we all know and love. The driver kindly took my bags and moved them into the trunk and I got into the backseat. After chatting with him, I mentioned I would be in town for the week, and the driver offered to give me his direct line so I could request rides with him over the course of my trip. I thought that was kind and a nice extension of service. As we pulled in front of my hotel, I stepped out of the back and grabbed my luggage from the trunk, thanked the driver, and told him I would be in touch if I needed anything. I couldn’t wait to get up to my room and rest before a busy week.

But as I watched the driver turn away onto the busy London streets, total panic set in. I realized I had left my laptop – my lifeline to work, in the backseat of the car while I was retrieving my luggage out of the trunk. Since the driver had just give me his direct line, I dialed frantically, hoping he hadn’t gotten far. But he didn’t answer. I tried again. Nothing. Saying I was worried is an understatement, but now I was also angry that this personal service offer had already fallen through, especially after he had just told me I could call him. So I took to social. I tweeted at the app about my emergency and within minutes, received a reply that told me they were able to reach the driver and inform him of the issue.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending to this story—fast forward thirty minutes, and the driver was back outside my hotel with my computer and an offer to drive me back to the airport when my trip was over with a credit on my account.

Customer Crisis in the Red Zone

In that moment, I had crossed into the “red zone”—a place where the size of the problem no longer mattered. All that mattered was the resolution of the problem, in-the-moment. The experience was so frustrating and so out of sync with my current situation all I could see was red and total panic.

Customer service today means serving customers “in the red zone.” Besides my former beloved 1986 red Honda Prelude, most red things for me fall into a negative category. Think sunburn, red alert, STOP sign, SOS.

The red zone is different for different people and different every time. And that’s the whole point. Sometimes it’s because expectations are set so high with a direct line and then fall short and disappoint, as in my London business travel experience. And sometimes it’s because the bar is set so low and a brand still fails to make the cut, like the slow moving lines at the Post Office and just as you’re the next person (and of course pressed for time), the next open window closes so the agent can take a break… But it’s always in-the-moment and real for the customer.

In other words, customers are normal, garden-variety social, emotional creatures that now have a bullhorn to broadcast their (dis)pleasures with your brand. Humans have always been social, emotional creatures so there’s nothing new here. What is new are the channels and media we have access to at any given point on any given day and the larger pool of connections we can stay in touch with via our social networks/communities. And still there are so many brands that fail to incorporate this new reality into strategy, operations and customer service. In the latest study conducted by Twitter, they found that by responding to customers on Twitter, customers are 44% more likely to share their experience, 30% more likely to recommend the brand, and the responsiveness will positively increase CSAT by 1 point.

In-the-moment Expectations

Today’s customers are “in the red zone” because they’re human, not machines. Humans have always been a bit unstable when it comes to service that doesn’t meet an expectation. Companies have just historically benefited from a little bit of time-space, no one will ever know attitude in their favor.

What makes today different is that those “in the red zone” customers can broadcast their experience in-the-moment across social media while on-the-go. They don’t have to wait until they get home to post an after-the-fact negative review.

As consumers, we have evolved to become a society of post-consumption reviewers. User review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp grew fast—posting our reflective, long-form reviews, typically shared from our computers after the experience, and typically after any emotional residue had subsided.

And so began a journey where our passive consumption became more active. In everything from travel, hospitality, retail and utilities, we have started to engage with brands and use our own experiences to either warn or entice others in the public sphere of social media, in-the-moment of the experience, not after the fact.

Traditional engagement between a company and its customers has been one of binary consumption. A binary, transactional arrangement where a business designs, builds and sells something compelling, and you, the customer, evaluate and buy it. You consume that product or service. That’s it. If you liked it you would buy more, and more… The value in those relationships was simple, typically represented with metrics like cost of acquisition and lifetime value. Loyalty and retention became important (they still are of course).

In recent years however, customers have come to expect more than this inbound consumption, and the relationship has evolved to one where customers have more information than ever at their fingertips, and as such increasingly will comment, blog, share and consume perspectives about those businesses they buy from, again in-the-moment of action. If they are “in the red zone,” their blog post is going to reflect a red zone experience and likely be retweeted exponentially. If they are not “in the red zone” but feeling happy and delighted by the experience, they’ll also post their experience, but it will only be retweeted a few times… We have all heard the mantra that people are five times more likely to share a bad experience than a good one.

Enter the Social Saviour

So here we are, the consumers of your various products and services increasingly attached to a smartphone, and a world of peer reviewers, a camera and a pronounced point of view, together with an increasingly altruistic duty to share those experiences. As consumers we are no longer just active, we are participative. We no longer share our reflections post-consumption (after we’ve experienced your brand), we spread our feelings during the brand experience.

It used to be “You failed me.”

Now it is “You are failing me right now.”

And of course now this wealth of in-the-moment experiences is available on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other channels for other potential consumers (and participants) to learn from. It is searchable and archived.

This in-the-moment social interaction can provide the most incredible opportunity to remedy a live issue. I once heard about a hotel guest who tweeted “My shower is running cold.” Within moments the hotel’s central social care team had responded to the guest and alerted on-property staff who quickly secured another room. They checked the shower temperature and arranged a move. This was all publicly resolved through Twitter and the outcome was a customer also publicly impressed with that resolution.

Your potential customers are engaging with current customers who have already experienced your brand to gain a more authentic sense of how well you deliver. Is this really the hotel I want to stay in? Is this really the airline I want to fly with? Your customers have begun a highly scaled and very visible dialogue to better evaluate your brand and the value you offer, all within the global fishbowl of social media.

The conversation has started.

The only question is, where is your brand voice as this conversation unfolds?

Enter Mobile Accessibility

According to a recent report by Ovum, up to 70% of customers still phoning into a call center are calling in from a mobile device. Those calls are likely happening as your customers are having an issue with your business. Facebook, with 1.66 billion mobile active users as of November 2016, is the powerhouse of networking, sharing and advertising because they worked very hard in the months and years after going public to get mobile right. Without mobile Facebook, Twitter and Instagram ceases to exist in their current incarnation.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we learn about the powerful combination that is the social, mobile consumer.