Frank EliasonFrank Eliason, a champion of Customers everywhere, made a name for himself as the original voice of the @ComcastCares Twitter account, and quickly became highly regarded for his work using the account to listen to customers and build relationships — doing so at a time when many companies hadn’t even thought about using the channel to engage in an open dialogue with customers. Now the director of global social media for Citi, Eliason has written about his experiences in his book, @YourService: How to Attract New Customers, Increase Sales, and Grow Your Business Using Simple Customer Service Techniques.

In @YourService, Eliason provides readers with an in-depth look at his simple and effective approach to servicing customers, which is in part driven by his understanding that marketing and service are not separate departments. ”Frank understands that one of the cheapest, most effective forms of marketing is called extraordinary Customer Service,” writes Seth Godin in his endorsement of the book.

As Eliason writes in the final chapter of @YourService: “The way to win in this Consumer-driven environment is to create experiences that would cause your Customers to want to share your story.”

1. In your role as a consumer advocate, what are the most important tools you use on a regular basis?

“I realized long ago that businesses do not change based on the typical metrics or dashboards we look at each day. The fact is we are numb to numbers and tend to glance past all the data. The only data metric that I have seen that created mass changes is when a company is losing money. If you want to drive changes in your organization, there is nothing more powerful than sharing the Customer story in their own words. I have proven this often and share examples in @YourService. You can easily obtain the Customer story from your call centers, from social media, or the surveys you inundate your Customers with.”

2. In our hyperconnected world, why has it taken many companies such a long time to recognize and adapt to the shift in power to the consumer’s hands?

“There are so many reasons! Companies have historically controlled the message in everything they do. From the marketing message that is carefully crafted, the PR team handling any press inquiries and the scripts to control conversations with the Customer (as a Customer, don’t you wish they gave you the other side of the script to make it easier?). The funny thing is many companies like to craft their message speaking to their great Customer experience, but rarely does the actual experience live up to this marketing or PR spin (some would call the message aspirational, but what would you call it as a Customer?). I would say it goes well beyond all of this, and goes deeper into the culture of the company. I have seen surveys that talk about a very high percentage of CEOs who believe their company provides outstanding service, but that number is far lower when they ask Customers. I have seen data that was 80% of CEOs compared to 8% of Customers, but I have also seen some with a higher percentage of CEOs. I do not believe I have seen higher for Customers (isn’t that sad?).

This disconnect is a huge part of the problem and it comes from human nature. In general, most people only want to share the best information with their boss to show how well they are doing. Customer service leaders work tirelessly to find the perfect calls to share with the CEO. Product leaders search for the best data to tell the CEO how great their product is doing. It is not very often we step up to say how we are failing. No wonder CEOs have such a failed interpretation of their business. We gave it to them.”

3. What are your key predictions on why and how organizations are shifting away from social toward the next “big thing”?

“This is a topic that has been on my mind for a while. Social media to many organizations is not proving to meet the goals they had for it, mainly because most brands went in with the wrong expectations. I predicted earlier this year that we would see many companies back away from social media, and I think there has been [a retreat].

I also expect others to get much deeper and start to take a broader focus throughout the organization. I love when companies get more holistic with social media but most try to leave it in a silo, such as marketing or PR. As we move forward, data is going to be the growing topic. I felt we would see the increase in conversation this year. I even predicted (on the Holmes report) that we would see a big blow up regarding the topic. I did not expect it to be the NSA, but instead thought it would be a company using data in a way that was not deemed to be appropriate by the general public. Data will be a large focus.

I recommend companies consider creating a data bill of rights which clearly state how and why they would use data, but also what they do not think to be appropriate. Over the past few weeks, Acxiom launched AbouttheData.com, which allows Consumers to view the data the company has on them. You can read more about this from the New York Times. This effort is a brilliant effort. First, it heads off regulatory pressure by sharing with Consumers the information they have collected. But more importantly it allows Consumers to actually change inaccurate data so Acxiom has the opportunity to improve how well they know the potential Customer.

I do wonder if there may be any negative backlash from firms that hire the company because they too can easily see the information that they believed to be accurate, may not be. For me much of my information was way off and I did not change it. It does explain some of the goofy marketing materials I receive. Anyway, the use of data is going to change this business in many ways and we are just at the beginning stages of this shift. Some will not realize the impact until it is too late but many have already fully embraced it.

Another area that we are seeing huge growth is a focus on the Customer experience. I am still trying to determine the driver for this change. I like to think it is based on social media, but the reality is we often see this type of focus as an economy comes back to life after an economic downturn. In this case I think it is a mixture of both. No matter what the cause, I am thrilled that companies are focusing on the experience they create. I just hope that it is not window dressing and instead is a complete makeover.”

4. In @YourService, you mention executives talking about customer service as an organizational priority, yet the customers are still unhappy. What can be done to bridge this gap, where one exists?

“We have to start bringing the CEO into the reality of the Customer experience. It all starts with an honest conversation. I like to ask leaders about the service providers they love and ask why. We sometimes forget that CEOs are Customers of many businesses, so you can have a human conversation with them about their experience. My favorite conversation with Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast, was about his experience with Amazon and American Express. Starting at this point provides clear understanding as to the expectations of the CEO for service, it also opens the door for honest conversations about failures. I have never found a CEO not to respect an honest assessment. Then use this conversation to encourage your CEO to visit your front-line employees and hear the reality of the Customer experience.”

5. The customer is always right: True or False.

“I so much want to answer true, but the reality is there are people who try to take advantage of companies. When I worked for the cable company I can not tell you the number of people who demanded free cable for life or they would blast the brand. This of course would not be fair to the business, or the Customers paying their bill each month. I think the bigger challenge for companies is building the respect from their Customers so people would not feel they could do these things. Would you come to the defense of your cable company when people were making false claims? Probably not. The best companies create experiences with Customers that build long-term trust, which turns them into advocates. USAA Insurance has a very strong reputation that they have earned with every Customer interaction. This does not mean that I have not found negative commentary on their brand because I have, but often with that commentary is a comment that the person’s experience seems inconsistent with the experience they had as a Customer. Imagine a world where your Customers come to your defense!”

Frank Eliason’s book @YourService is available in print and digital formats at Amazon.com. Follow Eliason on Twitter: @frankeliason.

 This interview originally appeared on Happy Customer.