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Remembering the Small Customer and Social Media Risk During the Pandemic

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A few days ago, I got a note from a small business owner, and he was upset. He’d bought a new laptop from a major brand, and within a couple of days, he broke the screen. While he admitted it was his fault, it still needed repairing. Somehow, he dropped into “work from home” support hell.  

He started his repair process on May 18, and by June 5, no one had even begun to work on his laptop.  Week after week, support workers kept forgetting to do paperwork, gave him contradictory messages, and generally infuriated this customer to the point that it resulted in him writing to me. Moreover, he went from someone with high regard for his brand of PC to someone who disparaged the brand every chance he got.   

Years ago, I conducted a survey that found the companies that had the best quality often had the worst customer satisfaction. The outcome seemed odd until I looked under the numbers and found they also provided the worst service. What I took away from the survey was a good product with bad support resulted in low customer satisfaction and people who would publicly disparage the brand. Conversely, I found that relatively poor quality products, coupled with excellent service, resulted in high customer satisfaction and strong brand loyalty.  

I should add one outcome that still strikes me as weird today: if you had a high-quality product and excellent service, your customer loyalty would be low because you weren’t touching the customers enough. Customers need to be reminded that you care about them, or they’ll take your superior service and quality for granted and focus on price.  

I want to remind the OEMs this week that before social media, forgetting to focus on a small customer wasn’t a big problem. Today, small customers can have disproportionately large voices, and that is something to remember—even during this Pandemic.

Metering small customers

I had a discussion with Steve Ballmer back when he was CEO of Microsoft that left a lasting impression.  It regarded what was then poor customer satisfaction with Microsoft’s products—even with large companies. I’d just met with a large number of companies that communicated they wouldn’t buy a solution if it came from Microsoft. 

Often, that dissatisfaction came from people in power thinking the company wasn’t listening to them. Steve, in frustration, pointed out that Microsoft had thousands of large customers and millions of individual customers, all of which could drown each other out. He didn’t have the bandwidth to listen to even a fraction of these people, and thus he couldn’t get a sense of the priorities.  

Remembering that I’m an analyst, you can imagine that my suggested fix would have been to use Microsoft Research to study the customers and then abstract the results. But that wasn’t what I said because, at the time, I was aware Microsoft Research was fudging their numbers. Steve was getting false data that made it look like things were far better than they were.  

I theorized at the time this might have something to do with Steve’s temper and his tendency to lash out when he got angry—which would have resulted in the natural tendency to avoid pissing him off. I never validated this, and, over the years, I’ve seen this behavior across many companies where those supplying executive information choose to alter the information to avoid upsetting executives. 

Years earlier, I’d done an internal report at IBM looking at the reason behind firing John Akers, the only IBM CEO ever to be fired. The cause wasn’t because he was inept, it was because he was fed continuously bad data and made terrible decisions from it. (Given, this is IBM, the then leader of the tech industry. There was a lot of irony in this conclusion). Akers was formally trained and mentored to be a CEO. He knew IBM’s products and business as an expert, yet because his staff misled him, he got fired.  

And this was long before Social Media.

Executives need a clear and reliable view of what is going on with their firms’ customers. The reports they have come to rely on may not reflect the real world.   

The pandemic and social media problem

The Pandemic has shifted a lot of companies to work-at-home programs. But these programs appear to promote behavior that is anything but customer-friendly as employees juggle their kids and home distractions with the work they need to get done. Systems designed for call centers don’t seem to be as reliable when people are working from home, and that suggests the data executives are getting out of customer engagements may be unreliable.  

Besides, with the current concerns around minority treatment, tempers are short. And, we have social media handy for people to vent. The result could be that a handful of distracted customer support people could, over a relatively short period, destroy the value of the brand. They’d do it by creating a large number of disgruntled customers, or maybe just one or two with a large following, who share their anger online for all to see. 

Wrapping Up: Recommendation  

What I’m suggesting is if you are a frustrated customer, just realize your support is, like you, dealing with conditions that aren’t optimal, and there will be problems associated with that stress. If you are a vendor, realize your customer-facing workers may be in over their heads, and you don’t want to wait until customers are running from your brand before realizing you have a problem that needs to be addressed.  

It also suggests when choosing between vendors, you might want to see how they are treating their customers and how the bidding vendors have instrumented their support people. Those that have outsourced support or don’t have a good handle on their workers would likely be ranked below those vendors that do.

Because, regardless of the problem or how good the hardware is, if you can’t get reliable support, you can’t depend on the solution. For your executives, you’d better validate the field data, or you are likely looking at an outcome like John Akers enjoyed, and you may not be quite ready for early retirement.  

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