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Hire the Smile, then Train the Skill


By Chris Parker

Successful customer service is more than a desk in the back of a store where customers are informed what your company won’t do for them. Companies claim to be customer centric, however too often when something goes wrong in the process it is the customer who is left disappointed with nobody to talk to. Whether buying consumer electronics or complex business software, the customer journey is bound to go wrong at some point. Outstanding customer service occurs when your employees are happy to solve these problems for your clients. Your clients will then be delighted to be part of that journey, even if the process has failed. It is the customer orientation of your staff which will make or break the experience for the customer – will they leave disappointed and angry or satisfied and even more loyal than before?

Social media has changed the face of customer service. An angry customer used to be able to tell a handful of their personal friends about the horrible experience they had with your company. Now, with video cameras in mobile phones, these angry customers became roaming news reporters looking for your next failure so they can become more popular on YouTube. A Canadian country singer was forced to use social media to get the attention of an airline after they damaged his guitar. The United Breaks Guitarsvideo on YouTube has been watched over ten million times. The result has been severe embarrassment to the airline, and has launched the singer’s career. Your challenge is to get these passionate customers to use their talents and technologies for good, not evil.

The CIO has an important role to play in the digital customer service arena. Our background in improving productivity with the creative use of processes, data and technology is exactly what social media is all about. First, start with hiring people who are genuinely interested in pleasing the customer. Ensure the purpose of their job is to serve the customer, and not simply complete a process step as described in a work instruction document. Then, provide them with soft- and hard-skills training and whatever tools are necessary to actually do their job. Hire the smile, and then train the skill.

A common problem is there is rarely time to provide service right the first time. Oddly, there always seems to be time to do the work again after the customer complains. An unusual response to this dilemma from some companies is to digitise or automate the initial service interaction, and focus the human energy on resolving all the problems which are caused by doing this. Only automate or digitise in the virtual world what you have mastered in the real world and ensure your customers have enough opportunity for real human interaction.   When a customer has a problem, the last thing they want is to be trapped in automated attendant menus or even worse, not being able to find a phone number to call to reach your company at all.

GiffGaff is a company which has solved this interaction dilemma in a creative way. They have based they whole business model on the power of customers supporting themselves and other customers. The company financially pays back customers in points, which are valued at one penny each, whenever they refer a new customer or help answering questions on their public online community. It is unlikely that GiffGaff customers will cause a social media crisis when they are rewarded for being part of the service process.

A social media crisis isn’t only caused by angry customers.   For example, a video was posted on YouTube by some Domino’s Pizza kitchen staff as they did disgusting things to the pizza’s they were baking.   The Tweets posted by Kenneth Cole stating the recent Egyption riots were caused by their new spring collection demonstrated that a company itself can cause a social media issue to explode. Develop a ‘social media crisis response plan’ before you need one. Investing now in your online customer relationships and communities is the best defence. Your customers will be more forgiving when something goes wrong and some will even come to your rescue when other customers start to complain.

The Intern is Smiling, the airline which describes itself as “low cost, low fare with individual service”, has experienced this positive benefit customers defending them on public social networking sites. Late last year, when there were unusual delays caused by weather, some of their customers came to the rescue when angry travellers started to complain on their branded Hyves site.’s social media journey started just over two years ago when an Online Marketeer intern, Martijn Schmidt, thought it would be a good idea to create branded communities on Hyves, Facebook and Twitter. He simply created their social media presence, without a budget or even formal approval. At that time, about 40,000 Hyves users had already tagged themselves as fans of the brand. These gave Martijn the confidence that his customers were indeed active on this channel and were interested in engaging in dialogue.

These social media communities evolved into important channels to handle information needs for customers and to gain valuable information for marketing purposes. Customer inquiries vary from complaints about flight delays to students asking about different types of airplanes for their school reports. Marketing has been able to support this initiative by providing community members the opportunity to win flight tickets if they respond to a poll or enter into a contest. All of this is brought together in a positive experience for their customers because Martijn brings an authentic human aspect to the social media dialogue.

Martijn’s communication strategy has been a mix of his own personal style and the formal brand of the company. Fortunately, these two styles aren’t too different from each other. He is able to answer most queries immediately from company information he has available and with his own common sense. Obviously, any information which is not able to be shared off-line will not be shared online.

With just over 4000 followers on both Hyves and Twitter, and almost 8000 on Facebook, this is more than enough interaction for a single person to manage without any supporting tools. The nature of’s market is also important, as they have positioned themselves as a fun holiday airline. Traditional airlines with larger markets have far more followers on Facebook – KLM has over 100,000 and Southwest Airlines in the US has over 1.3 million. Air travel is a very emotional experience, and the investment of in social media interaction will certainly result in more loyal followers. reorganised themselves three years ago into a .com structure, which put Marketing as the clear interface to the customers through online channels. This was done even before the power of social media was understood in the market. Rob Melchiot,’s Executive Vice President of Finance and ICT, explained that their traditional IT is positioned as a support function for the e-Business and e-Marketing teams. When they were searching for a CIO recently to manage this support function, a key competency in the search was communication – the IT person simply had to be able to communicate effectively with Marketing.

Their management has been observing how the airline industry is adopting social media, and how their customers are responding to their own efforts. According to Rob; “we are a low margin and global industry; we need to adapt or die.” Processes between departments needed to be reviewed and streamlined, as communication on social channels is a one-time chance. You must get it right the first time and it must be done quickly. The use of social media channels to serve their customers is contributing to the continued success of and their social strategy is officially on the Boardroom agenda.

Don’t Make Me RTFM

Providing excellent service to business (B2B) customers is based on the same philosophy as serving retail (B2C) consumers. Start with people who are passionate about solving the customer’s problems and then give them the training and tools to succeed. Hire the smile, then train the skill. Engaging with B2B customers can be even more rewarding for your company as there is probably already a customer record for these people and loyalty can be tracked easier. NetApp and HSBC both have successful communities which allow customers to interact with each other and be supported directly by company staff. Whether you have a branded community on a public social media site or provide an exclusive “gated” community for only your customers, the information you gain – both positive and negative – can be like a gold mine.

The companies which are most successful at delivering excellent customer service know when they stop worrying about money and concentrate on serving the customer, the money will follow. This paradox is too often ignored in service failure situations when the customer has already paid. Simply telling a customer to ‘RTFM, or Read The F-ing Manual’ on a social media site is just as frustrating for the customer as telling them this over the phone or in person.

It is common knowledge in the customer service industry that customers spend up to ten percent more for the same product which comes with better service. If these facts alone often don’t stimulate the necessary focus internally to improve service performance then get creative to capture the imagination of your commercial colleagues. Why wait for someone to become your customer before engaging them with social media? You most likely know which B2B customers are currently being served by your competitor, so why not start tracking them and jump on the first opportunity to solve their service problem before your competitor even knows there is an issue?

Tools To Make You Smile

If your organisation has not yet woken up to the benefits and risks of social media in your industry, there are free online tools like Social Mention  and How Sociable which you can use to quickly scan for your company, your customers and your competitors. These tools will give you a snap-shot of current activity on the different social media channels, and give you a score to compare activities between different organisations. For ongoing tracking of your company, set-up a Google Alert ( which will forward you any news or other information on the web about whatever keyword you desire. Armed with this information, you can approach other internal executives to gain support for your social media powered customer service strategy.

Whether you want to create open communities like or exclusive communities for only your customers, there are various solutions to get you started quickly. If you don’t want to use public social networks like Hyves, then Yammer ( is a free online solution with basic functionality for your internal organisation. If you are ready for an enterprise-class solution which provides community, collaboration and monitoring functionality in an integrated suite, consider solutions like Jive Software ( and RightNow (

Smiling As a Strategy

It is unfortunate that the CIO is unlikely to have direct customer contact, so this area requires close cooperation with Customer Service or Client Relations.  An efficiency-led CIO strategy is now less valuable in the Boardroom than a strategy which ensures your customers are more profitable and loyal. Sometimes, such as in the example above, the best thing traditional IT can do is to get out of the way. Whether IT is directly involved or not, providing excellent customer service through social media channels is a competency any business needs to develop. In the future, this will be a survival skill as the ability of customers to damage your brand becomes an even greater threat. Sometimes, the best entry strategy is simply to let the intern start something small based on his own initiative.

Or, perhaps, your company doesn’t need to worry about serving customer through social media channels at all. Perhaps when you scan for your company name and industry on social media sites it reveals nobody is talking about you. Perhaps when you research what your customers are busy with online, you discover they aren’t busy with you. Perhaps your brand and services are so perfectly average that they don’t cause an emotional reaction with your customers at all. If that is all true, then you might not need to worry about a social media crisis anytime soon. It is also unlikely, however, that you will be able to attract that smiling intern with who is passionate enough to break the rules to serve your customers even better. How will you hire the smile?

The next CIO Survival Guide will explore how the CIO can improve your company’s performance in managing your Customer Relationships.

Chris Parker ([email protected]) is a customer experience expert and helps business leaders around the world improve customer experiences by embracing emerging technologies.

The CIO’s Customer Service Survival Action List:

  1. Educate yourself and your team the fundamentals of customer service.
  2. Assess your current social media activity and determine where your customers are online.
  3. Ensure your hiring practices are based on hiring the smile, then training the skill.
  4. Test some social media initiatives to improve your service performance.
  5. Review your service performance by hiring a mystery shopper service.
  6. Make friends with the head of Customer Service as you can’t do this alone.

Resources on Customer Service for the CIO

Book:                    Customer Service – New Rules for a Social Media World, Peter Shankman, 2010

Book:                    The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence- A Handbook For Implementing Great Service in Your Organization, Robert Spector, 2005

Book:                    Be Our Guest – Perfecting the Art of Customer Service, Disney Institute, 2001

Book:                    Customer Service for Dummies, Karen Leland and Keith Bailey, 2006

Report:                Welcome To The Empowered Era – An Empowered Report: Reinvent Yourself To Serve Empowered Customers And Employees, Forrester Report by Ted Schadler, 2010


Online:        (Webinar: Online Communities — Getting Closer to Your Customers)