Customer Service & Social Media: Interview with Frank Eliason

Social Media and Customer Service

Continuing our series of interviews with industry insiders, we are excited to share this interview with Frank Eliason (@FrankEliason). Frank, Citibank’s Senior Vice President of Social Media, has been described as the “most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly the world.”

By expanding the reach of customer service via social media, and taking the simple approach of asking “Can we help?” he repositioned the relationship between Comcast and its customers. His efforts at Comcast inspired a global wave of innovation in the way businesses communicate and engage with their customers—using new communication channels to improve customer experience.

Prior to joining Citibank, Frank was best known to many as the voice behind @ComcastCares, one of the earliest examples of how a business can use social networks to proactively listen and respond to customer concerns in real-time. His work with Comcast’s customers is one of the top case studies proving that social media can play a positive role for corporations. This work has been recognized by many news organizations such as ABC News, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and many others. He is also one of the most sought-after thought leaders on social media and customer experience, and regularly participates in panels and speaking engagements.

At Citibank, Frank and his team are helping to change the way a global financial institution manages its relationships with a diverse community of consumer, small business and corporate customers—to serve and exceed their expectations and helping build a lifetime of trust between Citibank and its customers. Frank and his team have earned many accolades, including being named top innovators in banking for 2011 by Bank Technology News.

Prior to joining Comcast in 2007, Frank worked in customer service management for Advanta Bank and Vanguard Investments. Frank is a board member for both the Council of Better Business Bureaus and SOCAP (Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals). He also serves on the advisory board for Drexel University’s Center for Corporate Reputation Management.

 

CallMe! -  Obviously, the @ComcastCares Twitter account generated significant positive coverage for Comcast. In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek called you “the most famous customer service manager in the U.S.” Why do you think your efforts resonated so much with your customers?

Customers can be the most passionate advocates or detractors for your brand. For years they have been bombarded with marketing messages from firms but really did not have a say in the brand or the experience they would want. Social media has leveled that playing field and Customers do have a say. I know many marketers are excited about the prospects social media brings but the reality is people do not want to share your marketing message. They want to share their experience, good or bad. They will prove to be the loudest for brands they are most passionate about. I have always said that Apple has one of the strongest social media presences, yet as a company they do not do much, their Customers do it for them. Another brand is Coke. Their Customers started their Facebook presence, and to this day Coke supports them on this but they allow the Customers to live their passion for the brand.

CallMe! – As you scale social media-based customer service operations, what traits did you look for when filling the @ComcastBill and @ComcastBonnie type positions? From an employee perspective, is there a difference between social media-based customer service agents as compared with phone-based customer service agents?

If you are a brand, you better not want social Customer Service to scale! This reaction may surprise many but it cuts to the heart of the problem brands have with their own Customers. If you ask companies, most will say they provide great service, but when you ask Customers, most will say companies provide lousy service. The problem is the Customer Service world has always struggled building an identity. First they focused on efficiencies, which included many of the wrong metrics, such as handle time. If you were a Customer, how would you feel about this metric? Then the focus shifted to outsourcing, which led to scripting. Do your Customers have a copy of the script? I doubt it. Then service shifted to be about becoming the sales center. All too often I call a service department and all they do is try to sell me and not even fix my reason for calling. Not very efficient if your Customer has to call over and over again for the same issue. Now the focus is shifting back to the Customer, where it should have been the entire time. Many people will claim responsibility for that shift, but it really is the Customer who is demanding it. One of the ways they are demanding it is the way they discuss your brand. Do Customer truly promote your business? I do not care what they rank you in a Net Promoter Survey, but do they actually promote you to their friends in social? Probably not if you do not create the right experience with your product and the service you provide. The Customer is gaining that upper hand and it will change the service industry forever.

After we started the initiatives at Comcast, many companies started doing similar initiatives. I think it is important to listen to your Customer no matter where they are. If a Customer is yelling on the street corner, do you offer to help? I do. In some ways I was thrilled to see companies embracing this new medium. But after watching it for a number of years, I am realizing most are failing. There are a variety of reason for the failure. The most important is they are not getting the feedback to the right business units to create real, sustained change. So from a business perspective, if you do not fix the underlying issue, but you create a wow experience for those who complained publicly, you are then encouraging others to use that method first. So now your brand is regularly trashed by your Customers via social media for everyone to see. One of the things we did at Comcast was we used the feedback we were receiving to create real change through all communications channels. So if your sole purpose in helping people in social to shut up the negative commentary about the brand, if you do not have real change, you are actually making it louder and more negative for the brand. Revolutions are not limited to political structures around the globe, they are happening in business too, and there is a Customer revolution going on right now.

Another thing we did differently at Comcast was create a team of real people! Most companies focus on their brand create a single account to filter discussions to. The challenge in social is about conversations, very human conversations. How do you have a conversation with a brand? We recognized that people prefer conversations with people, so that is what we created. It makes sense, especially if you think about how we answer calls. We always introduce ourselves. Also the best calls always have a human connection as part of it, so it is natural. Of course we did not start off that direction. Like many we planned on the @ComcastCares account to have a few team members. That all changed July 26, 2008. At the time we were on Twitter since April and it was just me since our team was just ramping up. Up until then I was there every day, but I needed to take this one off. I did not explain why, but I did Twitter that I would not be out there for the day. At the end of the day I saw the most amazing thing. As I went through my normal search, other Comcast Customers were responding to people. They were saying “let’s let @ComcastCares have his day, can I help you.” Conversations like that happened all day long with multiple people participating. They were not even Comcast employees. The fact is they did a Google search and realized that day was the anniversary of daughter Gia’s death. They found our family website with that information. That is the power of human connections. Would you do that for your cable provider?

As a service leader for years, I have always found the best service employees are the ones many service supervisors would never hire. It is human nature to want the easy-to-manage person who will shut up and just do their job. That mentality is what created the problem in the service industry today. I prefer to hire the person who will jump up and down saying we as a company are wrong with something. During my interview process I have always asked the same thing for internal hires, what is wrong with the company. What I am looking for in the response is passion for the Customer, even if misguided. I can always teach and guide their direction, but I cannot teach the passion and willingness to jump up and down. When you have that passion, it comes through in everything they do.

CallMe! – Changing our focus to an internal perspective, do you think social media can play a roll between employers and employees? How do you think organizations can best leverage social media to better engage with employees without overly infringing on employees lives outside of work?

Not only can it, it must play a roll. Social media has a way of making the world a smaller place and to that end companies can utilize internal social media tools to gain insights from all levels of employees, create better collaboration and build trust. So before concentrating on external uses, focus on the internal methods first. This will help you understand your own corporate culture. I also believe the best means for brands to win in social media is by empowering their employees to talk about something they are passionate about within social, such as their job. This of course will be a risk for companies that do not have the best culture for employees but for those that do, they will build trust through their employees. Zappos has always been held up as a leader in social media. This mainly has to do with how they allow their employees to demonstrate their corporate culture externally. They celebrate the differences their employees have and even have a website that features the Twitter conversations by their employees. If you have the chance, check out http://twitter.zappos.com.

CallMe! – Any particular advice to companies looking to establish a customer response team focused on social media interaction?

I know it is said way too often, but listen to what your Customers are saying in the space. Are they talking in social media? If not, why? If they are, why? There is no need to jump to social servicing if your Customers are not talking. If they are, you have to know why they are talking and what you as an organization do about it? Is there a willingness to change?

I have been around the service world for a long time and I realized long ago that companies are usually very metric-driven, but because of the vast amounts of data, we never see past the numbers. The service world can drive vast change in the organization, but they may want to get past the metrics and focus on the Customer story. I have never met a CEO who wanted to create a poor Customer experience, but they did not know it was happening. Share it and you will drive change in your organization. You can use special tools or just Twitter search and Google blogsearch. Social presents the service world the opportunity to take a seat at the table and I encourage you to do just that.

 

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