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Book review: Customer service in the age of consumer generated content

Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000

by Pete Blackshaw

(Doubleday, $25)

I'm reliving happy childhood memories yet having serious second thoughts.

Maybe it's because of heat stroke after a day at Long Point Provincial Park or the hour that's left until our daughter's soccer game.

Whatever the reason, my health-conscious wife suggests doing something we've never done in all our many years of dating and marriage. "Let's pick up a bucket of fried chicken on the way home," she says.

Smelling those secret herbs and spices sends me back to family get-togethers, crowded around the kitchen table in my grandparents' bungalow on Stevenson Avenue. Although my grandmother would spend the better part of a week cooking enough food to feed the neighbourhood, my grandfather would insist on adding a bucket of chicken to the bounty. To aid in his great escape from the house for a half-hour of solitude, my grandfather would recruit me as co-pilot on his chicken runs. "Helen, the boy wants some chicken," my grandfather would announce as we slipped out the side door and made a break for his Golf Rabbit. Once at the store, we'd pilfer a year's supply of wet naps, salt and pepper packages, and plastic utensils. And at dinner, I'd skip the mixed vegetable gelatin salad and instead make a meal out of congealed chicken skin donated by the grown-ups.

But this happy memory's fading fast, and I'm losing my appetite, thanks to the customer at the head of the line. Seems he bought a bucket a few weeks back, sat the family down for dinner and found not one but four pieces of finger-licking chicken with feathers still attached. The customer says he called the manager to complain and was promised four featherless wings.

Only the cashier isn't buying the story. She's flipping through a binder, reading page after page of handwritten notes and finding no record of the phone call. The customer asks the cashier if the manager's around. No, but the supervisor's working the deep fryer. So the supervisor comes out, hears the same story, flips through the same pages and comes to the same non-decision. The supervisor tells the customer to call back tomorrow. But no free chicken today, so sorry.

Now, if a customer has a lousy experience yet still comes back for more, wouldn't you be grateful? Wouldn't you gladly throw in four pieces of chicken that must cost all of 50 cents? And if that customer is telling and retelling the gory details in a store full of customers, wouldn't you shut down the story as fast as you possibly could by serving up a free order of chicken with jumbo orders of green coleslaw and macaroni salad? And if you were the manager and took that call, wouldn't you get in your car, drive over and personally deliver a bucket yourself?

The store caught a lucky break. The customer could've posted a picture online of his feathered chicken. He could've taped his call with the manager, videotaped the cashier and supervisor delivering spectacularly lousy customer service and posted it on YouTube.

Welcome to the age of consumer-generated media, says author, Planet Feedback founder and Nielsen Online senior executive Pete Blackshaw. The days of lousy service and shortchanging customers is over. Thanks to social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, customers are finding each other online, swapping horror stories and causing some serious grief.

"Throughout the history of commerce, consumers have been at the mercy of business," says Blackshaw. "Consumers have traditionally had limited access to one another and few outlets for feedback and communication. But the Internet has changed that."

Consumers are the new centre of the universe. Some web-savvy customers have more influence and power than ever before — and more power than what your advertising and marketing budget can buy. And you need to listen obsessively to customers if you have any hope of protecting your organization's most valuable asset.

"Credibility may not be on your balance sheet, but it's the best asset you've got," says Blackshaw. "Credibility is the only valid currency in this vast and noisy marketplace." Credibility is the product of six key drivers – trust, authenticity, transparency, listening, responsiveness and affirmation. Ignore or fail to live up to any of these six drivers and customers will make you pay a steep, brand-damaging price.

Thanks to the Internet, consumers now own your brand. They own your messages. And they own the conversations about how, where and if they'll invite your brands into their lives.

I won't be inviting a bucket of fried chicken back into my life. I checked obsessively for feathers. Didn't eat the skin. And I decided this was one happy childhood memory I wasn't passing on to my kids.

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