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Social Media and the Corporate Dinosaur

February 19, 2009

So I have like 4 or 5 draft blog posts that I should be working through.  I have a product requirement spec to finish that was due last Friday, and I’m doing a presention tomorrow at Dev Learn (on team-based content authoring…) that I haven’t even started yet.  But am I working on any of that?

No.

“Why not?” you ask.  Well, it’s simple really.  I had a horrible travel day — 16 hours in planes and airports to go from Boston to San Jose.  So here’s my story.  There is a bit of learning in here too, particular toward the end, but in the meantime, please feel free to laugh at my pain.  I would if I were you.

So for the first time in my life, I decided to cash in a chunk of my bajillion frequent flyer miles to secure a spot in First Class.  Boo ya baby!  But here is the thing: I made a crucial error.  I actually began to look forward to my flight.  This violates all sorts of travel karma, and right then, like on the spot, the travel gods decided to use me as an example.  The first such example was Odysseus.  Remember him  — cyclopses, sirens, goat people, 16 years of travel?  Ring any bells?  So yeah, this was like that.  Epic.

4:00 am — alarm wakes me up
4:09 am — alarm wakes me up again
4:18 am — alarm wakes me up again
4:25 am — alarm wakes me up again; girlfriend kicks me out of bed
4:26 am — shower
4:40 am — wake up in the shower wondering where the hell I am
5:15 am — leave for Boston
5:25 am — nearly get into a car accident trying to get a Mocha Coolata at Dunkin Donuts
5:35 am — realize my cell phone is at home
5:36 am — realize I don’t have time to get it or I will miss the traffic “window” into Boston; also realize that if I hadn’t hit snooze a zillion times, or fell asleep in the shower, or hit D&D, this wouldn’t be an issue
6:15 am — arrive at airport, cell phone-less
6:40 am — get in line for security
6:55 am — still in line — seriously, 1 person to do security baggage check at the United terminal at Logan: I feel like I must be missing something as they are just comically understaffed
7:15 am — still in line — there were only 20 or so people in front of me; how can I possibly still be in line?
7:20 am — still in line and my flight is about to board; is this even happening?
7:21 am — apparently TSA had an epiphany and opened a new line — pretty much just in time
7:30 am — we board; First Class aisle seat baby!  Yeah, I am liking this.  Lots of room to work.  It’s all good.  I am large and in charge.
8:30 am — still haven’t left
9:00 am — still haven’t left
9:30 am — still haven’t left
10:00 am – we get some news; front tire won’t turn (which is a problem since that means we can’t taxi or land — you know, minor stuff…)
10:30 am – it’s looking grim; likely need to switch planes, but everybody’s connections are blown by now, including mine
10:35 am — pilot “we’re going to try rebooting the computer by shutting the plane off, but it probably won’t work so don’t get your hopes up…”  Actually kind of funny in a sad, sad way.  As expected, it doesn’t work.
11:00 am — they kick us off the plane and wish us luck (and no, I am not kidding even a litle) — by now of course, we’re all totally screwed and have no chance to make any connections…
11:30 am — I work with a very nice representative who gets me on new flight to Chicago and on to San Jose.  I ask about upgrading (per my original plan) and she says, somewhat nicely, “Be happy we found you another fight…”  I ask about Economy Plus, it’s full too.  I ask about an aisle seat.  Guess what?  C’mon, just guess.  Ok.  Yeah, so no aisle seats.  Where do you think I got to sit?  If you were writing this as a fictional account of the crappiest travel day ever, where would you put me?  Yeah, the same place the travel gods did.  A middle seat.  From Boston to Chicago.  And then again from Chicago to San Jose.  Awesome.
11:50 am — We board.  I’m between fat guys.  No, really.  I feel bad for them; I know how embarrasing it is to spill into someone else’s seat.  I used to be pretty fat myself, so I’m just trying to roll with it, you know? (And no, that was not meant as a bad fat guy pun.)  On the other hand, I have strangers in my lap, and not in a good way.  It was sort of like having a couple of half-filled, warm water bags partially laying across my thighs and pressed uncomfortably against my sides.  Did I already say “good times?”  Yeah, so anyway, good times.
Early afternoon — My time stamps start to get fuzzy around here, probably due to a lack of oxygen to my brain — you know, from the arterial compression dished out by my seat mates.
Early afternoon (1-ish?)- we land at O’Hare in Terminal C.  My connecting is in Terminal B which is approximately 2 miles away, literally in like a whole different airport connected via a tunnel below the tarmac.  You just can’t make this stuff up.
3:00 pm — time for my next flight.  At this point, I’ve been going for nearly 12 hours already.
3:01 pm — I am begging the dude at the desk to give me a different seat.  I think I offered to “ride on the wing” at one point, but no dice.  No upgrades are possible.  No economy plus.  No aisle seat.  Nothing.  Did I mention I have like gazillions of miles with these guys?  Gazillions.
3:15 pm– we should be boarding; we’re not.  Why not?  Mechanical failure of the pilot door.  This is a joke right?  Ha ha.  When do the freakin’ cameras come out and make this ok?  Right?!  I mean cuz this can’t be happening again, right?  How can this happen to one person over the course of just one day?  It’s clear now that the travel gods are mocking me.  I have been traveling close to 12 hours, and I am no further west than Chicago.
4:15 pm — I get to my seat: 24E.  Middle seat, last row of the plane.  I think probably the worst possible seat on the plane?  Can someone please confirm this?  I’m pretty sure that this is right —  lack of legroom, arm room, bum room, or really anything approaching human comfort.
4:18 pm — my first seat mate arrives.  He is a weight lifter.  Normally that’s cool.  I lift weights too so hey, stuff to talk about, right?  Yeah, not so much.  He’s thicker than me and therefore consumes lots of space so I’m not liking him much.
4:20 pm — my other seat mate arrives (because of course it’s a full flight!).  He’s just all big — 6 something feet tall, big boned and broad.  And then, unexpectedly, I start to cry a little.  Mostly to myself on the inside…  I’m pretty sure they didn’t see it.
4:21 — 9:45 pm (my time) — 5 + hours of unspeakable discomfort; these were the hours of which we shall never speak again.
10:00 — deplane, breathe, test the functioning of my legs
10:15 pm — get to my hotel room — 16 hours after I began, and 10 hours after I should have arrived.
10:30 pm — try to find a place on the United website where I can share this awesome story.

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post.  Customers sometimes have bad experiences.  Particularly in services industries, and even more so, in service industries that can be effected by weather, technology, mechanical issues etc…  So while I was not “thrilled” when I went to the United site, I was not looking to complain (overly much).  I was mainly looking for a way to share my experience and give them some ideas on how they could have made it better (like somehow flagging me as a “screwed over” customer who they should do anything in their power to help instead of brushing me off like a telemarker calling during the dinner hour).  Instead, I found myself incredulously clicking around in a site that seemingly has no communication mechanisms at all — no blogs, no discussions, no sharing areas at all.  I couldn’t even find a feedback area other than the web site feedback link.

So here is the point of this posting and a message to the rest of the corporate dinosaurs out there:  “get with the program!”  I wanted to share my experience with United to help them be better.  Was I happy?  No.  Did I have information that they need about how to make this situation better down the road?  Yes. 

By not providing any mechanism for me to share this experience with them, they are losing an opportunity to learn from this and get better.  By not entering a dialog with the customer population they serve, they are losing thousands of these data points per week.  Maybe they have some other way of gauging customer satisfaction that obviates the need for direct conversations, but I have a hard time imagining what these might be.

The other part of this equation is the ubiquity of alternate channels:  I couldn’t have a dialog with them so now I’m having a dialog (or monologue depending on who reads this) with the world at large.  I don’t need their channel; I need a channel.  If they did have a channel however, I would likely be doing this (in some form or another) on their site, on their terms, and within their sphere of influence.  So the question is not whether the venting or negative feedback is happening; it’s about where it’s happening and on whose terms.  Right now, it’s happening entirely on my terms.

Imagine instead that United had some sort of bi-directional communication model built into its site and we’re having a discussion through their enabling technology and process.   Now we’re talkin’ — literally and figuratively.  And as long as United and I are having some sort of dialog, there exists the opportunity for them to make amends, to explain, to mitigate, to soften, to strengthen, to rebuild, to rechannel, etc…  Conversations = possibilities.  The absence of conversation = the absence of possibilities.  When I first started dating, I was always really shy about asking a girl out.  And my Dad would always say (in his deep, growl-y voice): “son, until you ask, the answer is always ‘no'”  So until United offers me a chance to chat with them, my answer is “no.”

The problem for United, of course, is the question itself.  United is not asking me on a date.  They are asking me to do business with them again.  That’s what service industry’s require: repeat customers.  More than that, they need positive perception and recommendtions.  So they are also asking for my recommendation.  To answer the questions: will I fly with them again?  Right now, my answer is “not unless I have to.”   Will I recommend them?  This time it’s mostly a “no.”  Fortunately for them, I have some positive experiences with them as well or this would be a whole-hearted “no.”  In this particular case, the absence of a United channel might not completely kill our relationship; it has however put a major strain on it, and has resulted in this public posting which likely will negatively influence the world at large — exactly the opposite goal of United’s marketing and website efforts.  By focusing on unidirectional site messaging, they have effectively undermined their own objectives.

The absence of a bi-directional communication channel on their site is therefore hurting United in two ways: 1) they lose out on the collective experiences and social wisdom that their clients could share and 2) they lose an opportunity to channel or influence the discourse in positive ways.  How many other service companies are making these same mistakes?  Is your company one of them?  Customers are having conversations about companies all the time, increasingly in very public and searchable ways.  The question is:  “do you want to be part of the discussions your customers are having about your company or would you prefer to remain in the dark?” 

My Dad, I’m sure, would have a different take on all of this.  When it came time for the Junior Prom, I had my eye on this one girl.  We had been friends for years, but I just couldn’t ask her.  God knows why.  (I was such an idiot as a kid…)  But anyway, my Dad finally just laid it on the line:  “If you don’t ask her pretty soon, you can be sure someone else will.”  And you know what?  He was right.  The day before I finally had the guts to ask her, someone else did.  In hindsight, I’m sure she would have preferred to have gone with me, but I hadn’t shown any interest.  And so she went with someone who did.

The point is this:  your customers want a relationship with you.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be *your* customer.  And now it’s time for you to reciprocate.  You need to ask them to a new dance (let’s call it the “Web 2.0 Social”), but it’s coming up fast.  In fact, people are already picking out dresses and lining up the limos.  Your time is running out, and it’s time for you to lay it on the line.  Sure, they might say “no.”  They might hem and haw.  They might need to “think about it.”  They might ignore you.  They might even say mean things to you.  There are lots of things that might happen, and you will have absolutely no control over most of them.  It’s scary.  And there are a lot of unknown.  But there is one thing about which you can be absolutely certain:  if you don’t ask them to the dance pretty soon, someone else will.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 19, 2009 6:21 pm

    Commerce and social media, and the blog is a valuable resource. Advertising Media

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