How the mechanics of human memory increase the impact of social media-driven service

I caught the tail end of a Tweet chat today about social customer service return on investment, and it made me think of something I heard in a talk by a professor of psychology from Harvard University three years ago.

I know that sentence probably reads like the pinnacle of social media twerpiness, but bear with me here: conversations (even 140-character-at-a-time conversations) can expose you to new ideas and tie old ideas together in new ways. And, to be honest, I’d been thinking about this a little already.

Here’s what came into my head (and what I added to the Tweet chat): service facilitated by social media is still a surprising, unusual thing for those who receive it. We’re all still used to waiting on the phone, listening to agents grinding through scripts, and the usual not-so-much-fun process by which businesses offer service. However, when service utilizes a social channel like Twitter or Facebook – and it results in the resolution of the problem – it has a disproportionate impact, an impact far greater than satisfactory service delivered through a more familiar channel.

Why is that? I think I know. In 2008, Gartner had Daniel Gilbert speak at the Gartner Customer Relationship Summit. Gilbert’s the chair of Harvard’s psychology department, and author of books like Stumbling on Happiness – in other words, a smarty-pants with impeccable credentials

Gilbert talked about affective forecasting, or the way people predict their emotional reactions to future events. Generally, people are awful at trying to anticipate this, and Gilbert explained that was because of the stimuli we experienced as we were evolving – it’s perfectly natural that we’re bad at this.

One of the examples that stood out to me was the idea that we are terrible at comprehending events in the context of ALL events because, very naturally, we focus on the exceptions. People can picture the lottery winner with his oversized prop check, but they can’t picture the thousands of other people who played and lost – thus, despite the statistical absurdity of the lottery, they still play. People can focus on the burning building they see on the news, but they don’t focus on the thousands of buildings that aren’t on fire in their city. Many more things go right than go wrong in this world, but they are not exceptional – we have evolved to expect them and all but tune them out, because coping with exceptions – like, for our ancestors, a leopard crouching near us in the grass – is an important survival mechanism. Even if you understand that the leopard’s there only one time out of a thousand, it’s smart to behave like he’s there every day. If we were statistically-oriented creatures, and lived based on the knowledge that we were safe 999 days out of 1000, we wouldn’t be wary on that one day when the leopard just happened to be in our neighborhood.

Here’s how this effect comes into play around customer service: usually, it works for us. We get things taken care of, in a not-very-spectacular way, and go about our days. On occasion – and, more occasions then ought to be – we get a bad experience. This bad experience is the exception, and statistically it shouldn’t damn the entire service operation of a business – but it does. Because it stands out so starkly in the human mind, which has evolved to highlight and focus on exceptions, it becomes the first experience considered when the customer thinks of the service operation of that company.

The good news is that good experiences also stand out – and, boy howdy, they ought to stand out in the world of customer experience. At this stage, social media-driven service is still an unknown to many customers. Not many customers’ first impulse is to go on Twitter when the cable goes out. There are more of these people now than around the time when I heard Gilbert speak, but the numbers are still low, and I would guess most of them go to social media more out of frustration than out of an intentional effort to seek out service.

When effective service is delivered over these same channels, the effect is immense. Part of it is because, in many cases, cumbersome service practices have been bypassed. Part of it is because agents assigned to social media are often given “fast-tracked” ways to solve problems (begging the question, why isn’t all of customer service “fast-tracked” in the same way?). And party of it is the responsiveness that social media permits.

All of this is a dramatic departure from IVR, wait times, agent scripts and all the other service techniques that feel to customers as if they stand in the way of solving problems. That makes social media-driven service responses exceptions – and that means they stand out in the human mind to a greater extent.

The impact this can have on how customers view the businesses they buy from is dramatic. Brent Leary calls a lot of these efforts “social PR,” since they’ve tended to aim at image-building and quieting angry customers at the expense of fixing the underlying service issues in a company. He’s right about that. But it seems to me that well-delivered social media-driven service is something of a force multiplier: it has to resolve the problems of the customer, but it can do so in a memorable way (until, at least, its use becomes commonplace) and thus leave a far more significant impression in the customer, boosting loyalty and perhaps stimulating their own positive conversations about the business.

The smart businesses will be the ones who recognize this – but who also recognize what a great laboratory social media-driven service is for learning how to improve their entire service operation. Their goal should not be to leave behind that exceptional, memorable experience with service delivered through social media channels – it should be to deliver that memorable experience through all service channels and thus really make service a differentiator.



3 thoughts on “How the mechanics of human memory increase the impact of social media-driven service

    • I don’t see it as a sales conversion powerhouse (although I have witnessed conversion started with Twitter, then migrated to more private channels), but I do see it as a service/retention powerhouse. Few of us broadcast our desperate desire to buy things, but many do broadcast their service issues, this creating an opportunity for businesses to respond memorably.

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