Retention prevention: Charter axes social media support

Social media-enabled service is a trend whose value seems painfully obvious: if someone’s asking for help from your company on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google +, it’s a smart move to respond to them for a number of reasons.

First off, they’re customers, and they have a problem. That should be reason number one.

Second, they have a problem with your business and they’re talking about it in full view of all their friends and followers. From a PR point of view, it behooves you to get their situations sorted out.

Finally, if they’re using social media, there’s a pretty good chance they tried conventional phone, email or chat channels and were thwarted. So your social media-enabled service team is your last line of defense before these customers become ex-customers.

That’s why Charter Cable’s decision to pull the plug on “Umatter2charter,” its inelegantly-named social media support team, inspired a collective eye-roll from customer service pundits at the start of December. The cable industry is not known for its excellent service, and you’d like to think Charter would embrace any opportunities to reverse that negative image. Instead, the company retreated into its own reality, one in which customers feel closer to the company when they call on the telephone.

“We believe speaking directly with a customer is a more personal, effective and consistent way to answer questions, solve an issue or provide information, and we will focus our efforts on these means of communications,” said spokeswoman Anita Lamont in a statement. “We’re committed to treating our customers with great care, and we believe that person-to-person interaction accomplishes that in a more meaningful way for more of our customers.”

Here’s something to note in that last sentence: Charter says it believes that a call is better. But guess what: what Charter believes does not matter any more. It’s what the customers believe.

That statement also disregards the reality that an awful lot of customers turn to social media only after meeting with frustration through other channels. Fewer than one in five customers surveyed in the 2012 American Express Customer Service Barometer said they used social media for customer service in the past year. However, of those, half said they went to social media because they were “seeking an actual response from a company to help them with a service issue.” The inference here is that other channels did not get an satisfactory response.

So social media-based service efforts can be the backstop that keeps customers from finally pulling the ripcord and bailing on your business. The Charter social media service team was a mere 16 people. Why might Charter overlook the value of their social media team in retention?

Well, as blogger and social media strategist Mack Collier suggested, maybe it’s because of the classic erroneous mindset that service is a cost center, while sales generate revenue:

“…my guess is that Charter wants to use social media as a channel to drive new customers, instead of providing customer service to existing ones. So they likely see the team’s efforts on Twitter as a ‘waste’, even though as (customer Tweets about the service) prove, Charter’s CS efforts on Twitter are actually improving the brand’s image…”

That sounds like a painfully probable reason, especially for a company in a regulated monopoly position like a cable company. Acquisition is king, retention is an afterthought.

But it’s clear that retention means revenue. For a company as big as Charter to seek savings by cutting 16 employees whose entire role centers on retention shows it’s a victim of antiquated thinking and a culture in which new sales mean more than recurring sales. The math shows this is a bad idea. It’s rooted in the archaic view of what sales success looks like when it’s divorced from long-term business success.

Here’s the irony: had Charter mustered the gumption to re-work its more traditional service channels, the social media team might have become less necessary for the short term. Customers might have found satisfaction with the call center and never had to reach out to social media. And, while customers were becoming more accustomed to social media, Charter could have used the time it bought to envision what a next-generation multi-channel support operation would look like.

The number of customers using social media for even routine things is on the rise, and it’s unlikely Charter can ignore social media forever. At some point it will have to jump back in and start from scratch. Unfortunately for its customers, now and in the future, it will have to learn all these lessons from scratch.

— Chris Bucholtz