The New Era of Transparent Customer Service

Transparency is a commonly used term today. From government to business to the social graph, “transparency” has become a part of our every day lexicon. There are some obvious and high profile examples of transparency becoming a press relations nightmare; sorry Michael Phelps but I needed a good example here. Phelps “bongisode” was a brand challenge. As a very visible, heroic figure, who’s personal brand had been turned into a marketing platform, the image of Michael Phelps smoking pot clearly didn’t have “brand truth” and the transparency of the Internet illuminated the conflicting imagery. In business this same type of transparency is shining a strong-and difficult to control-light on customer service. Regis McKenna wrote about the “Whole Product” back in the late 1980’s. His thesis was that the entire customer experience, including customer service, would form the whole product experience and that in a digital world this would become even more important. As has often been the case, Regis’s vision for the impact that digital technology would have on brand as a result of providing transparency to the full customer experience, would prove to be accurate.

Customer review sites like Yelp have changed the way businesses engage with their customers. Unfortunately these sites also have potential for misuse. It’s clear that competing businesses and disgruntled employees can leverage the “transparency” of these sites to mislead consumers, challenging the authenticity of Yelp’s tagline “Real People. Real Reviews”.  The lack of ability for sites like these to curate user generated content, creates a natural environment for abuse. Remember Eric Schmidt’s commentary on the ” The non branded web is a cesspool”? As Schmidt noted in his now famous talk on the subject, “brands on the web cut through the cesspool”. If customers begin to doubt the authenticity of customer reviews, then the reviews themselves become worthless. Worse yet, if consumers feel that the system is being gamed, it will result in brand damage. In the era of transparency this may be the ultimate irony.

Closer to home we recently came across an interesting example of transparent customer service. At UBM TechWeb we are customers of Jive Software, one of the leading Wiki providers for business. In a recent internal meeting, I asked our IT and Wiki team to find a way to integrate our internal video programming with our Wiki platform. In essence, we were looking to add video serving capability to our Wiki so our employees could easily view our video updates and internal communication. To be clear, I never spoke to anyone at Jive about adding video support. My request was with our internal IT and Wiki team. A recent Google alert picked up a post to the customer service community on the Jive site. In the post, a Jive employee starts the note “we just came out of a meeting where Tony Uphoff of TechWeb is looking to…”. The post goes on to outline the request and ask for help in developing the solution.  From the conversation inside our company to the posting of this note was just a few business days.

Now if you are like me, you likely view this level of transparency as a double edged sword. Clearly companies like Jive are and will need to continue to use judgement on which customer requests and observations they post. How we use social business software platforms like Jive, is part of our strategy and as such should be viewed as proprietary. At the same time transparency in customer service when used appropriately, will speed solutions and create open source, community approaches that benefit both customer and product and service provider. Let me know what examples of transparent customer service you’ve seen and how you’d suggest companies manage this new era of customer service transparency.

Update on Friday, March 12, 2010 by Tony Uphoff:

Thanks to David Greenberg of Jive for clarifying and adding to the portion of the post talking about community oriented customer service. As his note demonstrates, in an open environment it can be tough to tell which part of the ecosystem initiated the discussion! To clarify however, he is confirming that Jive does not post customer input or requests to public forums unless customers are engaged as a part of the process. Thanks again David.