Escalation Nation: Twitter Response as Crisis Communications vs. Customer Service

Over the years the scrappy, enterprising advocates at The Consumerist helped consumers escalate their customer service issues by  publishing the direct e-mails and phone numbers of corporate executives, board members and PR folks. Now thanks to Twitter, the extrajurisdictional  (i.e. outside normal customer service channels) royal road to dispute resolution is at everyone’s fingertips 24/7.

Now that anyone can @ message company reps at will, and companies employ ever more sophisticated tools to monitor social media conversations and intercept rants in real time, companies face real questions about how to record, triage and respond without creating new and different problems for their employees.

A tweet by Jeremiah Owyang last year reminded me that a very public pillorying by an über-blogger isn’t necessarily a win for consumers in general, and could lead companies down an expensive, counterproductive dead end if they overcompensate for what might happen if they cross a social media celebrity. In commenting on the debate around the very public dustup between mommyblogger Heather Armstrong (@dooce) and Maytag/Whirlpool  (summarized succinctly by Forbes), Owyang observed, “When Dooce called Maytag’s support line, they didn’t factor in her PR impact –support and marketing MUST be aligned.”

Several only mildly facetious questions come to mind:

  1. Is it now the responsibility of front line customer service reps at large consumer goods companies to escalate every call from someone claiming to have a million Twitter followers? Is that a “red flag,” automatic escalation, or do they have to verify it first? Or is that  up to the first line supervisor? Second line?
  2. What’s the cutoff for special treatment/escalations? 1 million followers? Ranges (e.g. 250,000-499,999 followers gets a free replacement, 500,000+ gets a freebie plus donation to the charity of their choice)?
  3. If customer service reps are now expected to have the skills of online community managers, are they being trained enough? Paid enough?
  4. Should IT departments incorporate a social media ranking look-up as a desktop app for customer-facing personnel?
  5. Is not responding to/escalating all Twitter complaints now considered poor customer service?

Whether twitterati and prominent bloggers actually deserve special treatment is a question for moral philosophers, but social media celebs certainly expect and increasingly receive it because of actual — or merely potential — PR flaps like that one. And social media partisans fan those fears.

But for all their buzz, do these episodes have a statistically significant impact on sales and/or customer satisfaction? Greater than widespread/systemic problems (e.g.  the complaint of an individual with a personal grievance and a large bullhorn vs. large numbers of customers experiencing a pattern of similar problems)?

The Forbes article made two important observations:

  1. Armstrong suffered her own backlash/crisis communications episode as a result, and
  2. Whirlpool’s stock price didn’t take an immediate hit, even in this headline-driven, jumpy market.

I agree with Owyang that customer service and marketing must be aligned, but not to ensure white-glove treatment for celebrity bloggers. Rather, first align them to ensure all customers get the responsiveness they expect, then let positive word-of-mouth do the hard work for you when the inevitable social media diva moment happens.

Grammar Rules (That’s a Complete Sentence)

 [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gWwah7ROsE&w=640&h=390]

The following post first appeared in 2010:

Yesterday was National Grammar Day – “March Forth” is the punny slogan/mnemonic — and while the well-ordered, fastidious nationwide observations should have tipped me off, I missed it. Notwithstanding, here’s my short meditation on the enduring utility and necessity of speaking and writing well.

Many logophiles and armchair grammarians of a certain age have a special affection for the old Reader’s Digest feature “Toward More Picturesque Speech.” As a child, for me it was not just a vocabulary building exercise to spice up my school essays, but also the start of a lifelong adventure, in the way that all serious collectors and connoisseurs relish the search for, discovery and display of rare and exquisitely crafted items.

Yes, there was some adolescent know-it-all-ism in there too, but over time I came to realize that grammar — like manners — is ultimately about making people feel comfortable. So even now, in the age of 140-character, thumb-typed communication, attention to spelling, usage and grammar are valuable because they make for clear, easy and enjoyable reading, and they inform the way others perceive your personal and professional brand.

  1. Sloppy writing conveys inattention to detail. What does that say about the quality of the product or service you’re selling?
  2. Glaring mistakes trip the reader or listener, and distract them from your message. A few days ago I was reading a post by a relatively well-known law marketing blogger and encountered the phrase “for all intensive purposes” — and that’s all I remember about it.
  3. Tolerances vary widely. Even if some — or even most — friends and business associates don’t care about spelling, punctuation and the occasional mangled sentence, some will. Is irritating or alienating even a small fraction of your clients due to lazy communication an acceptable loss?

For the record, I don’t profess to be a grammar expert or master prose stylist, and I am certain that martinets in the gotcha brigade could pick this post to pieces. Rather, for very concrete business reasons I am advocating vigilance and continual improvement in written and oral communication. Presentations and writing are products. Regardless of the power of your ideas, the color, fit and finish also matter, because they differentiate and distinguish your brand.

My Picks for Notable Posts of the Week 12/31/2010

 Like New Year’s health and fitness resolutions, blogging resolutions are predicated on increasing frequency — of visits to the gym or of blog posts, respectively. Conventional wisdom in both cases is that success depends on overcoming physical/intellectual inertia through willpower and self-discipline.

Wall Street Journal article  offers an alternative approach to keeping New Year’s resolutions that substitutes advance planning and practice for guilt and shame. Brain research indicates that the part of the brain responsible for willpower is easily overloaded and exhausted, while the parts responsible for linking positive emotions to new habits are more effective at helping you condition and sustain new behaviors.

To illustrate the process, the piece includes a diagram for a metaphorical dance called “The New Year’s Shuffle”:

  • Make a realistic plan in advance
  • Practice in advance exercising self-control in other areas of life
  • Think in advance about what might cause setbacks and slips and plan to avoid those things
  • Plan rewards for yourself when you do new habits
  • Practice focusing on your new habit instead of the old one
  • Expect setbacks and slips
  • Make a plan for bouncing back from setbacks and slips
  • Plan punishments to help you get started, such as denying yourself TV
  • Reduce other life stress if possible
  • Use positive reinforcement 80% of the time, negative reinforcement 20%

Whether you master those steps or not, Happy New Year!

My Picks for Notable Posts of the Week 10/01/10

Mitch Joel at Six Pixels of Separation provided a fresh take on the generative powers of blogging in 7 Things That Blogging Does. Thank goodness he didn’t say “thought leadership”….

Carolyn Elefant at myShingle ripped the American Bar Association a new one for putting their website ethics guidelines behind a paywall in Lawyers Want to Be Good, So Why Does the ABA Make It So Darn Hard?

Jayne Navarre started teasing her new book, “social.lawyers: Transforming Business Development,” this week on her Virtual Marketing Officer blog. I’ll be particularly interested to read the case study section.

Daily Blogging Can Be As Easy As 1-2-3

According to the legions of SEO experts on the Interwebs, Goggle search bots LOVE blogs with frequent posts. Social media maven Liz Strauss believes writing and publishing on your blog every day makes you a better and more successful writer. Both are compelling arguments for cranking out a daily serving of blog.

I fancy myself a nuanced thinker and stylish, economical writer (DON’T JUDGE ME), so I tend to take too long mulling over headlines, distilling ideas into a few concise statements and pouring over bookmarked links for the perfect balance of relevance and link love. That takes time — LOTS of time. So I’m streamlining my blogging process to make myself more productive and my blog more effective. I surveyed as many “top 10″ lists on the subject as is could find (until I hit the point of redundancy overload), and developed a “minimum acceptable post” approach to daily blogging that I believe will meet my objectives, and that I can sustain over time. This doesn’t mean I will not do longer posts, but at least I won’t have guilt and cognitive dissonance if I write short.

I’m calling it “The Daily 1-2-3″:

  • 1 hour.
  • 2 links minimum, no more than three.
  • 3 paragraphs (plus an optional closing).

I’ll keep you posted (as it were) on my progress.

Thinkers AND Doers: Converting “Thought Leadership” Into Leads and Referrals

I’ve started to wince when I encounter marketers talking about “thought leadership marketing” as a lead generation strategy — usually in conjunction with a pitch for blogging.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? You’re smart, and smart people win clients right? Well, sort of…

Unless your objective is to obtain an academic position, sign a book contract, build a seminar company, or become a professional blogger, thought leadership marketing is not the most direct or cost-effective route to success.

Crafting journal-worthy blog posts and white papers with the frequency and consistency required to attain a thought leadership reputation is a time- and resource-intensive endeavor. If you’re going to make that investment, be clear about what you’re doing and why.

If your objective is winning new clients, thought leadership does not drive leads and referrals. Results do.

However, thought leadership builds credibility and helps explain how you achieve your results. It is powerful and valuable because it can close deals.

How “thought leadership” helps win business:

  • Demonstrates insight, expertise and intellectual rigor
  • Demonstrates persuasiveness
  • Imparts third-party credibility
  • Reassures current and prospective clients, and validates their choices

Best of all, thought leaders are more likely to get speaking gigs, and speaking gigs beget more speaking gigs — now THAT’S where you generate leads and referrals…

Could Social Media Expertise Help Law Grads Get a Job?: Four Student Bloggers to Watch

A story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal  examined the less-than-rosey employment picture facing current and aspiring law students.

“The situation is so bleak that some students and industry experts are rethinking the value of a law degree, long considered a ticket to financial security. If students performed well, particularly at top-tier law schools, they could count on jobs at corporate firms where annual pay starts as high as $160,000 and can top out well north of $1 million. While plenty of graduates are still set to embark on that career path, many others have had their dreams upended.

Part of the problem is supply and demand. Law-school enrollment has held steady in recent years while law firms, judges, the government and other employers have drastically cut hiring in the economic downturn.

Allan Tanenbaum, chairman of the ABA Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and Legal Needs, who was interviewed for the story, noted that the average law-school debt for students is $100,000, and in the current job market, many “have no foreseeable way to pay that back.”

So while those stats might discourage potential law school applicants, current students are — as they say in poker circles — pot committed. Despite murky prospects, they’ve already invested too much to walk away.

Enter the law student bloggers.

Think about it: Law firms are just now wrapping their heads around online social networking and marketing, and grappling with how to develop those capabilities. In a crowded applicant pool, social media skills are going to be an important differentiator.

Probably the most famous student blawgger exemplar is Rex Gradeless of  the Social Media Law Student blog, who built a large a loyal following through advocacy of technology innovation in the practice of law. I thought it might be interesting and useful to start looking for other student voices and other approaches that exhibit aptitude and passion for the medium.

A few of my picks for “Law Student Blogs to Watch”:

Tax Docket (Joshua Landsman) - Congratulations are in order. According to a May 4 tweet, this week Landsman took his last exam and finished his J.D. at the University of Florida College of Law. A pop culture-inflected take on the dryest of topics. Tax info served up with music and celebrity gossip.

Law Student at Last (Anonymous) – An L1 “non-traditional” law student in Chicago. A candid, readable journal of what it’s like to balance work and family while pursuing a dream.

“Problem is, my husband is not on board.  He, in fact, believes my choices are harmful to our kids and our marriage!  I get that being away so much makes life harder for him and I appreciate all he’s taken on to make this work, but I also believe I am showing my kids that nothing is impossible and it is important to go for your dreams.  My daughter, especially, needs to see a woman succeeding at something that is really really hard!  I hope my marriage can make it, but if it doesn’t, it was going to fall apart without law school.

So, we shall see – it will be an interesting 3 years!!!”

Dennis Jansen (Eponymous) – University of Minnesota law student and urban explorer/commentator. Probably the most progressive blawg I’ve come across — Edgy/interesting graphics. Engaging. Irreverent  but smart. Urban/urbane. Lots of useful links, well organized.

Excerpt:

The problem with my international tax law class is that it is far more regulation dense than my corporate tax law or basic federal tax law courses. Things also tend to get “mathy.” Ick.

The Reasonably Prudent Law Student (Huma Rashid) – Blogs about law school experiences,  fashion and writing (legal writing, critical theory, essays and fiction). Pivots from a post on “Vintage Finds At Tulle for Under $50″ to an illustrated pyromania-themed meditation on final exams.

So mad skills, right? (Do people still say that?)

For additional recommendations on student blawggers, check out the winners of Clear Admit’s first “Best of Blogging Awards,” announced earlier this week.

Grammar Griefers Make Headlines with NYT Piece on “Twetiquette”

Yesterday I saw several tweets about a New York Times piece by a John Metcalfe on Twitter’s spelling, usage and grammar vigilantes, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds.”

“A small but vocal subculture has emerged on Twitter of grammar and taste vigilantes who spend their time policing other people’s tweets — celebrities and nobodies alike. These are people who build their own algorithms to sniff out Twitter messages that are distasteful to them — tweets with typos or flawed grammar, or written in ALLCAPS — and then send scolding notes to the offenders. They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.”

One blawgger I follow on Twitter called it “douchiquette.”

Notwithstanding, to borrow a phrase from the “fellow traveler” handbook, while I don’t agree with their methods, they do have a point.

Back in March I wrote a post inspired by National Grammar Day (March 4th).

“Yes, there was some adolescent know-it-all-ism in there too, but over time I came to realize that grammar — like manners — is ultimately about making people feel comfortable. So even now, in the age of 140-character, thumb-typed communication, attention to spelling, usage and grammar are valuable because they make for clear, easy and enjoyable reading, and they inform the way others perceive your personal and professional brand.

  1. Sloppy writing conveys inattention to detail. What does that say about the quality of the product or service you’re selling?
  2. Glaring mistakes trip the reader or listener, and distract them from your message. A few days ago I was reading a post by a relatively well-known law marketing blogger and encountered the phrase “for all intensive purposes” — and that’s all I remember about it.
  3. Tolerances vary widely. Even if some — or even most — friends and business associates don’t care about spelling, punctuation and the occasional mangled sentence, some will. Is irritating or alienating even a small fraction of your clients due to lazy communication an acceptable loss?

For the record, I don’t profess to be a grammar expert or master prose stylist, and I am certain that martinets in the gotcha brigade could pick this post to pieces. Rather, for very concrete business reasons I am advocating vigilance and continual improvement in written and oral communication. Presentations and writing are products. Regardless of the power of your ideas, the color, fit and finish also matter, because they differentiate and distinguish your brand.”

And as the Twetiquette griefers have demonstrated, there’s an app for that.

Law Firm Blogs: Why You Don’t Need a Website

Over the past several weeks I’ve noticed numerous tweets announcing small and solo law firms launching or relaunching their Web site. In turn, I took greater notice of the commonplace and repetitive exhortations from Web-design-firms-cum-online-marketing-experts to optimize SEO on your law firm website.

Taken together, these episodes have me wondering, “Why?”

I’m not arguing that websites are obsolete, or questioning SEO — to the contrary — but rather, I am wondering why expensive, complex, static websites are still so entrenched and central to the online marketing and identity of solo and small firms. The best explanation I’ve come up with is 1) conformity and 2) habit. Websites are virtual “shingles.” EVERYBODY has one. If you’re in practice, you must have a website to show you’re legit and to help people find you. As a result, blogs usually are undertaken in addition to — not instead of — websites. No wonder, then, that social marketing for law firms is viewed as an additional expense and resource strain.

But there’s another way to look at it: You don’t NEED a website.

Law firm blogs meet the same key functional objectives as websites – aka brochureware — at a fraction of the cost. They are dead simple to set up and manage, they look professional and they have the critical advantage of dynamic content.

Publishing company HarperStudio asked fans of its blog that same question when it began contemplating how best to elevate its online marketing and community-building strategy:

“Why do we ‘need’ a website? We’ve been looking at proposals for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I am still not clear what we would accomplish with a website that justifies that amount of money. I certainly understand the difference between their functions [blogs and websites], just not the ROI.

Nearly everyone who’s opinion on the matter I highly regard says we need one. Certainly the companies we’ve looked into hiring say yes. And yet no one seems to be able to explain to me ‘WHY’ in a way that makes sense to me.”

A few months after asking followers for their opinions, HarperStudio announced its decision:

“Your comments to the question were AMAZING. I read and used every one. The result is that we decided to forgo the expensive website and instead build a WordPress site….The whole thing came in under $10,000. It’s easily maintainable by all of us and our authors. We hope it’s a fun place to hang out. It’s a work in progress.”

Marketing blogger Trish Jones begins her case in support of blogs over websites with a key point:

“First of all, I need to make this ultra clear … a blog IS a website. In fact, I want to take that a stage further and say that blogs are “dynamic” websites. You can have pages on a blog and, with some of the great blog software on the market today, it can sometimes be difficult to tell some blogs and websites apart.”

My own elevator pitch for the advantages of blogs goes something like this:

  • Operational: Even non-technical people can set up a creditable blog through providers like WordPress, TypePad and Blogger in less than an afternoon — for free and by themselves — and maintain/update it just as easily.
  • Financial: Basic blog packages and hosting are free, but even custom design and hosting costs a fraction of what’s required for a full-blown website.
  • Functional: Blogs are more than narratives. They incorporate tabbed pages just like standard websites.
  • Aesthetics: Very attractive, readable themes are plentiful and available for free; customized/branded themes are very affordable.
  • Agility: You can add, delete and update blog pages by entering text into forms on the fly, while Web pages need to be programmed and tested before being published.
  • Marketing effectiveness: Dynamic content like blog narratives and comments give followers a reason to follow and continually visit a blog, and — this is important — search engines index blog content more quickly than website content.

Standard websites are still the way to go if the required functionality and/or user experience is complex:

  • Dropdown menus
  • Numerous and complex groupings
  • Complex branching and cross-referencing
  • Microsites
  • Sophisticated graphics and multimedia
  • Forms
  • Downloads

So while they are still useful and necessary for some purposes, fully featured websites don’t need to be the default setting for law firm online branding and marketing any longer.

The ROI of Listening Part I: Popular Hosts and Interesting Guests

When I speak with clients about business development through social media, I frequently use the analogy of a cocktail party. The same rules of thumb that help make you a popular host and sought-after guest in your social life apply to cultivating a blog that’s followed and linked to.

  1. No one wants to listen to someone talk about their job all night. Mix it up, and don’t be afraid to talk about your life/interests beyond work.
  2. The best way to meet people is to enter a conversation that’s already in progress. If you are a new or relatively unknown blogger, it is much easier and more productive to find people already talking about a topic you’re interested in than it is to throw some pick-up lines out there and hope someone will overhear. Use simple search tools to find, comment on and link to other blogs, posts and tweets that you find interesting, and you’re more likely to get the same intereste in return.
  3. Don’t spend all your time talking to the same small circle of friends. Social media “cool kids” love to cite and retweet each other. But if you haven’t noticed, eavesdroppers who try to join in are usually ignored. If you have that luxury, mazel tov, but most social marketers don’t. As the numbers of your followers, fans and subscribers grow, there’s an opportunity to differentiate yourself and build positive brand associations by being inclusive, or at least approachable.
  4. Politeness pays. Even a short but pleasant exchange can go a long way building your online brand. Guy Kawasaki was already a senior member of the social media pantheon when I started following him on Twitter.  When he followed me back, he tweeted a friendly message that showed he’d read my profile. Mind you, since then he’s never retweeted me, linked to one of my posts or responded to my @ comments, but I’m still a fan because he demonstrated simply and elegantly that he understands that small, polite gestures can carry a lot of branding weight.
  5. Location, location, location. Kevin O’Keefe’s recent post about Facebook rightly notes:

“For lawyers the key to client development success is going where the people are. The people preferably being your target audience of clients, prospective clients, referral sources, and the influencers of those three.”

Phrased another way:

  • Be interesting
  • Be approachable
  • Be curious
  • Work all parts of the room
  • Don’t be a jerk
  • LISTEN

Works for parties, works for social media.