Blogosphere PR is a waste of money

The Gazette today has an essay from Mitch Joel (so great they published it twice), republished and edited from a blog post, about how media has changed and companies should monitor the blogosphere and respond to people’s complaints as if they were news articles.

Joel’s essay makes several very valid points, about how Google can bring a critical blog post about your company into the limelight, and about how the media is spread out and includes a lot of online outlets.

But his conclusion is wrong. It makes little sense for big companies to care what bloggers say about them. And the reason is quite depressing: Customers don’t care about crappy customer service (at least until it happens to them).

Just look at Bell Canada. Their Mobility wireless and Sympatico Internet brands have by far the worst customer service reputation in the country, which is not an easy feat. (Imagine a company that responds to a service collapse by shutting down their customer service department temporarily.) Blogs and message boards are filled with complaints, vows to never do business with them again. CEO Michael Sabia lies through his teeth that customer service is their “number one priority,” but nothing seems to change.

And yet, ironically on the same day this article is published, we hear that Bell Canada’s wireless division is seeing soaring profits, in part because of new people signing up for wireless service. The article talks about how Bell has to focus on keeping and obtaining customers, and “increasing profitability.” Michael Sabia doesn’t mention “customer service” once.

Why is this? How could a company with the worst service be getting more people signed up?

  1. Customer service is expensive. And the better it is, the more expensive it is. Human resources are always the most important part of any large company’s bottom line. The more they can save on these positions, the better off they’ll be.
  2. One person doesn’t mean much to a big company. In fact, if you’re the kind of person with a complicated situation who’s going to spend a lot of effort fighting them on it, you’re probably the kind of customer they don’t want. When a company has millions of customers, it really doesn’t matter if one gets screwed.
  3. Few people have serious problems with service. While most people have had to deal with customer service reps once or twice a year, the vast, vast majority of customers use the service and pay their bills without talking to anyone at the company. The very few who have serious problems, bad enough to warrant a blog post, are considered acceptable losses.
  4. Everyone does it. Don’t like Bell Mobility? Who are you going to switch to? Telus? Rogers? They’re not much better. There’s an de facto industry standard of great sales but horrible service that everyone reaches eventually. And the few customers Bell loses to Rogers because of customer service nightmares will be offset by customers Rogers loses to Bell for the same reason.
  5. Customers care about price, not service. There’s a reason we buy all our crap from China, get the cheap imported fruit from the grocery store, eat at McDonald’s and shop at Ikea for borderline-disposable furniture. It’s cheap. And in the battle for cheap vs. quality, cheap will win almost every time. Lots of people check price lists but very few look Google customer service stories before choosing a service provider.

Complaining about customer service in blogs or the media does tend to work. Mike Boone and Jean-François Mercier both got Bell to solve their problems after going public with them.

So by all means, blog about your problems, because they’re more likely to get solved that way. But don’t expect the company to change the way it does business just because you’re unhappy. It’s easier for them to give gold-plated service to a newspaper columnist or two than to hire three or four more full-time customer service reps for the rest of us.

Much as we’d like to think that top-notch customer service is good for the bottom line, looking at the industry clearly shows the opposite. It’s like environmental-friendliness: Better to do something symbolic yet meaningless (like change your packaging’s colour to green) than sacrifice profits to make a difference.

Having a few bloggers trashing your company is just part of the game. Fixing their problems on an individual basis might help some people feel better about your company, but it’s not going to help your bottom line.

And any unnecessary expense that doesn’t increase profit is a waste of money.

8 thoughts on “Blogosphere PR is a waste of money

  1. Mitch Joel - Twist I

    OK, I think we’re in violent agreement because for every “Bell Hell” story there is, we have an equal amount of “Dell Hell” stories – where (cumulatively) enough of these stories have changed the way the companies operate.

    I also don’t think it’s a silver bullet now, but in the Long Tail – where all of this content sits and resides in prevalent search engine results forever – I think it will be.

    More and people are using a search engine to find out about whether or not they should buy a product/service and that first page of results “is” the brand. As more and more people go online, get savvy, etc… this is going to have a huge affect (I think).

    Certain Journalists are getting customer service issues resolved because of their ability to tell their message to a large enough base. Bloggers are beginning to feel this access to the mass as well.

    Do I kid myself into thinking that people would prefer customer service over price. No. Is there a growing segment of people who do. I’m sure there are.

    The companies that move from Good To Great (to steal the phrase from Jim Collins) are the ones who rise above and provide great price, service and quality. But, as they say, your mileage may vary.

    Reply
  2. Shawn Goldwater

    I actually thought Bell was better than Videotron. But then again I haven’t had to deal with Bell too much one-on-one, to date. Maybe you’re right, maybe they’re all equally crappy.

    Reply
  3. Michel Leblanc

    Steve,
    Two years ago I wrote a post that went like this : Bureau en gros un service de merde. And you know what, that post ranked on google results page one for more than a year (iti is now on page two) and the keyword Bureau en gros was one of the biggest hitter on my blog. Two years later I have never heard of their head office and i am quite sure it costed them a hell of a lot of sales. But do not write about it in your paper. Let’s keep it between us cause i have been accused of doing “bisbille marketing” while giving that example at conferences.

    Reply
  4. Fagstein Post author

    But how do we know it cost them sales? How do we know any lost sales are more than it would have cost them to have proper service?

    We don’t.

    I think a lot of people who do searches like this do so after they’ve been screwed over, rather than before.

    Reply
  5. Jean Tremblay

    “How can I give you an excellent service today?” That is what they often ask when they greet the client. My answer is “It’s impossible, you work for Bell! It’s not your fault… It’s the system.” Many of them laughed.

    Here are several problems I’ve had with Bell. These are not mere coincidences, it is what happens SYSTEMATICALLY:

    – They never called back after saying they would do an investigation by listening to a past call. They were supposed to call back at most 2 weeks later. Happened twice. They didn’t even have a note about that. An employee even said that they don’t record most of the calls, that they record only a small part of the call for quality monitoring.
    – They hung up, while I was supposed to be transfered to someone else.
    – Have to go through 5-10 different people before having a “solution” which is not even a solution. Each time waiting for 5-20 minutes.
    – Blatant contradictions between what different people said.
    – Not transfered to the right department

    Bell you have to change your ways or die. I’m afraid it’s too late though. I will push for your death.

    Reply
  6. Alexander

    I’ve recently discovered that the Bell modem has been stealing my bandwidth, now naturally this wouldn’t be a problem seeing as I have highspeed and I wouldn’t even know the difference. But now Bell has what’s called a “bit-cap” where they track all internet usage (Uploads/Downloads) and through many different complicated mathematical procedures they add them together to make a total. The total I am “allowed” (for lack of a better word) is 60GB per month. I have 3 computers on the network. My first computer is a laptop running windows vista. Every night I turn off the wireless lan before I go to bed. I also have two computers connected to the lan, which I unplug before I go to bed. I’ll check my usage before doing so. When I wake up in the morning I’ve realized that… WOW…. 0.5GB has been used on my internet during the time when I’ve been asleep. Now Bell says that there may be up to a 3 day period where the usage may not be calculated correctly. So I left all my computers off, unplugged from the modem and everything for 5 days. To my dismay I’ve used another 12GB during this 5 day period. So I had to make sure that the modem wasn’t projecting an unencrypted wireless signal, so I called up bell and they talked me through setting up a secure wireless network (just for my lovely laptop). Again, I turned off the computers for 5 days… Low and behold I am still getting crazy usages… So I called up bell and asked them if they could see if someone is tapping into my DSL line. “Oh no, this is not possible sir. The modems bell gives you are 100% safe sir, even if they were into your DSL line sir, they would need the username and password to use it sir.” (Some woman from india or something… I couldn’t understand what she said sometimes so I think I made her angry.) Well I’ve never given my password to anyone… So I went and bought a network sniffer program… It seems something is sending a packet to my modem and the modem is sending it back and forth like a ping pong ball… Even more suspicious, I recalled the IP address back to Bell while I had them check what was going on with my modem… So… Bell is using my bandwidth to make me spend an extra $30 a month… They are making a tidy profit because it’s so terribly hard to catch them at it. I need to find a good internet provider who does not have a bit cap in my area, I believe I have found one but when I confronted Bell about leaving their services they told me I was under contract… WITHOUT SIGNING ANYTHING. Would this hold up in court?

    Reply
  7. Teekay

    @Alex
    Technically, no, not unless you have some sort of proof you can exhibit in court, but ultimately, if you threaten them with a lawsuit over it, especially the contract bit, they would sooner find a way to settle things with you outside of court than proceed to a trial, as trials are extremely costly.

    So threaten away. The big guys fear the ones like you who make a stink about things. Stink-making equals bad press, which equals lost money (ohnos) so they’ll do whatever they can to find a solution that works for you. Push the envelope on this one.

    Reply
  8. sally

    Hi I spent 4 hours of my day today dealing with bell…………to say they are a nightmare is an understatement. THEY ARE THE WORST COMPANY I HAVE EVER DELT WITH…………..I can’t even get into it all because it has comsumed soo much of my day, I have a 3 week old baby and a 4 year old who were negglected while i was transferred to this person that person….and basically put on hold…for a total of almost 4 hours…..in the end they made the mistake about my phone, and told me to let the money run out on it and never use it again….it was pay as you go…i bought it in canada to use in the US….it doesn’t work in the states…they neglected to tell me that i needed some sort of roaming package……now my boyfreind who is in the states has a non working phone….HE IS A TRUCK DRIVER!!!! hopefully he doesn’t get into a accident or anything because he is phoneless………so bells big problem solving is……they didn’t offer a refund….they just basicall said…well too bad your screwed thanks for the 100 dollars….well i am not going to settle that easy…..i work in customer service…..if i sell a face cream to someone and it burns there face of am i supposed to say oh well………at least it didn’t burn your body too????? not even say sorry or try to help her….i don’t think soooooo………
    THEY ARE SO BRUTAL>…….i am going to write everthing bad everywhere i can about them…..as well as cancelling my TV, Phone, internet and home phone that i have through them…i thought being in business was about keeping and making customers, not pissing them of and loosing them ……..

    Reply

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