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How to Avoid "The Comcast Effect"

Customer engagement is now a critical investment, not an expense.

Just a decade ago, the dynamic between company and consumer was relatively fixed. If a consumer was unhappy with a company’s customer service, the rule of thumb was that they would tell maybe 10 friends at most, with little to no impact on a company’s reputation or business.

We’re seeing that dynamic get flipped on its head, as Comcast recently found out when a negative customer service call went viral earlier this summer. The power has undisputedly shifted to the consumer.

Through a combination of factors, the consumer’s voice has never been louder or more pervasive. We live in a digital era, where news travels at the speed of real time, and is then amplified to and by the masses. Once upon a time, a complaint would die in the call center — today it is making headlines, and could go viral. We have shifted from an analog world to a digital one, which presents both a great challenge and a tremendous opportunity for companies today.

Comcast learned this the hard way. In mid-July, a customer called Comcast to cancel his service — and recorded the eight-minute call. In this recording, the Comcast rep not only refused to give the customer what he wanted, but aggressively questioned and challenged the customer. Shortly after posting the recording, the conversation went viral. Within days, more than five million people had listened to the recording, and more than 1,000 articles can be found on the topic on Google. A new trend has emerged, with more and more consumers recording their Comcast calls, but this time they’re getting the results they want.

The dangers are real for companies that do not understand the new social contract between company and consumer. While Comcast is scrambling to reexamine their practices to avoid further disaster, the lesson is simple: Treat customers like humans, not as transactions. In fact, the smartest brands are using every consumer interaction as an opportunity to create a relationship.

While digital can lead to “viral” nightmares, it can also be empowering for companies who leverage the right technologies. Leading companies are intently observing consumer behavior, and leveraging innovative digital channels to connect with consumers in the ways that they prefer.

Consumers want to communicate in digital channels — more than one billion consumers today are using mobile messaging apps to instantly text their friends and family. They won’t wait — they want an instant and constant connection with brands. They want to be treated as an individual — they want a conversation with a person, not stock answers or automated voice systems. Call-center agents are tightly scripted because of corporate necessity. The necessity of managing all consumer “transactions” for efficiency has essentially stripped the “human” factor out of these one-on-one conversations.

The very idea of asking customers to call a toll-free number, a technology introduced by AT&T in 1967, is woefully out of touch. Consumers associate 800 numbers with automated phone trees and long wait times; a 2012 Forrester Research report shows that 800 numbers are associated with lower rates of customer satisfaction. Calls to an 800 number are inefficient for both consumer and company from a standpoint of cost, time and happiness.

Companies that are using digital platforms to connect with consumers have several distinct advantages. Through digital, a consumer can engage with a company through any device and any channel they want, including chat, voice, content or video. A consumer is never “on hold” with digital, because of several factors: Agents can manage several concurrent chats at a time, creating more resource availability; and digital behavior enables an agent to know when a consumer might need help, and to engage them even before they even ask for help.

Even more powerful, a digital connection allows for real-time sentiment analysis. When a customer is chatting with a live agent, analytics software can monitor the “mood” of a conversation, and alert a manager with a red flag if it starts to go sour. The ability to proactively avert a negative situation has enormous implications for both a brand’s reputation and their bottom line.

If the consumer still has a bad experience and ends up tweeting about it, a digital platform can detect the complaint and enable a company to reach out and invite the consumer into a real-time conversation to resolve the issue. Companies now have these innovative technologies at their disposal. And just as consumers have shifted away from analog, companies need to follow suit. If Comcast had been digital-minded, the situation may have turned out very differently.

Engagement is now a critical investment, not an expense. Companies who don’t focus on building customer relationships will be quickly exposed, and will lose out to competition. But just as digital has empowered consumers today, it provides a bright future for companies that care.

Robert LoCascio is founder and CEO of LivePerson, a leading cloud-based customer-engagement solution, empowering businesses to drive the greatest possible results from their digital assets. He will be the keynote presenter at LivePerson’s annual Aspire Conference, taking place Wednesday in New York City. Reach him @RobLoCascio.

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