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Customer Service is Broken – Can Social Media Fix It?

With increasing consumer demands on brands to engage with them in social media, it’s no longer acceptable for businesses to treat sites like Facebook and Twitter as just content; social media now must be deeply integrated into customer service strategy.

A big testimonial for that comes from the man whom Bloomberg Businessweek described as “the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., and possibly the world.” That man is Frank Eliason, Citi’s Senior VP of Social (formerly the Executive Support Manager at Comcast) and the author of the recently published book, @ Your Service.

In this exclusive interview, Eliason explains why many brands have lost their trust with customers, why they’re failing to effectively use social media for building customer relationships, and some of the ways he and others are trying to fix that.


Interview Highlights

For those of you who like get straight-to-the-meat, here are some of the highlights of my interview with Frank:

 Mo’ Media, Mo’ Problems:

  • Customer service as an industry has been broken for years, and it needs to be transformed right down to the call service agent for driving change in the organization.
  • The profound struggle for brands is that they are not trusted. They have taken their customers for granted, outsourcing service and creating distance with the customer.
  • Brands are woefully underusing and misusing customer service in social media channels. Not only are they measuring the wrong things, but they are taking the wrong approach with how to engage. They are still fixated on how to handle the next PR crisis, rather than generating real change in their organization built on actually helping customers.
  • Customers expect and should receive better service right in the brands’ social media channels. But more importantly, brands need to fix the situations that cause customers to trash the brand in social media.

Frank’s Special Customer Service Tips with Social Media

  • Be a good listener. Social media is about listening and helping. Eliason says the key to successful customer service is building relationships and trust. That starts with listening to customer needs and delivering on those needs.
  • Incorporate video. ““Video is going to be the next major frontier for Customer Service,” says Eliason. “We are already seeing it in a one-to-many structure, such as online help videos that companies post. That was an amazing first step, but the next major frontier is using video on a one-on-one basis.” (You can read more about this in my interview with Frank at, where he shares some of his favorite examples of companies integrating social video in customer service, along with some of my own suggestions including with live and pre-recorded video chats with customer specialists.)
  • Focus less on metrics and highlight the customer story. Brands need to stop looking at customer service as a cost center or a sales center, and treat it as a relationship hub. As Frank says, we are now living in a “relationship economy,” and trust is a key factor. Trust is gained today not by competing for the lowest price, but by how well brands help their customers and consumers-at-large.

My interview with Citi’s Senior VP of Social, Frank Eliason

What are you hoping to accomplish with this book?
Frank: In @ Your Service I strive to help guide the change that social is enforcing on businesses. I strive to highlight what is going on, while also providing means the to learn how to do things differently. In my view, Customer Service as an industry has been broken for years and someone needed to step up and show what it can become. I wanted to encourage CEO and other senior leaders to take a proper look at the Customer and employee experiences they create with every decision. I also wanted to write to the call center agent who is often frustrated. I hope they walk away feeling empowered and knowing how they can drive change in their organization.

What do you see as some of the biggest problems in the customer service industry?
FrankFor years, companies have been striving to send a message to their Customers that the business is centered on them; but in reality, their message has not been reflected in the actual Customer experience. This has creating an overwhelming frustration with their Customers, and often times their own employees.

As an example, companies state this focus in their mission, but then measure their service employees with metrics like handle time, or efficiency as well as sales. This has resulted in poor Customer experiences. For example, you will call customer support; and before they even hear what you have to say, the service agent is focusing on selling you things.

We have also added new computer-voice technology and outsourced service staffs, which sends the message that we do not want to be close to our Customer. We have to stop looking at service as a cost center, or the inverse, a sales center; and focus on being the relationship hub for the company. Customers and employees are the ones defining brand reputations in our hyper-connected world, and the true culture of the company is coming out loud and clear. 

What examples especially come to your mind?

FrankThere are many examples, but some of my favorites are David Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars videos, the sleepy [Comcast] cable technician video, or a little known example that I discuss throughout my book involving a small company called Kotkin Enterprises. Each of these contained aspects that as consumers, we could easily relate to. The messages spread across the Web amazingly fast, and for years the brands are still feeling their residual effects.

Does social media provide it’s own challenges and problems with customers’ expectations of faster and more engaged service? Does this put less or more of a strain on existing customer service resources?
FrankCustomers are gaining the upper hand. The struggle for brands is that they are not trusted, and other Customers will not come to their defense because of the way they feel about the brands. The power has shifted from the message of the company to the message of the masses. As we study social media it is more about the feeling of the masses, as opposed to the company, or the ‘influencers’ that companies strive to gain favor with. When you take the time to study social discussions, you can see that the company message has very limited power over the masses. In fact what tends to resonate is content that everyone relates to.  


These activities, along with the work of Dell and, my former employer, Comcast, has led many companies to pursue social servicing. Unfortunately most of the brands doing this are doing it completely wrong.  They are concentrating on the next PR crisis as opposed to taking this information and generating real change within their organization.  If you are helping in social, but not fixing the underlying causes, you are simply encouraging other Customers to come into social and trash your brand just to receive the help they wanted in other channels.  Service has been broken for years, and companies must work to fix it.  This is not the fault of the service team, but rather the focus within the company. Service leaders do need to be stronger and share the customer story throughout the organization. It is this team that controls the brand image, more than any other effort within the company. 

[Author’s note: For more on this point, I highly recommend checking out Brian Solis’ article, “Why Do Customers Use Social Networks for Customer Service? Because They Can…”]

What are some of the ways you teach others how to correct these mistakes?
FrankMost companies have been fully focused on metrics, yet the only metric I have seen drive true change has been the bottom line.  If you want to drive change within the company, focus less on the metrics and highlight the Customer story. Throughout my career I have seen this drive change at all levels within organization. Historically, reality is not often known by the senior leaders, but once they connect to it, they will fix it. 

What are your thoughts thoughts on the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer Report, which claimed in it’s survey there is a huge decline in customer loyalty with big brands; and an increase in trust for social media sources coming from who customers perceive as their “peers?”
FrankI love the Edelman Trust Barometer and read it thoroughly every year.  I am not surprised at the decline in trust for businesses. This is impacted by many factors, including the overall economy, messages sent by many constituents (such as the companies themselves, business leaders, similar surveys, political organizations, politicians, leaders, journalists, and now the Consumers themselves via social media). I expect this will continue at the same level or decline further in upcoming years.  

What do you see as the future of customer service in social media?
FrankOver the next few years I expect Consumers to exert more control over businesses, highlighting many negative things they do.  Even companies that are typically loved will feel this. A great example is Netflix when they split out their costs for DVD’s by mail and streaming content. The topic took off in social media. To many this was a surprise because up until then people loved the company. The reason they were so loved was they were – and to some extent still are – seen as an alternative to cable; yet this price increase was viewed as doing the same thing cable companies have been perceived as doing for years. They lost trust instantly. Welcome to the new socially connected world.  

I like to say we now live in the “relationship economy,” because now it is about building and maintaining relationships. Trust will always be a key factor. Of course, this requires us to rethink the current Customer service model. It is now more important than ever to build this trust, but it will require us to do things very differently.