Customer Communications – Two Paths, One Result

This digital world we now live in is still in its infancy. As time moves along, we gain comfort in the technologies that seem so unique today. In the world of marketing, these new technologies are opening many doors for meaningful customer communications. However, selling these new communication streams still remains a challenge. I have been of the belief that this new breed of digital communication is most frequently employed only when it becomes necessary. However, there is a second more preferable path. First, let’s start with the more common.

Communicate when necessary:

Dell may have been the first and most notable case study of adoption when it becomes required. Jeff Jarvis wrote on his frustrating experience with Dell’s customer service. The post picked up steam and replaced Dell in organic search engine listings. Since that time, many other companies have fallen victim to angry customers using their digital voice to spread the message. Most recently, Motrin came under fire for a campaign targeted to new mothers. Even agencies are not immune as Enfatico has been the recipient of a digital uprising.

Most companies and brands have a desire to participate in digital channels. The cost is low, the reach is great and the results – when done right – can be profound. Starbucks has improved their service offerings by letting customers talk about their wants. Dell has responded to their critics by providing a forum for discussion around their products. Both sites have led to improvements in the product and service leaving all customers as beneficiaries of the few participants.

There is little question that companies want to participate. However, the problem is that most only take action when their back is against the wall. The benefit to this approach is the ability to gain critical mass relatively quickly. With a product backlash already underway, greater reach can be had. Digital consumers are already searching results, hash tags are showing up on trending lists for Twitter and Flickr images and YouTube videos are high on the list of views. Finding the relevant channels becomes easier as conversation already exists.

The problem at this point is the messaging. Companies are already starting off from a negative point of view. They are seen as taking action because they are forced to. Trust is eroded and needs to be earned anew.

In a recent AdAge article, Roger Frizzell of American Airlines responded to questions on being the first airline to charge a checked bag fee.

If we had even more robust customer communications, we could have done more to talk about why we were making thosechanges. Delivering bad news is not the fun part of the job, but we did our best to explain the circumstances behind it to … our customers even though they didn’t like or understand it.

Without question, there would have been better opportunity to talk with customers had the investment already been made to create new channels of communicating. Still, how does one go about creating these channels before they are needed to stem the tide of negative sentiment?

Communicate to learn:

There are many reasons, but for lack of an end all term, we’ll call it communicating to learn. This is the second way companies and brands can create communication channels. Unlike the first, this is undertaken as a benefit to the consumer. While the first method is reactionary, this is proactive.

The key to establishing these communication channels is building the understanding that it will be present when needed. American Airlines would have been better served communicating baggage fees within a community. Rather than forming an us against them mentality, the announcement could have served as a building block toward solving both the airline and customer problems. Travelers want reasonable fees. Airlines want to provide them. This was a good opportunity to engage a community to discover alternatives. Even in the absence of alternatives, the message could have been communicated based on necessity rather than come from the blue.


In the end, it does not matter what reasons a company or brand uses to expand their digital communication channels. Communicating without need heightens trust and builds affinity. Responding to a need reaches a broad audience nearly overnight. As Dell has discovered, the original reasons for starting digital communications disappear in consumer’s minds. The Jeff Jarvis incident is only replayed in case studies.

The more important fact is to start using these channels for communication. Only through action can metrics and greater understanding be gained.


2 Responses to Customer Communications – Two Paths, One Result

  1. Adomatica says:

    Enfatico has been the recipient of a digital uprising =

  2. Cory Hendrickson says:

    Yes, Enfatico has received plenty of backlash. First, the Enfartico parody raised some ire and now their attempt at a blog has been met with harsh words. In this context, I wonder if their voice is not responding to customers or if it has a clear definition of who the customer is. An opportunity right now exists to speak to the ad world from the perspective of a new agency. The readers are there, the content is not.

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