Are companies silencing rather than servicing their customers?

The medium for securing customer service attention has changed, but I have to wonder: are companies really listening to their customers? Too many brands are missing the point of engagement and are instead using social media to hurriedly silence their otherwise loyal fans.

It was about 12 years ago when I called 1-800-Flowers for a delivery for my dear friend. She'd experienced a tragic miscarriage and I aimed to send her an "It's Your Day" Bouquet, a 1-800-Flowers staple. My idea was to send her something beautiful, cheerful and to let her know that I was thinking of her since I was helpless and 2,000 miles away. I placed the order in the morning and in the afternoon I received delivery confirmation. I didn't immediately hear from my friend but a few hours later I called her to check in anyway. She hung up on me. I called back. She screamed unrecognizable obscenities into the phone. I called one more time and she'd calmed enough to enunciate a clear, "How could you?" I was startled. I didn't expect a Nobel Peace Prize for sending her flowers but I thought she'd at least appreciate the gesture. She's a pretty reasonable gal, even in a state of sadness, so this was utterly confusing. Then she explained: 1-800-Flowers did not deliver an "It's Your Day" Bouquet. What was delivered was a vase of blue and white flowers and tied to it was, none other than, an "It's A Boy!" balloon.

I was mortified. Bewildered. Angry. After swearing on my life that this was not some sick idea of a joke, I called 1-800-Flowers. I did a three-way call so that my friend could hear the entire transaction. It turned out that 1-800-Flowers got my order right but the local florist screwed up its deliveries. My friend received the right card, wrong delivery item. It was a nightmare. 1-800-Flowers immediately jumped into overcompensation mode, offering me coupons and free flowers, and then proceeded to barrage my friend with flower deliveries for a few days in order to try to bring some sunshine into her day. Neither one of us wanted coupons or flowers. I had vowed never to order through them again and my friend just wanted to forget the whole scarring experience. Yet the barrage of apologies continued.

I remembered this story today as I ordered a 1-800-Flowers surprise for another friend of mine -- thankfully a much happier occasion. I wondered how this customer service issue I had 12 years ago might've been addressed had I been such an avid Twitter and Facebook user at the time. I most likely would've taken my rage to the interwebs, as might have my friend if she chose to expose the personal experience that caused it, and I bet all heck would've broken loose on the 1-800-Flowers Twitter feed. I imagined it as, "Please DM us so we can take care of this right away!"

The medium for securing customer service attention has changed, but I have to wonder: are companies really listening to their customers? In the old days of 12 years ago, if you were slighted you would call, send a letter, or even an email form and then a coupon would show up days later. United Airlines, which was deserving of many complaints at that time in my life, was notorious for its vouchers. The company didn't listen when I said "I never want to fly your airline again!" Instead, it tried to give me coupons so that I would forget my frustration and take another flight in the hope that it might be good.

The good thing about social media is that it gives customers a voice. It gives us an arena in which to express thoughts and feelings about brands and, if we allow them to, it gives brands an arena in which to engage with us. Many companies are doing this exceptionally well -- Zappos, Comcast, JetBlue, to name just a few. The stories about these poster child brands are everywhere. But there still exists a significant list of companies that are using the old silencing model. Pushing flowers, or coupons, or discounts, just to get the customer to stop talking about the brand. Customer retention is secondary. The panic over a potential PR nightmare is first. And, considering that most of these customer service types are not trained PR people, the results can often be worse than if the brand had simply said "I'm Sorry."

As an example, I had an experience with Snapfish over the last couple of weeks that made me feel right back where I was with that awful 1-800-Flowers order from 12 years ago. I ordered a couple of Halloween photo books for me and my boyfriend. I wrote a little story and was so careful to put the photos in the right place. This was a very special Halloween for us and it is also his favorite holiday. I was getting ready to have surgery and I wanted him to have something to cheer him up instead of worrying. I placed an order, selected overnight shipping and was thrilled to know that the books would arrive soon. Days went by and a shipping notification came but the books never did. I tried the HP customer service number but after being stuck in a 40-minute HP audio advertising loop I hung up. I went to the Facebook page where a Snapfish rep said, "Oh no!! That is terrible! I hope the books have arrived by now." I didn't receive the books in time for surgery and once I became lucid again I checked the status of my order. Still no books. I went back to Facebook and begged for some help. I was then given an email address and was told to write them with my order number. I did, after making it clear on the Facebook page that I didn't care about coupons or refunds, I just want what I paid for and I wanted it right away. The response? An automated "Your order has been refunded" email from Snapfish. That was the end of the human interaction. No "I'm sorry, Miss Leggio, but we will send you your books." It was easier for them to silence me... with an automated email.

While my Snapfish experience was the impetus for this blog post, I did not write this only to lambaste them. That would be an abuse of my blog. But I do think it's an important example of how companies are using social media the wrong way to deal with customers. Access to customers, engagement with customers, is not there to be abused as a silencer. It's there so that companies can learn from their mistakes, listen to what their customers have to say, and then take appropriate action to make the customers happy. A one-size-fits all approach will only make the customer feel like the product of an automated, heartless customer care system.

Have any good -- or bad -- examples of customer service via social media? Share them in the comments.