Book review: Empowered

True story. I was in Harrisburg, PA one afternoon and the internet died.

True story. I was in Harrisburg, PA one afternoon and the internet died. Or, more precisely, Comcast's cable broadband went out. Customer service promised to send someone, and while I was grumpily waiting I posted a complaint to Twitter. When service resumed I found the tweet had attracted a reply from one @ComcastBonnie, who commented that it was probably squirrels chewing on the cables, and that if the broadband came back I shouldn't cancel the appointment because the issue was likely to recur if not fixed. She was right on all counts. But more to the point: that was the first time I saw a company use Twitter to do marketing in an intelligent way. It was also my first non-awful contact with the company.

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, both vice-presidents at Forrester Research, fill Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business with stories like this. The bottom line: if you give your employees the ability to actually fix customers' problems instead of just scripts, you will end up with happier customers. You can, the authors argue, differentiate yourself on customer service. And you have to, because today's social media have given the customer so much amplification with which to fight back.

Otherwise you might be like Maytag, which had decades of reputation as a maker of reliable washing machines up-ended by a single frustrated blogger who outed its poor customer service. Or like United Airlines, whose less-than-delicate guitar-handling practices were exposed on YouTube by musician Dave Carroll, whose ability to write a catchy tune made sure that millions of people across the world heard what United did to his instrument. By contrast, 20 years ago, pre-YouTube, topical songwriter Tom Paxton memorialised a similar situation: "Thank you, Republic Airlines, for splintering the neck of my guitarâ?¦". the song was just as catchy ("There can be no greater satisfaction than if | You were the next to go the way of Braniff"). Lacking YouTube to make it famous, that song delighted Paxton's audiences but didn't escape onto the morning news shows.

Empowered is a typical representative of the current trend in business/technology books; co-author Josh Bernoff also co-wrote a previous book, Groundswell (a concept which is frequently mentioned in the present book). It's full of anecdotes and statistics about how companies have succeeded and failed, in this case in response to social networks. It has its key concept, neatly capitalised to make sure you don't miss it, in this case HEROes, who are necessary to champion empowerment throughout the organisation. And it has its checklist scheme for evaluating projects, in this case EVE (for Effort-Value-Evaluation). Mostly, you get the sense that these books are designed to market the consultancy and its ideas.

This isn't necessarily bad; consultants do have a lot of experience working through new concepts with their customer companies. The detail given here, along with the studies of what makes projects succeed or fail, is likely to be of more specific use to companies struggling to keep up with today's business and cultural changes than the more general books on social media we've reviewed previously.

But the basic theme — that companies can differentiate and market themselves with good customer service — could have been said by anyone ten years ago. Don't business managers ever have to navigate voice menus?

Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business By Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler Harvard Business School Press 252pp SBN: 978-1-4221-5563-9 £19.99

Wendy Grossman


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