Andy Meadows is the CEO of LiveOak360, and the creator of Bearhug, an Austin-based customer engagement platform launching today. He is focused on delivering real business value by educating clients about the latest proven technologies, strategies that deliver improved profits and operational efficiencies, and using technology to improve life.
Customer Care Today
37signals’ dustup with GetSatisfaction almost 2 years ago now for bullying marketing tactics is still cited as an example of how, especially when it comes to customer care, the question of who “owns” your interactions with your users (and they with you) is a sensitive subject.
Two trends since that incident have made the issue even more important today.
One, a focus on great customer care has become, in the era of Zappos, not just a requisite checkbox, but an opportunity for differentiation, and a primary means of acquiring and retaining users (customer care as a revenue generator, not just a cost center).
Second, those interactions are not just happening on customer care platforms – they’re literally happening around the web, as comment strings beneath blogs and news articles, on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, via Q+A sites like Quora and StackOverflow, and as a result of reviews on sites like Yelp (B2C) and ChoiceVendor (B2B), among many more examples.
GetSatisfaction still hosts unofficial customer communities, and links to them prominently on their website with designations like “37Signals is not yet committed to open coversation about its products and services. Encourage them to join and support the Company-Customer Pact.” They still SEO-optimize those pages heavily, and compete for the attention of users with other channels, whether official or unofficial.
Especially in cases where a less forward-thinking company has no meaningful customer care focus or corresponding community, these unofficial channels can empower individuals who would otherwise be denied a voice. Stories of injustices made right via social media are frequent, if not altogether common.
But in cases where a care-centric organization is fully engaged, no matter where interactions with customers or users take place, the name of the game very quickly goes to data – getting it, triaging it, cross-referencing it and drawing conclusions from it so that you can improve products and processes holistically.
Forest for the Trees
At a micro level, the customer is always right, and winning passionate users is most often a matter of enabling authentic conversations and giving people at those endpoints enough power to make a difference. But at a macro level, marketers and service professionals need to be able to draw insights – cause and effect is everything in customer care. If you can’t look at comprehensive data across all of your efforts and iterate towards a better overall experience, you’re stuck treating symptoms and not diseases.
And as marketers and businesspeople alike become more and more data-driven, linking care data with sales data with PR data with ad data becomes a core competence for any organization.
That data, by the way, might include everything from bug submissions to new product ideas to sentiment scores and voting history. But it also includes more abstract information like frequency of participation, rate of resolution, and submission usefulness.
The problem is, the data isn’t really available. It’s locked up in a land grab.
Who Owns the Data?
It’s certainly healthy to debate whether you, as an application or service provider, or your users themselves own the data comprising your interactions with each other.
In my mind, both parties should have equal access to that data, freely. Access to data around your customers should be unfettered. It should not be throttled or restricted. Nor should it be part of a premium offering – you shouldn’t have to pay to know what your customers are saying to you and about you.
Same goes for users themselves – many pour their heart and soul into care forums and other feedback mechanisms, most of them altruistically. One day soon I hope that everyday people will be able to manage their data the way they would their health or their wealth. But until then, individuals should, at minimum, have read, write and export rights to the data they have created around the web.
What should not be up for debate, however, is the idea that a middleman — a platform provider like GetSatisfaction, or even Twitter – owns the data. Just because you own the means of communication does not mean that you should own the content and data of the communication itself.
Getting (Really) Real
Microsoft doesn’t own the documents I create in Word. Camtasia doesn’t own the screencasts I use their software to create. There’s no doubt that Flickr doesn’t own my photos, and Evernote doesn’t own my product sketches and business card scans.
And Gmail doesn’t own my emails — though it does use them to improve the relevance of the ads it serves me. It is essentially renting that data, in exchange for a free email service and storage in the cloud.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, we decided that our collective contributions to development of great products and services aren’t assets and aren’t valuable. We have been all too happy to cede ownership.
But those interactions cut right to the center of how companies make money, and ransoming the data therein has become almost vogue.
Even despite well-meaning export-bridges to other applications and “open API’s” (a term that drives me crazy), there are a lot of questions around who owns your customer engagement data.
It’s not a good thing. I say this as the proprietor of a customer care platform myself, a platform we created precisely because we were fed up with how vendor and data lock-in were created and subsequently enforced, right under our noses.
Whether you are a brand, a developer, an entrepreneur, or a well-meaning customer or user, welcome to the wild wild west of customer care and the nasty underbelly of passionate user communities, where who owns the data is a very political issue, and there are more questions than answers, unfortunately.
Make sure that you fully understand any provider’s policies before you commit to using them. You don’t want to end up beholden to a third party for fundamental insights into your business, and you don’t want that same third party governing your interactions with your own users.
And as a user, speak up! Your contributions are not just valuable – they are critical to almost every company’s success nowadays. You should be afforded basic rights, including read, write and export abilities. Get smart about how your data is used, and demand fair means by which to contribute.
And there are definitely some good guys out there – like Prefinery, BatchBlue, Beanstalk, Chargify, Freshbooks, and Harvest, that make open data a commitment, not just a buzzword, and are growing quickly as a result. Support the forward-looking players and help them succeed, so that hopefully, others will follow suit.