You Shouldn’t Have to Pay to Talk To Your Own Customers

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Comments

  1. ryanheneise says:

    We've been pretty happy with Zendesk. One thing that's a stumbling block is that it really feels like it's just a big email-based ticket system. Which works great for tracking and resolving issues, but it's not conducive to deepening interaction with customers. It's hard to get people involved in forums, and there really isn't a way of measuring satisfaction. It also feels very formal and official, which can be a good thing, but I sometimes wonder if people think they're not talking to a real person. Looking forward to trying your system.

  2. Ryan, thanks for sharing your thoughts about Zendesk. It is a great helpdesk application, but Zendesk, like most of its competitors, are focused on “break/fix” situations. Problem reported – problem solved. There's no chance for other customers to learn from the experience, the content can't be found by search engines, and there's no relationship established.

    BearHug takes a different approach to Customer Care. BearHug creates the opportunity for transparent, authentic conversations with your entire community. We believe that this makes for happier customers, more profitable organizations, and less frustration where it counts.

    I'm looking forward to your feedback and learning how we can make BearHug your Customer Care platform of choice.

  3. Hi Andy,
    A few quick corrections: Get Satisfaction does not use designations like the one you cited re: 37 Signals. We removed that language well over a year ago (within minutes of initial complaints about it), and have remained focused on creating a supportive open channels for companies to interact with their customers towards productive outcomes.

    Secondly, we're big believers in people retaining ownership of their own content wherever possible. the standard terms of service on Get Satisfaction do not claim ownership of anyone's content–simply a license to display it. All ownership remains with the end-users (unless expressly stipulated by companies/partners that customize our platform). We also provide an open API for people to access their own content.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  4. Thor, thanks for the insight and clarifications.  Kudos to your team for taking steps in the right direction after the issue with 37Signals.  It was progress, but I still experience and hear of similar stories of confusion around when communities are leveraging the GetSatisfaction platform and when it has been abandoned.  The 37Signals page was updated as recently as a few days ago and your site says that I can “get updates” about their products, “have your answers featured” and provide ratings for their products.  While I appreciate the challenge you're faced with, it still comes across as confusing and misleading.  To a novice, it would appear that a support community exists here to facilitate my needs, but the reality is that the company isn't listening (well, not on GetSatisfaction) and there is not an active support community.  Rather than be a source of confusion, I'd rather have my own community traffic directed to the right place and avoid confusion or misnomers about the real presence of a company monitoring a GetSatisfaction site.

    The content ownership issue is a challenge faced by many companies, but there are some that are getting it right.  My point is that your Terms of Service indicates that the only way I can re-use the content posted on your site is when I am a paying customer.  If I stop paying you, I lose this privilege.  

    As you point out yourself in this thread (http://bearh.ug/noexport), your content is only available for paying customers. If a customer ever stops paying you for your service, the content and conversations with their community do not belong to the customer.

    I applaud GetSatisfaction for having a platform that allows a community to help each other, but I still believe that steps can be taken to extract more elements of company brands away from GetSatisfaction sites and make it crystal clear that this is a community-only site and the odds of a company member listening (let alone moderating) is highly unlikely.  Until then, I'll continue to encourage companies to step forward and use products that allow them to engage directly with their own communities and not rent the communications from their customers.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] [from steve_portigal] You Shouldn’t Have to Pay to Talk To Your Own Customers [AustinStartup] – [Emerging issues and best practices in online customer support forums] 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). Those interactions are not just happening on customer care platforms – they’re literally happening around the web…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. Share this post a2a_config.linkname="ChittahChattah Quickies"; a2a_config.linkurl="http://www.portigal.com/blog/chittahchattah-quickies-586/"; a2a.init("page"); [...]