Editor’s Note: From the very beginning of Ted Coiné’s highly successful business journey, he has focused on one thing — the human touch. From the outset he focused on providing the best possible customer experience, and his first two books focused on the differences between businesses that practiced great customer service and those that didn’t.
Today Ted focuses on another aspect of the human touch in business—social media. And people are listening. He has over 300,000 organic followers on Twitter. His blog Switch and Shift was ranked #2 on CMOE’s “Top 100 Socially-Shared Leadership Blogs” in 2013. He was listed at #1 on SAP’s “Business Innovation Top 60 Customer Experience Influencers”, #9 on Forbes’ list of “Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers”; and #13 on Huffington Post’s “Top 100 Most Social Pros on Twitter.”
Ted’s latest book A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive explores in-depth the subject of the new social direction companies must travel to succeed and thrive in the 21st century. He includes examples from companies who have successfully traveled this path—and those who have not — at their own peril.
Bruce Boyers’ interview with Ted offers considerable insight into these topics, and the conversation touched on all of them. Anyone who has ever had a business—or anyone who sells—can certainly learn a great deal from what Ted has to say.
First, tell me about Coiné Language School and how you differentiated your business in that market.
The language school started in our living room in 2001, right after 9/11. I had been running a language school in Boston, but because people were all of a sudden not coming to the United States, our clients dried up. So I basically left my employer and sat down with my wife to decide what to do.
There were people right in our Boston suburb that needed to learn English. So we first opened a class in my living room, then eventually rented some space downtown. About 7 or 8 months into that one my students said, “My HR Director would like to talk to you.” I talked to this person and she said, “We have about a hundred people here who need English, and if you could teach here by any chance that would really be convenient for us.”
That’s how I hit a niche. Private language schools were catering to wealthy foreigners coming over here to learn, and the community colleges taught classes. But neither of these jived well with the business community because they didn’t understand business. I had a business background and so I started teaching at these companies, and I just gave them what they wanted. We went very quickly from just teaching English to Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, you name it. If we needed a teacher for it I used my network in Boston, and that was the old days before social media caught on.
And of course, one thing we really focused on in our business was great customer service.
What led you to become an author?
So with our language school, we looked at the state grants. ESL—English as a Second Language—was about 3 percent of what the state spent on training. So we looked at other areas they spent on training, and the fact that companies invested heavily in all sorts of cool things.
One of them was customer service, and I had a very firm foundation in that. As I said that’s how we were running our company—we were differentiating ourselves through customer service. So I decided to sit down and write a book on that from my experiences. The first book, Five Star Customer Service was published in 2005. Spoil ‘em Rotten! came out two years later. Those books, in addition to being sold and read, served as brochures for my speaking and consulting gigs.
Now here’s the trick, though. Right away I realized that customer service was a leadership issue. A lot of people were thinking, “Oh yeah, customer service. Those are the guys who take calls from disgruntled customers.” It’s a totally different mindset. Anyone who thinks that customer service is a department probably doesn’t have very good customer service at their company. So when I wrote Five-Star Customer Service I looked at it the way we were running our business.
There are two routes you can go when you have an awesome customer service ethic in your company. One is that you can charge really high rates and people will be happy to pay for it—that’s like the Ritz-Carlton model. The other way is, you can charge low yet competitive rate and a lot more people will come and you’ll be incredibly profitable. That would be like the Chick-fil-A model. Chick-fil-A is basically the same price, maybe a little bit more than McDonald’s, but in any community where you have a Chick-fil-A there’s people lined up around the block at all times; they out-compete their competitors because people love the service there so much.
It really comes down to leadership. If leadership gets customer service, if leadership finds that customer service is incredibly important and they need a culture of customer service, then that company will thrive no matter the market, and whether they decide to charge high prices and be exclusive or charge competitive low prices and serve everyone.
There’s kind of a funny fact here: We’re all customers—no matter who we are, we’re customers all day long, every day. So many people who run big companies don’t understand that, while they’re living in this five-star realm. If you have a private jet and a driver and you’re the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, you’re probably not standing in line at the bank. They’re completely out of touch: they like excellent service but they don’t get that their customers love it just as much. And if they charge the same as everybody else but provide better service they’re going to make more money.
I’ve worked with a lot of small to midsize companies, and it’s truly rewarding when you get business leaders to get it, and to hire people who really care, and then to keep them caring by providing an awesome place to work.
What inspired your new book A World Gone Social?
Five years ago I was just getting immersed in social media myself, and looking at a couple of trends. I said to myself, “Maybe there is something to this,” and decided to keep watching. I saw that it was the power of the customer and the power of the employee. The company has lost control of the megaphone. There’s a conversation going on and if a company is not actively involved in the conversation, both listening and engaging, they’re in big trouble.
I started really buckling in and studying in-depth what this social media environment was like; what was changing in business because of social media? Five years after I began the study my co-author Mark Babbitt and I wrote A World Gone Social, and it’s how companies must adapt to survive.
The thing is, just like most people lump customer service into a department, they lump social media into a department. And just like customer service, social media is not a department—it’s a way of doing business. When everyone in your organization can be connected to customers, to competitors, to the community and to each other, what does that look like? What are the ramifications for your business?
Do you think enough companies are taking part in the social revolution, or are they being too slow to get on board?
There’s a couple of things there. First, it’s appalling how few companies are engaging with social media still. The second thing is if they are engaging in social media, a lot of them are only dabbling in it—it’s off in a department. The social media department is one floor down from the customer service department in the basement far away from headquarters. Really? It’s like a department and “Let’s hire a bunch of interns to run it.” They’re really missing it.
Another thing is that a lot of companies that are involved in social media use it to broadcast; they’re using it like an old medium. They’re yelling at people instead of talking with them; they’re completely missing the point. So our theme throughout the book is more social, less media. It’s not like you’re putting up a billboard for people to drive by and read and not engage with you. It’s all about two-way communication.
Give us an example of a company that tends to pooh-pooh social media and what can happen to them.
We have a really funny example in the book of something Bank of America did. Some people were complaining on Twitter about Bank of America, and this auto-responder came on; it was very obviously an auto-responder and not a person. Since it is Bank of America, we have the actual Tweets quoted in the book so we can’t get sued or anything. But somebody was complaining to somebody else on Twitter, and if I remember correctly (because the book isn’t open in front of me) the corporate response was, “We’re sorry that you’re having trouble with your account. If you send me a direct message I’ll help you with it.” They even signed it with the initials of somebody to look like it was a person. But it became obvious over the course of several hours that it was not a person—the Tweets were obviously programmed, and because of those Tweets people were really bashing Bank of America.
So here’s Bank of America pretending to be all “cool” and “with-it” and it’s just compounding their already powerful “death to the customer” reputation. So there’s definite ways to do it wrong and that’s one example among many in the book. We focus on many companies that do it right but when you have an example like that, you have to use it.
Now let’s switch it over, give an example of a company that does it right and how that affects them?
The forward was written by the CEO of Tangerine, Peter Aceto. He has been active on social media for quite a while, and has written for my blog. He and I have followed each other for years.
Peter gave us an example of an ad campaign his company ran. His company thought it was just a funny ad campaign, but some of his followers on Twitter said, “Hey, Peter, this seems like you’re bashing people with mental illness. Is that the context ?” He brought it to his people and they looked at it and they said, “No, we don’t see it.” He of course responded politely but decided not to do anything with the ads; it was just a couple of people. Then there were a few more, but still a very small number of people compared to the millions who had seen the ad.
But then one person reached out to him: it was someone whose child had just recently committed suicide, and he hadn’t even known that his child had a mental illness. He explained that as the reason he found the ad insensitive. He said, “I know that you are not the type of person to make fun of mental illness, but this is the perception.”
Peter pulled those ads right away. He was like, “This guy explained it to me very well, I got it and we didn’t need to wait to do a focus group. We pulled the ads within hours.”
Now in that example, did it cost them any customers? Well, you know it gained them a lot of good will. He did it for the right reason; he did it because he felt he should, not because he calculated return on any kind of investment or whatever. People rewarded him by thanking him. Some of these people who really cared reached out to him and said, “Thank you so much for doing that. We know that you didn’t have to. This is nothing like a groundswell, but we really admire the fact that you did that.”
If this leader had not been social they would have completely missed it. It never would have turned up in the typical marketing report of how something is playing out in the public; it was a very small number of people. And it’s acting with integrity and it’s being responsive because you’re socially able to.
In your book you talk about the necessity to think and act small. Why is this a necessity in today’s social world?
Here’s the thing: if you are a leader and if you act in a bureaucratic way, you’re turning the boat slowly over the course of a hell of a long time rather than on a dime. We all need to be nimble; we need to react quickly. In the social age, employees are connected and able to collaborate and get feedback from customers no matter their position in the company. For companies to act the way they did in the industrial age—which is this huge hierarchy in which information gets strangled as it goes up to the ladder to the top dogs—it’s not just inefficient, it’s really bad business and it will kill companies over time.
The social age is driving this agile aspect of running your business; if you don’t act small, you’re in big trouble, huge trouble. You’re driving the Titanic and meanwhile everyone else is driving a little four-person motorboat. They could miss the iceberg, and you can’t.
How can an average sales rep win big today using social media?
It is true that people in sales have really taken to social ahead of most of the other roles within the organizations. The reason for that is that it’s such a great way to connect with potential customers. If you don’t know somebody, you can ask your friend to introduce you. If it’s consumer goods, you can do that via Facebook, and if it’s business-to-business you can do it via LinkedIn and there’s others as well. And everybody communicates with everybody all the time on Twitter. So the neat thing about that is that it’s a very warm open community and people are very approachable in that medium. If you’re in sales and you want to meet somebody who you’ve never been able to meet previously, social is exactly the way to do it.
In addition to prospecting, does it help in the sales process as well?
There’s another example in our book that I just love. Vala Afshar is somewhat famous; he’s the Chief Marketing Officer of Extreme Networks. There’s a whole story in the book, but their product is integrated with Twitter, so alerts come via Twitter and fixes can be made via Twitter. But the nice thing about it is, he’s on Twitter all the time—you’ll see him if you go looking for him. And he Tweets with his customers. One of his customers actually said, “You know Vala, you’re the new gold standard for customer experience.”
Talk about a differentiator! If he’s going up against his competitor and his competitor is not available on Twitter or whatever social channel they choose to use mutually, they’re at a huge disadvantage. It’s not only one follow-up success but it reinforces that, so he has turned a happy customer into a customer for life. He actually has a really good quote in our book that I’ll paraphrase: “I can’t afford satisfied customers; I have seen satisfied customers leave.” He needs his customers to be absolutely engaged and delighted with him at all times.
Lastly, why should people read A World Gone Social?
If you want to know what some companies are already doing and what business will be like as soon as 2015—maybe 2018 depending on your industry—this is the book to read. We all need a leg up. If you’re in sales and want to know what is down the road and around the corner you can’t afford to miss this book.