Guest Post: Lenovo’s Web Strategist David Churbuck “Corporate Blogging 201 The Risks of NQA Blog Service”

Yesterday, David Churbuck dinged me for writing for novices, and also suggested I wasn’t near the trenches.

I could have fired back, but that would have been foolish, looking at his profile, I realized he knew what he was talking about. Instead, I left a comment on his blog, and offered for him to set the bar higher by being a guest poster.

He accepted.

David is digging in at Lenovo where he’s managing the web strategy, and is fighting the good fight day to day. He took my offer, and submitted via email I think he’s certainly set the bar higher for me.

Here’s what David submitted to me, (including a thoughtful email apology) the following relevant post is all his words:

Corporate Blogging 201 The Risks of NQA Blog Service
by David Charbuck, A Web Strategy Guest Poster

I just took Jeremiah Owyang to task for publishing thumbsucking advice on corporate blogging — “Ask for feedback!” “Admit it when you are wrong!” — and challenged the growing legions of social media pundits to kick it up a notch with some news I could use.

So, henceforth, with no book in the works on the next evolution in the Super Transparent Corporate Social Conversational Marketing Revolution, I can declare I have no commercial ax to grind and simply want to charitably share the wealth from someone who walks the walk of corporate blogging day in and day out.

If the books are publishing “101” level advice, let this be the first in a “201” series the next level in the curriculum, the class you take your sophomore year.

In partly pedantic jest, I suggested the type of topic I’d like to discuss is: contravening corporate policy by privately resolving a blogged customer support issue and having the blogger publically state the solution and thereby set a precedent for all future complaints

Let’s look at the scenario in less pedantic terms. The risk of a no-questions-asked (NQA) blogger appeasement policy.

Let’s say you are the corporate blogger at Newco and among your responsibilities is monitoring the blogosphere for expressions of customer joy and unhappiness. You hire a service, or you do it yourself, but eventually you are going to find a person who writes something like this:

“I just bought a new widget from Newco and it has three dead dingbats. I am a graphic designer and I must have a flawless product to do my job. I called Newco and they said their policy is only to replace widgets with five contiguous dead dingbats. This is bullshit. I am going to write a letter to the Better Business Bureau and Jeff Jarvis.”

You, the corporate blog person, check on the corporate website, and yep, there is the dead dingbat policy plain as day. This policy is essentially the same one that everyone else in the industry follows. Do you:

  • Acknowledge the unhappy dingbat person with a comment (Thank you for writing about Newco. I’m sorry you aren’t happy. Have a nice day.)?
  • Debate the blogger and cite the fact that Newco is in line with the rest of the industry with its dead dingbat policy (Sorry; suck it up)?
  • Invite the blogger to talk about it privately (Hey, give me a call or drop me a line.)?
  • Ignore the blogger?
  • Do you let customer service know that you have found a complaint about the dead dingbat policy in the expectation they will communicate with the blogger? Do you let PR know?
  • Do you arrange to have a widget with a pristine display over-nighted to the blogger in the hope it will shut him up?
  • Do you propose a new strategy to the business unit where users can pay more for a zero-defect widget?
  • Let’s say the blogger gets really upset and continues to post about the dead dingbats. Let’s say the blogger takes the case to The Consumerist or the Ripoff Report and the forums, and tells people to join him in a campaign against your company’s dumb policy. The comments on the post begin to fill with other people who hate dead dingbats. The noise level is rising. Someone in PR notices it in a Google news alert. You get an email asking if you know about this. The blogger posts your CEO’s home phone number. And calls it.

    As you look for a way to make the blogger happy, you discuss the policy internally and learn that dead dingbats are a fact of life, and that due to the vagaries of manufacturing there is no such thing as a flawless, dingbat-free widget, and to identify one means hours and hours of combing through thousands of widgets to find a clean one. The bottom line is this: making flawless widgets would destroy the bottom line which is why no one in the industry guarantees it.

    But the blogger doesn’t care about that. The blogger is mad and nothing is going to make him happy other than a pristine system. So you find one. You arrange to have it hand delivered by your regional manager. Along with a Tickler Bouquet and a box of chocolates.

    And you ask the blogger to please keep the new machine to himself, this is a one-time special exception, so please don’t blog about it. Okay?

    Ha. The blogger declares victory, tells the world that his campaign has paid off, that Newco has caved and the Customers are in Control! Congratulations: you just insured that every person who Googles: “Newco Dead Dingbat Policy” is going to hear the story of how you made an exception. And they will all expect the same

    The exception is now the rule, in public, for everyone to see.

    So, fellow corporate bloggers and customer service professionals. This is a question of pure situational ethics. When do you make an extraordinary gesture of customer satisfaction and when do you stick to your guns?

  • Have you ever stuck to your guns and regretted it (if only we had given the customer their money back ….)?
  • Have you ever made a concession and kept it secret?
  • Have you ever made a concession and changed your organization’s policy in the process?
  • Is No Questions Asked customer service (the kind that LL Bean and Craftsmen Tools and Nordstrom practice) a figment of some marketing consultant’s imagination?
  • When do you tell a blogger to pound sand?
  • The integration of customer service into social media marketing programs is a logical imperative and usually will follow right on the heels of integrating corporate communications. The effects of the “new Better Business Bureau” are the ones that are going to strike your organization between the eyes first. How you invite your customer service teams into the medium can spell the difference between harmony and hatred.

    Jeremiah: Thanks David for starting Corporate Blogging 201, certainly a dilemma, I’ll leave my comment in the comments below, and I encourage everyone else to as well.

    Update: Ugh, I’ve misspelled David’s name and gotten it wrong a few times. really sorry. updated the posts now.

    26 Replies to “Guest Post: Lenovo’s Web Strategist David Churbuck “Corporate Blogging 201 The Risks of NQA Blog Service””

    1. Thanks David for submitting, interesting topic, let’s start the dialog.

      If I were in that specific situation (well actually, I was sort of, but with a different division), as some customers were so pissed at Hitachi they went to the North American HQ took a picture of them flipping off the brand and putting on a well respected blog in that industry.

      Read here

      Here’s what I would do: tell folks on the website, blogs, podcasts etc, that dead dingbats (or pixels) are a part of life, while the company strives to build the best product they can, there’s always going to be errors. I’d also tell them what we’re doing about it to fix it, and ask for submissions from those with knowledge in the community to try to offer suggestions.

      I’d also point those the Company Customer Pact, that gives guidelines not just to companies, but to bloggers (who need to be respectful to companies, after all, doesn’t nearly everyone work for someone?).

      I’ve got some other ideas, but I’d love to hear from readers what they think.

    2. Thanks David and Jeremiah,

      This is the precise situation that is causing many of my clients to take the slow lane with regard to open community.

      In the case above, it is not so much the blog that is the problem, but the lack of refund or other vital corporate policies in place. That is, the interactive strategy which is predefined to handle situations of this nature with these types of platforms. Precisely why you can’t just bolt on some trendy tools to a site and expect new customers and revenue.

      One company I am familiar with have a policy that if for any reason you are unhappy with your turkey in the festive season you can bring it back and receive a new one… even if it is a carcass of bones.

      On the one hand, it seems ludicrous and not economically viable. Some people take advantage of the policy and gloat. Others hear about it through positive word-of-mouth, but wouldn’t dare do such a thing, or may not have reason to, but are influenced nonetheless. They subliminally think “Wow, if they will even take back a turkey I know I can trust them when shopping for x, y, z”. Not that this sort of policy could work for everyone… it is a case by case thing, always why social media is not yet for everyone.

      Some companies are just not quite ready for true ‘transparency’, and by definition not quite ready for social media.

      The other more sinister option (shudder) is the forced communities where the positive discourse outweighs the negative, perhaps thanks to a ‘community-for-hire’ approach.

      I may be cynical but the wordpress powered site seems a too ‘pro-Ford’. I don’t have any hard stats, but it looks a little on the over-moderated side.

      Does it work? A ‘Ford-lover’ will have reinforced that they are aligned with the ‘right’ brand if they go there, even if it is saccharin sweet.

      Is Ford ‘asking the tough questions’ and should they?

    3. I had to smile when I saw this. Last year I posted on my blog about a horrible experience I had with Lenovo, and David, you came to my rescue, posting your phone number on my blog. You solved my problem… but one year later, I still get comments posted from other customers making their own complaints, and even asking if I can somehow provide auxilary support. I’ve thought numerous times about shutting down that post, but have each time decided to leave it up.

      If you’ve been as helpful and forthcoming in other locations as you were on my blog, I can imagine the flood of traffic you get from people wanting you to solve their individual problems. You can’t serve them all individually, and you can’t solve all of Lenovo’s production, shipping and support challenges. But I think you’re doing the right thing by going above and beyond to help the individuals you can reach. You’re a finger in the dike that is Lenovo’s brand in the US. My impression of Lenovo today is rock solid, I tell everyone how much I love my Thinkpad, and I can tie my loyalty directly back to my interaction with you. *That* is marketing. You need a medal.

    4. Hey Jeremiah and David, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with the content of this post, the conversation it is already generating, and most importantly the way it came to fruition. Yes, I am biased as a colleague of Jeremiah’s, but nonetheless this is clearly a level of engagement and of sophistication I should be striving for in my own research and conversations.

      It’s easy to get caught up teaching 101 lessons to the majority of firms now entering this space and lose site of those on the vanguard who are struggling with the 201, 301, and 401 level course work; I know I have done so more than I would like to admit. Thank you both for such a great example of how to offer multiple levels of value, and for such a great dialog.

    5. I forgot to leave the link to the Company Customer Pact (I was exhausted when I posted this, after hosting an event at my office)

      The Company Customer Pact

      Customers (bloggers) have expectations to act a certain way too, they need to come half way if a company is going to step outside of the firewall to greet you.

    6. Jeremiah, I’m glad you let David share his thoughts. Having met with him a few times–and interviewed him for my book Radically Transparent–I can vouch for his deep thoughts in corporate blogger outreach.

      David, thanks for sharing this story. I believe we talked about this when we met, and I was fascinated about your thoughts on how to handle it.

    7. Here is the methodology that Dell once used and it worked on me several years ago!

      My small business had 6 laptops that were lemons. My boss was ready to trash them and buy Toshibas. I called Dell’s corporate HQ and asked for Michael Dell. They transferred me immediately to someone who identified themselves as his assistant (Probably 1 of 50) NOT some VRU.

      The assistant spoke as if she was speaking for Mr. Dell and we went very quickly warranty 101 and 201. Again…speaking as if she was speaking directly for Michael she confirmed for me that Mr. Dell would not want my company to be in this situation. Mr. Dell offered to repair any broken laptops right away and extend my warranties on the rest. Then I was off to the RMA person.

      I got a follow-up call several weeks later from that same assistant. To this day I still associate Michael Dell as the guy who saved the day…not his assistant.

      Dell “humanized” the problem for me…no longer was I dealing with a corporation…I was dealing with a person…Michael.

      Lenovo has a big problem here in that they are a viewed as a Chinese machine and big company. But David seems to have accomplished this with Chris (poster #3 above).

      David the answer may be just to keep on responding like you always do. But try to make it about YOU helping him…not Lenovo. Person to person. Harder for him to bash you and harder for others readers to stomach his rant.

      Nothing you did not already know…BTW we miss our PC business over here at Big Blue πŸ™‚

    8. Super post, David. Glad to see the raising of practical, advanced, real-life issues rather than just “pie-in-the-sky” Social Media 101 platitudes.

      Social Media 401, 501, and 601, like life in general, gets sticky. Often there are no clear answers. So with the information available at the time, you pick the best one.

      I agree with Jeremiah’s thoughts above. Tell the community that dingbats, like zits, are just a part of life. The company strives to eliminate them. This answer is clearly within the parameters of your post.

      “The bottom line is this: making flawless widgets would destroy the bottom line which is why no one in the industry guarantees it. But the blogger doesnβ„’t care about that. The blogger is mad and nothing is going to make him happy other than a pristine system.”

      Well, life stinks and then you die. Nothing is pristine, not even extra virgin olive oil. (Read the ingredients label sometime.)

      If a rational, logical explanation is given, most community members, those not emotionally involved with the issue like the blogger, will understand. Offer the blogger a refund, then move on.

    9. Hi David and Jermiah
      How cool to see you two blogging together. Congratulations. Jeremiah I think your posts and perspectives are damn good.
      I read David’s post with interest and his Newco example is one business faces online and offline everyday. I am not sure social media changes the complexities of that situation, although it certainly brings new transparencies to it. Also, our experience shows that discussion around the facts is often helpful , as many have noted.
      However, there is another dimension to this situation in the new social media context. It is the ability to listen to what matters and to hear first hand the real life experiences customers are having everyday with products and services. Social media listening and engagement brings customers inside the company every day in a more real manner. That results in companies offering more timely and customer-centric ways to hear what matters and what is happening with day-to-day use of the widget.
      Real time listening and engagement, in this situation, might even bring a new corporate-customer partnership and perspective to how to change the policy or issues in question, with further drive, attention and fresh thinking around the existing policy.
      Rather than social media 201 being a conundrum it should help companies get better.

    10. Jeremiah and David,

      I am also delighted to see you tackling Corporate Blogging 201. From my own experience working with a Global 100 company on their corporate blog over the past year I can affirm that indeed the “conversation” with a customer is not that simple. For pharmaceuticals who blog there are additional regulations that must be adhered to and which affect comments left on the blog: AER (adverse event reporting) for example. I think the most important point you raise in your scenario is the involvement of customer service in the corporate blogging equation. Great post – thanks!

    11. David,
      This is a common and difficult situation. My opinion is that while this is in the traditional customer service/empathize with the upset customer scenario, social media and the web have magnified the implications for all companies.
      I think it requires some creative thinking. I agree with Jeremiah that the first response should be to explain policy and the industry dynamics. I would try to ensure my post encouraged further conversation in that comment stream in an attempt to contain the spread of the negative effects.
      If he complains further, I would try to find a win-win scenario. This is a person very passionate about his widget and how he does his work. Maybe we could offer to replace it in exchange for a series of consumer research discussions on how he uses his widget and how we could improve the product.
      That way he is getting what he wants, yet there is a cost in the way of his time (and we get some great data).
      This was just off the top of my head. I am sure this audience can come up with more and better win-win ideas.

    12. There are parallels between the Newco case study and what happened between David & Jeremiah.

      The crucial takeaway for me is to engage constructively & early with the dissatisfied customer. Explain the constraints and let the dissatisfied customer suggest win-win options (a bit like Jeremiah inviting David to “walk the talk”)

    13. This situation is not a social media problem at all, but rather a challenge to the business model itself. Would this problem somehow not exist if the company had chosen to remain outside of social media? Clearly it would have. The customer would have the same avenues for expression regardless. Rather, I would argue that the act of engaging in social media would give Newco a closer view into its market and an opportunity to react. Do they not want to know about issues in the market?

      So then, how does the company harness social media in a way that could help solve its business problem? There is a case to be made in fact that the reaction and subsequent actions taken by Newco could become every bit as viral as the internet noise of the antagonist to begin with β€œ it is a two sided coin. In the spirit of complete transparency for example, Newco could honestly layout the situation and poll its constituents β€œ Are they willing to live without the product at all given its inherent issues with dingbats? Would they be willing to pay a huge premium to ensure widgets have good dingbats? Would they prefer the option? Perhaps a service plan? Could this not be used as a platform to engage all stakeholders, giving them a say in developing a solution to an issue that plagues that industry for both the manufacturer and the customer? Ideas may be generated that could actually alter the entire business model – And by giving its constituents a stake in the outcome, Newco may foster a new found loyalty and following. It would seem that the question really is not about whether companies engage in bloging or social media, but whether they are willing to embrace the ideas the drive it within their own company culture.

      It is not whether they engage, but rather will they take an active role β€œ because the genie is out of the bottle and she will not be jammed back in. Companies can choose to stick their head in the sand, but if any really believe that will solve the problem, they have larger issues than dealing with social media.

    14. This problem existed before social media (or the internet) in the form of a customer who can’t be satisfied under existing policies. Two related things have changed to elevate it from an irritant to a critical issue:

      1) A dissatisfied customer used to tell 11 people on average, now she/he tells hundreds of thousands

      2) The friction involved in complaining has decreased. It was pretty hard to call in daily with complaints, visit corporate HQ on a daily basis, stand outside with “Newco Sucks” signs. Now it’s very easy.

      Pulling my thumb out of my mouth for a moment (schlurp), I’d do the following:

      1) Respond directly to the blogger in a public form, courteously explaining the reason behind the policy. Whether we win the blogger over or not, if we explain a reasonable policy in a courteous way we’ll neutralize negative impressions on the part of readers.

      2) Offer to put the blogger in touch with people in the product organization to discuss the reason for the policy in detail and to get the blogger’s input into product design.

      3) Offer full refund if the blogger is not willing to accept the policy. If we can’t make you happy, we want you to go somewhere else where you can be happy.

      4) Most importantly, continually feed this information back into the policy-making group. If the policy is sane and reasonable, only the unreasonable people will continue to be ticked off when one executes items 1-3. If you execute items 1-3 and reasonable people continue to be ticked off, you have a bad policy that needs changing. The key to social media marketing is authenticity. You can’t authentically defend a lousy policy, so don’t let yourself be set up for that.

      Those are my thoughts. Where’s my binkie?

    15. Thanks for this witty and thought provoking learning simulation. I just remixed for nonprofits and a Facebook group.

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