Customer Service’s role in Brand Communities

By in Business on July 10, 2013

This is a cicada.

Cicadas emerge from the earth every 17 years to mate like crazy, lay their eggs, and die. I personally find their story amazing, and am fascinated by the 17 year cycle in which they exist. I am currently living in Northern Virginia, smack dab in the middle of cicada central and expect to be hearing them for most of the summer, before they are either eaten by animals and human alike (yes, seriously – Google it!).

I actually remember the last time they were around, it doesn’t seem like all that long ago. 17 years seems to go pretty fast these days…and yet. Here’s a few things that were going on 17 years ago:

  • Nintendo 64 was released in America
  • Dolly, the first cloned sheep debuted.
  • Pfizer patented Viagra
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin began working on a search engine that will be called Google.

Puts it in perspective a little, huh?

Imagine the change that we will see in the next 17 years!

Over the last 17 years our ability to communicate with one another, to voice our opinions, to access each other has grown exponentially. The introduction of blogging, forums, online chat, text messaging, Twitter, MySpace (come and gone and come), Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and on and on! The irony to me in suddenly seeing the massive change in human existence and behavior over the last 17 years, is the incredible slow to non-existent pace of business to change with it. Look around at the companies that provide you the goods and services you use today. Some are evolving, some have been born in this period of growth, but much of the old guard are still operating similar to how they did 17 years ago, and are now struggling to understand why things that were once so successful, just aren’t working anymore…

The lines between customer support, customer service, customer experience, CRM, community management, brand community engagement, and marketing have been destroyed by social interaction on the internet and through modern communications. It’s almost impossible today to silo these concepts apart from one another. They all blend together into your outward facing public company persona, and are ruled by public perception more than reality, these days. With the advent of consumer generated media, the golden age of the inter-web, and the new generation of tech-savvy and engaged multitudes, the old concepts of brand perception are as silly as coming upon a man trying to send a fax, or a telex (if you can even remember back that far)! In 2008, I read a great book by Pete Blackshaw that highlighted some of these changes. In Satisfied Customers Tell 3 Friends, Angry Customers tell 3000, Pete talks about computer generated media, and how the age of the internet is making it possible for customers to band together in ever-increasing communities to “define” a company, their services, products, perception.

A great example of this can be found with Jeff Bezos at Amazon, when he introduced the ability for customers to post their reviews on the books on their website. This changed everything. No longer did the marketer who wrote the back cover of the jacket set the perception, rather customers (your average Joe’s of the world) were taking control of the book’s perception. They began to define its sell ability, it’s value, not the company who published it, or the marketer who summed it up.


Trust. I’ll trust random strangers over a marketer any day of the week.  When society as a whole stands up and starts saying something is bad…well, guess what. It is. Granted it’s a perception, but perception is everything.

Yet, as we see, most companies are still operating in the age-old silo approach to business. Customer Service is segmented off from the group, a cost and a burden, forced to find ways to ever increase their performance year-on-year with less and less budget to do it with. “Churn and Burn” contact centers still dot this nation, with BPO’s still serving them up to those companies still willing to operate in this manner. Customers are measured by statistics which can be manipulated just by the way they ask their survey questions, and yet CEO’s and COO’s still look at the NPS, CSAT, FCR scores and get warm fuzzies, while their brand perceptions are being burned in effigy in the virtual streets.

I joined the Games Industry as I saw an opportunity to both bring out-of-industry best practice to bear, but also was fascinated by their forward approach to community management and engagement. I was responsible for setting up the customer service strategy and solution for one their products. Working for their BioWare studios, I was able to do this in a siloed manner, separate from the broader EA brand and products. Our studio head saw BioWare’s products as premium and wanted a service that matched the brand. In other words, he wanted to re-enforce the already existing brand community perception that BioWare products were worth the money, a relationship of trust that they had built up over 15 years prior to the EA acquisition.

We built a solution that was a Live Service: an incorporated communications system that wasn’t just a bunch of folks at the end of a phone line unable to manage your problems, but a living breathing machine that tied every part of the production to the service center.

The virtualized unified contact center (consisting of 6 separate sites and locations) literally became the eyes and ears of the service, we saw the problems as they were happening, listening and capturing customer’s complaints.

So what, all call centers do that. Exactly, and that’s usually where it stops!

A Live Service incorporates the rest of the business into the customer service silo. Instead of a vertical silo, I tipped it over and intersected across every part of the business. When issues happened we had specific real-time processes to identify the scope of the problem, provide two-way communication from production to the end-users, pro-actively captured problems and captured end-user solutions as they happened. We were one with our community, not at odds with them.

Customer service is not a silo. It’s a part of your business, a part of you. It’s not a cost, it’s an investment. The concepts of CRM, brand management, community management, marketing, and customer support are all part of the customer experience. Brand communities are not something that you can manage, but exist outside of your company. The best you can do is start to engage them, carefully, under guidance. You can, and should start to develop a strategy to partner with them.

They really do want you to succeed, and if you listen and ACT…you will.