Now, in 2013 more than ever before, any business who fails to realize social media’s potential for customer interaction and retention are not only being left behind, they’re potentially setting themselves up for catastrophic failure. Back in the day when slick salesmen rode into town on horse-drawn carriages to peddle their wares, an adage was born: Buyer Beware. Today, it’s seller beware. Brands are discussed and dissected before our eyes on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp, and millions of blogs.
In 2013, at the height of social sales, even a teddy bear and a box of chocolates can sit squarely at the center of a multi-platform social media conversation powerful enough to reach hundreds of thousands around the globe and back in three days. In my latest blog article on Food Network’s Eat St. blog, I show how social sales is the very core of food truck operations and vital in this year. Times have changed, and the landscape is quickly evolving on today’s social media platform. Companies’ stories are being subverted, inverted, juxtaposed and turned sideways. The harsh reality is that businesses no longer drive their own brand messaging; their customers do. And, those customers are stronger, faster, and smarter than ever before. Their voices are far-reaching – they are empowered.
Years ago, during the Great Depression, two brothers, Harry and David Rosenberg (I’ve also seen the last name, Holmes) found themselves struggling to sell their prize winning pears from an orchard in Oregon that their father left to them. They took to the streets, hoping to gain some new found customers. Ultimately, the two paired (no pun intended) up and hatched a plan to sell their pears by mail. They traveled the country, seeking new customers and spreading the word about their business. It wasn’t long before Harry & David became known as the nation’s premier direct marketer of gourmet fruit and food gifts. Today, Harry & David is one of the oldest, low-recognition / high-esteem catalog mail order companies in the United States, grossing approximately half a billion dollars in annual sales.
I’ve purchased products from Harry & David’s online mail order catalog on about ten occasions since last October. It began with an order of pears – during his research one day, Andrew came across the Royal Riviera pears at Harry & David, and decided to give them a try. These aren’t just any pears. The Royal Riviera pear from Harry & David is actually the French Comice pear known for its smooth, creamy texture and flavor. There are only a few places in the world where these pears can be grown, making them an exquisite treat.
It was after we used the pears in a salad, that we wanted to take a closer look. I ordered more. I gifted them, I cooked with them, I baked with them, and I snacked on several of Harry & David’s treats. I didn’t look for Harry & David on Facebook, and frankly I opted out of email. But, I continued ordering. As I’m always exploring the vast world of food, I thought the quality of the gourmet products at Harry & David would be worthwhile to write about, but in the course of a ten-minute conversation, this story quickly took a completely different turn.
A single online purchase followed by a series of poorly executed communications from Harry & David led to a week-long melee of interaction between Harry & David, me and about seven other individuals – and it all unfolded on social media.
Back in the old days, Harry and David didn’t have Facebook accounts. They couldn’t build a Twitter following, and there was no e-mail marketing. The only tweeting they knew of was the scolding shlenk of the Scrub Jays on their orchard in Medford. They understood that if they were to sell their pears before they fell off the trees, they’d need to do some foot work. They knew they’d need to engage with people in a real way, and they’d need to shine.
They had to show their potential customers the value of their pears, and they’d need to become trusted advisors in this new world of gift-giving. Harry and David would become experts in the field and nothing less than exceptional service would be their standard.
Why is this history lesson so important in social sales?
Businesses, large and small are just now beginning to understand what “social” is about. Five years ago, it was all about the numbers. Regardless of the type of business – mail order fruits and gifts, automobiles, soft drinks, health products, or restaurants and food trucks – the goal was simple and direct: attain as many fans and followers in as short a time frame as possible and build an audience.
The larger the fan base, the better they felt they were doing in the marketplace. Fan count was worn like a badge of honor; it said something about the business. Harry & David is no stranger to the bumps and bruises businesses encountered on social platforms today. In fact, it’s taken the company some years to gain its footing in social media, and it’s still experiencing growing pains. Not without its challenges, Harry & David forged ahead into the 21st century, adopting email marketing and more recently, in May 2010, social media in its marketing strategy.
In less than three years, Harry & David attained well over 300,000 Facebook fans, but despite its impressive fan base, it maintains a B- rating with the Better Business Bureau, a 2.5 star rating on Yelp, and nearly half of the comments received on Facebook are negative.
The Teddy Bear Melee
What became known as “The Teddy Bear Melee” at my house last week was a culmination of fumbles, errors and multiple charges to my bank account. One simple order for a “Bear Mountain Gift” from Harry & David for a birthday resulted in seven canceled orders, multiple empty promises, and countless canned responses. I ordered the gift, Harry & David canceled the order without notifying me then when I’d call to get some answers, they re-entered the order. Rinse and repeat. We repeated this exercise daily. I escalated calls to supervisors, I sent email, I posted to the Harry & David Facebook page, and I tweeted. The response was, in a word, astounding. I received no response to email, I was ignored on Twitter, Harry & David deleted my comment on Facebook, and ignored me on Twitter.
UPDATE: As of 4/23/2013 Harry & David has continued to delete customer comments on its Facebook page.
Meanwhile, my seventh and final order was still processing. The one time my order was not canceled, Harry & David didn’t bother to inform me, just as they hadn’t informed me that they had canceled it six times prior. I continued to escalate the issue, which in turn caused “The Teddy Bear Melee” to explode in a mushroom cloud all over the internet. I talked about my experience on my Facebook profile, then on the Stitches ‘n Dishes Facebook page.
The Facebook post received about 40 comments, and reached 630,000 people, catching the eyes of some very strong social influencers, like Ross Quintana at Social Magnets with a social reach of over 25 Million readers. My friend, John Philpin is a partner at Reality Works, a global sales strategy and implementation services firm with a unique expertise in phone/online/social selling, utilizing Sales 2.0 and Social Sales practices. He and I clicked immediately, I think because his passion is the customer – he’s always focused on answering one overriding question, “so… what does it mean to our customer?”
John’s experience spans Europe and the U.S. with enterprises such as CitiBank, GEC and Oracle. He and I talked this week about my experience with Harry & David. In fact, he’s one of the seven people who experienced first-hand one of the biggest social media mistakes a business can make. After I was banned on the Harry & David Facebook page, several people, including John, Ross and tech reviewer, Michelle Harris who writes for, Womworld Nokia, Nokia Creative, Techforce, and purpleplanet each posted comments on the Harry & David page, and each was deleted and they were banned.
Understanding the customer’s needs and his buying process is the basic foundation of and compulsory to a successful business, especially in social sales where customers and potential customers have the power to be brand ambassadors or a company’s worst critics. Any business should not even consider a social strategy or implementing tools and technologies until it has established a firm footing in this basic foundation. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a staff to handle a social media department, or if you’re a food truck operator, hoping to make it big in the exploding food truck industry.
John had just published an article where he said that selling is about relationships and adding value. He points out that through the evolution of social media, businesses lost sight of building relationships with their customers and really understanding their needs. And this brings me to Rule #1.
Rule #1: Assure customer retention and loyalty by understanding customer needs and developing a relationship with them.
It wasn’t the teddy bear, or the trouble of having to find another gift then ship it that really bothered me. I felt ignored. Harry & David failed to establish the first building block in a relationship with its customer – it didn’t think about my needs.
Rule #2: Assure customer trust by being transparent and honest, and by addressing their needs.
Consequently, deleting Facebook comments and banning customers does nothing for the relationship, and it won’t silence them, either. Unless a customer is abusive, there is no acceptable reason to delete comments or ban them. There’s an old business adage, “A happy customer tells a friend; an unhappy customer tells the world.” Back then, they didn’t even know about the internet yet, but they realized the potential for the voice of the customer. The adage couldn’t hold more true today, when the average American can easily tell 500 people about a bad customer service experience in less than five minutes. So take to heart this golden rule in the voice of the customer:
Satisfied customers tell three friends – Angry customers tell 3,000
Remember that bit about trust? Assure customer trust by being transparent and honest, and by addressing their needs. Nothing is as untrustworthy as a business who attempts to hide customer complaints or silence customers, and it doesn’t stop them from telling 3,000 others about it in a tweet. If you’ve established a relationship with your customers and understand their needs, this should be second nature. Customers want to communicate with people. Which reminds me,
Do unto others as you have others do unto you
I spoke with Darren Prescott, Vice President of Customer Care at Harry & David not only about my order, but my overall customer experience. Ultimately, Darren resolved my order problem personally, which reassured me that Harry & David is serious about building relationships with its customers.
He assured that the teddy bear gift was not only shipped, but that it was shipped overnight. Then, he gave me a full credit for the gift, as well as a $50.00 gift certificate to be used in the future. His gesture built upon the damaged trust in our relationship and brought me closer to purchasing from them again in the future. He spoke with the social media department within the organization, and immediately unblocked all customers – a wise first step to building customer trust in social media.
If a business doesn’t engage with customers in social media, it is far more likely to lose those customers. And worse, one customer’s story could go viral, potentially reaching millions of people, sometimes for a very long time. In 2013, we’re shifting back to the founding concepts. Relationships, retention, loyalty, and trust are the new black. Customers have the ability to be our ambassadors or our worst critics, and businesses will not sustain a social presence unless they engage and empower their workforces, get to know their customers on a personal level, and create brand advocates.
Prescott believes that Harry & David will succeed in Sales 2.0, and that the bumps along the way are part of the growing pains. These can be expensive lessons for businesses, that can ultimately turn into PR nightmares. He did assure me that Harry & David will be closely examining its social strategy, and making some changes. I’ll watch for improvements on the company’s Facebook page. If a business doesn’t engage with customers in social media, it is far more likely to lose those customers. And worse, one customer’s story could go viral, potentially reaching millions of people, sometimes for a very long time.
In 2013, we’re shifting back to the founding concepts. Relationships, retention, loyalty, and trust are the new black. Customers have the ability to be our ambassadors or our worst critics, and businesses will not sustain a social presence unless they engage and empower their workforce, get to know their customers on a personal level, and create brand advocates.