Dell and Zappos: Two Examples of How Social Media is Changing the Definition of Customer Service

Image Courtesy of Venture Company

Image Courtesy of Venture Company

We all know the feeling of endlessly holding on the telephone, being transferred multiple times only to determine that the first representative you spoke could have solved your problem, or dealing with computer-generated voices that never really¬† help you. And it so often seems like the “customer care representative” or “relationship manager” you speak with doesn’t really seem to care. Gone are the days when someone from a company actually answers the telephone and solves a problem for you. Or are they?

Could new technology actually translate into more personal and fulfilling experiences for customers? Will the Internet and social media actually improve customer service? According to Steve Rubel, SVP, Director of Insights for Edelman PR, new media will vastly benefit consumers and permanently change how companies manage customer service departments and their brands. In this great post on his Micropersuasion blog, Steve highlights “Satisfaction Guaranteed – the blending of PR and customer service as consumers make demands via social media” as one of this year’s major trends. In his extremely valuable and downloadable report – Five Digital Trends to Watch in 2009 – he refers to a study by the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) that claims 74% of consumers surveyed agree or strongly agree that the choose brands based on customer service experiences they read online. This report also refers to a Cone Communications study that states that 85% of Americans who use social media believe that brands should have a social presence online.

Most of us are familiar with this trend. How many people do you know who would book a hotel without first reading reviews on TripAdvisor? Or try a new restaurant without getting a layman’s opinion on a site like Yelp? In addition, people who take this more seriously use sites like Measured Up and E-opinions to rant and rave. And now that google shows review snippets right in its search results, a potential customer just looking for a business’s location may end up reading a review that will change his or her opinion or decision to do business with that company. The long and the short of it is that people are “mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!” Obviously, it’s not just negative reviews that people write or read, it’s positive ones as well. But the point is that companies are now monitoring what’s being said about them online in an attempt to improve their image and their brands.

Dell Computer

Although I’m a Mac user, I’d like to point out of the most notable examples of a company embracing social media to improve their customers’ experience. In 2005, Dell computer had one of the worst online reputations in the blogosphere. According to Search Engine Guide blogger Mark Collier, approximately 49% of blog posts about Dell were negative and initially the company refused to respond to them. Soon after the problem escalated and Dell began a campaign to change their ways. It resulted in one of their least favorite bloggers at the time, Jeff Jarvis, writing a positive post about Dell in Business Week that began to cement their reputation as a company that had embraced the blogosphere and social media to improve their customer experience.

Image: Courtesy of Business Week

Image: Courtesy of Business Week

Another example pointed out in a related post shows how a potential Dell customer (and PR blogger) reached out to a popular blogger (and one of Dell’s own employees) for advice on a computer. This employee, Richard Binhammer, provided personal assistance to her, actually helping her select the best Dell for her. Granted, both of these people were active bloggers and happened to live in the same area, so this situation may be an extreme case. The point is to reinforce how companies are learning to use social media to their advantage. Richard Binhammer is a part of Dell’s digital media team and his job is to listen, learn, and respond to what people are saying about Dell online. Richard is what Steve Rubel would call a Corporate All-star, a company employee who uses social media to build his or her personal brand online but who also serves as a spokesperson for the company they work for.


Zappos is most definitely the star when describing successful brands of the 21st century. It was founded in 1999 by founder Nick Swinmurn with the prediction that one day 30% of all retail transactions will take place online and with the understanding that people will respond positively to the best selection and the best customer service.

Now Zappos is one of the most successful online retailers and they most definitely deliver on their two prominent taglines: Powered by Service and Powered by Culture. When I arrived at their site, I was immediately struck by a couple of things. The first is that their toll-free numbers are prominently placed on practically every page of the site, including the home page. This is great. So many companies do everything in their power to force you to do everything online. Here is one that gives you options. Their testimonials are proudly displayed throughout the site to shout about their customer service.

Tweet from Zapposs CEO (Courtesy of Tame The Web)

Tweet from Zappos's CEO (Courtesy of Tame The Web)

The second aspect of the site that caught my attention is how¬† well-optimized it is for search engines and very geared to social media. There are tons of text links all over the site, which doesn’t make it necessarily the most sophisticated from a design standpoint but it does bring in the traffic. There are YouTube videos embedded throughout the site from the Zappos YouTube page and blogs from the company employees that stress its culture of reward and recognition of employee efforts. And of course, you can follow Zappos’s employees and CEO (followed by 400,000) on Twitter. They have a special Twitter page displaying their tweets with links to specific employee’s and a beginner’s guide to using Twitter. Essentially, Zappos makes their entire company, its culture, and employee’s interests and personalities available to be consumed and made viral by the public at large. It serves not only as a vehicle for dealing with consumer issues but also as its own marketing and PR vehicle. It places as much emphasis on the product as it does on the personal experience between the customer and its employees.

How has it paid off for Zappos? According the Mashable, who spent an afternoon with Zappos’s CEO and employee coach, the company surpassed $1 billion in retail sales last year. The company consistently appears on Inc.’s list of the t0p 500 fastest growing private companies in the U.S. This article from E-Commerce News highlights Zappos’s success and references Gartner’s vice president of research who called Zappos “the Amazon of the shoe business”.

So, the idea of someone managing Twitter for a company (as I referenced in a previous post), may not be too far in the future.

I would love to hear from anyone who has any other insights on how social media is changing our definition of customer service.

Popularity: 40% [?]