How do you go about improving a service? That in many ways is a tricky question. Optimizing a manufacturing process may require feats of engineering magic but most manufacturers can at least figure out what the first order problems are. They can measure defects rates and scrap levels. Service operators have a tougher row to hoe. How can they be sure how many customers have received great service, how many just adequate service and how many were truly disappointed? Think of your own behavior. How many times have you been frustrated with a service encounter (e.g., exasperated with trying to find an employee at a big box store, dismayed by a lackadaisical receptionist, or left waiting for a disappearing waiter)? Did you bother telling anyone at the firm? Even if you did, do you think that the receptionist shared your insight with the appropriate supervisor?
Gathering such information has been step one in many service improvement projects. See, for example, the classic article by Tax and Brown (Recovering and Learning from Service Failure, Sloan Management Review, Oct 1998). Now customers have new forums in which to rant and complain and company’s have new ways of learning about service issues. The web in general and social network sites like Twitter provide public venues for customers to detail their experience and at least some companies appear to be listening. (See Tweeting Avengers: Does venting consumer outrage on Twitter actually work?, Slate Sept. 1, 2009.)
I am always leery of claims that the Web changes everything. Such hyperbole never seems to stand up to scrutiny; yes, the Web may make some things cheaper and easier to monitor but the results often seem more evolutionary than revolutionary. This might be different. Scanning the Web for measures of service failure really is different and may really change how service firms think about targeting improvement in their operations. Or it may not, as the Slate article notes:
[These] stories illustrate the other interesting fact about companies’ newfound interest in online complaints—the Web doesn’t seem to have improved ordinary, phone-based customer service. If you call up Comcast, Maytag, or some other company, you’ll still find lots of recalcitrant customer-service reps. The companies seem to notice something’s gone wrong only after you broadcast your complaint to the world. That’s why you’d be a fool not to reach for your keyboard when a company gives you the run-around.