Recently, I did a follow-up piece on the Dave Carroll effect. You'll remember him as the "United Breaks Guitars guy." My point was: All the data mining, reputation monitoring, Klout scoring, follower counting and mixing it up online won’t tell you whether one squeaky wheel might rock your company’s world tomorrow.

Why Everyone Matters

Dave Carroll may not have had an AdAge Power150 marketing blog, a stratospheric Technorati rating, or a huge Twitter following. Like the other David, Carroll slew his Goliath with humble means:

  • A good story, artfully told

  • A clear plight that resonated with others

  • Proficiency with You Tube and other social channels

  • Creativity and personality

  • Incredible tenacity

  • Helpful pals

  • A little dumb luck

We bat around terms like “influence” but when push comes to shove, it’s all terribly subjective and unstable. I’m not saying we can’t call people “influencers.” However, it occurs to me that, oftentimes, the people who assail us most effectively largely emerge from left field. Play along with me for a second.

Imagine that you are call center supervisor. Who is more important?

  • Plain Jane with a seemingly straightforward service issue

  • Influential Tom who is ticked off

  • Corporate Fred who is on call number five and is getting the runaround

But here's what you don't know:

  • Plain Jane's issue impacts thousands of other customers and is costing you thousands per second.

  • Influential Tom exposes companies for a living, and he's armed to tattle on you to 1 million consumers.

  • Ordinary Fred just happens to know your boss.

Everyone Has the Potential for Influence

This doesn’t mean that everyone will prove to be influential---it just means they have the potential to matter greatly to your business. Now, if we truly believe this, everyone must matter to us. If we truly believe this to be the case, we have no choice but to respond by making sure we treat people accordingly. We must listen and applying critical thinking instead of running people through hoops and  homogeneous "chutes" for processing, like cattle. This goes far beyond lip service, because it is our actions that speak the loudest. Do we listen? Do we demonstrate empathy and care? Do we take action on their behalf? How do we handle people, their issues and carefully respond?

Bad Things Happen When We Assume People Don't Matter

When was the last time a brand or company communicated (explicitly or implicitly) that you don't matter? How did it impact your feelings toward the brand? When act on bad assumptions, rotten things can happen---to our prospects, customers, partners---and to our businesses themselves. Borrowing from our example above, lets say we blew it in our handling of Jane, Tom or Fred.

  • Plain Jane gives up because no one she encounters "gets it" when she tries to explain what transpired. Her issue isn’t escalated and costs your company $850,000 before it is properly discovered.

  • Influential Tom tweets his experience in real time in a highly entertaining manner, making you and your company look ridiculous in the process.  His resulting blog post creates a mountain out of a mole hill, which results in bad press and a PR fire drill.

  • Corporate Fred calls your boss to complain, pinning the responsibility on you. In reality, his issue is really a larger company policy matter that is beyond your power to resolve, but nothing is done about it, and the issue is bound to repeat itself.

Now, I'm being intentionally one-sided here. It's true that cases like these might be a minority---but it's food for thought and illustrates a good point: If it is what we don't know that can hurt us most, why aren't we actively listening and responding like people matter?  In the end, even a Plain Jane matters simply as a good customer. However, she will matter even more if she's unhappy and decides to combine her voice with 20,000 others.

Treat people as if they do not matter, and they may decide to prove you wrong. Consumers have more resources at their disposal today, and they're intent on using them to be heard. In this light, companies have more to lose than they might think.

So, Do You Roll Out The Carpet For Everyone?

In a manner of speaking, yes. But don’t get me wrong. It’s entirely worthwhile effort to create  tiered service levels for customers who fall into various relational tiers or "premium" experiences for high-value customers. However, these elevated levels of service should be offered over and above the already great service you offer. The problem is, many companies emphasize key segments (frequent buyer, frequent flier, target demographic or insert segment here) to the detriment of everyone else. As a result, they fail to create a baseline customer experiences and service levels that unilaterally treat people like they matter---and this becomes a critical flaw. It's also a flaw when these segments become the primary focus of things like Voice of the Customer programs.

When we decide to ignore the "lesser masses" (limiting the avenues customers have for self expression, suggestion, or obtaining service, response and resolution, or plugging our ears to their plights), we create disservice and frustration. This damages customer experience and produces corporate dysplasia, deafness and blindness that destroy relationships. This is more common than one might think!

Customer Experience Is the Litmus Test for Corporate Values

It’s essential to make sure we deliver solid, consistently pleasing baseline experiences. This is where the real, dirty, operationally intense work is.  Everything else we offer is icing on that cake. In this era of "social commerce," this means companies must be oriented to:

  • Actively and expansively listen

  • Apply critical thinking and common sense

  • Respond with care

  • Assess. learn and improve

We must do this  not by just using our "owned infrastructure"  but within the cloud and social web as well. While this is more challenging now than ever, it's also more exciting and promising because of the dynamic applications, tools, and solutions at our disposal.

When push comes to shove, when we fail to deliver the customer experience fundamentals well, there's a likelihood that many, many people will know. As I said to a senior airline executive in my last post, Pandora’s Box is already open! If we play games with people and refuse to listen and respond, they will make themselves heard somewhere else. Treat people like they don't matter and, like Dave Carroll or Jeff Jarvis or Motrin Moms, they may just prove you wrong.

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image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (