Further lessons in customer service, and miscellanea

In Vancouver. Dog-tired, fighting a cold, missing the family, but feeling good otherwise - getting stuff done. Having a great time working with our new head of product management, who may just turn out to be one of the best hiring decisions I've ever made.

If I get the time, I still want to post some follow up thoughts from last week's Syndicate conference, although I see Doc (who chaired the gig) has provided a pretty good roundup from other attendees, and some thoughts of his own. Shel Israel's absolutely right to single out Larry Weber's lunchtime keynote as one of the high points of the conference. Reassuring to listen to someone at the very pinnacle of the PR world who so clearly gets it.

Meanwhile, a quick observation on what you might call "connected customer service". This is a relatively small point, but it was interesting to me. YMMV.

In the last week, I posted comments concerning three different vendor companies - Hilton Hotels, Google, and Pandora Media.

One was a complete rant (about how outrageously crappy my experience of the SF Hilton was), the others were more general concerns about Google's Blogger product and the long-term viability of the Pandora music service.

The response from Hilton and Google: zip.

Not that I was even remotely expecting a response of any kind. I don't imagine for a minute anyone there really gives a toss about what some bloke in his PJs is writing about in his low-readership blog. And if I'd wanted an actual response, I would have addressed them more directly by email or in a letter.

But here's an interesting thing: within 12 hours of me posting my concerns about the Pandora business model, the company's CTO, Tom Conrad, had seen my post and responded in the comments with some very reassuring and encouraging remarks.

Now, Tom's running an early-stage, fast growth company with a big interest in the needs of people who live a good part of their life online. So it makes perfectly good sense that he'd be on top of all the latest tools and conversation tracking widgets - groovy thingies like the nifty Blogger Web Comments extension for Firefox.

I'm tickled that he read my note and responded so fast, and I'm pleasantly surprised. But then, when I stop to think about it, I'm kind of surprised that I should be surprised.

What Tom did is simple, easy, and extraordinarily valuable. It should be the norm. I'm now even more in love with the Pandora service than I was before - it's not just an awesome music discovery tool, it's one I feel a personal and direct connection to. Tom's simple action has helped turn me from a happy customer into a raving fan.

On the flipside, I don't think I ever want to stay in a Hilton Hotel again - certainly not in San Francisco. And my frustration with the Blogger UI continues to grow to the point that I'm very likely to switch soon - after closes to five years of continuous, more-or-less satisfied use.

And here's the rub: Google and Hilton, two mighty companies, have access to exactly the same conversation tracking technologies as Tom does. In fact, as their corporate comms budgets are, do doubt, much bigger than Pandora's, I'm sure they have some major reputation monitoring weaponry. It should actually be easier for them to keep tabs on what people are saying about them, but no one at Google or Hilton bothered to respond to my concerns.

Again - my ego is not as far out of check as it sounds. I really don't expect these two ginormous companies to respond to every pissy post from some disgruntled bum with a blog.

But think about that for a second. Ask yourself: why the hell don't they?

Tom's response shows that he cares about individual customers - about the little guy. Thing is - we're all little guys. Little guys staying in hotels, little guys using a web product, little guys searching for new music, little guys shopping for a car...

Is the mighty Hilton's reputation any less valuable and important to them than Pandora's? It's certainly bigger and, they might think, more durable - but it's a reputation built by exactly the same means, by the only means possible. Reputations are built by satisfying customers, one little guy at a time.

As a company's reputation grows, little guy by little guy, the ambient volume of conversations about the company happening out there also grows. Makes it harder to keep on top of what's going on. This is not a hard problem to manage, though.

At the same time as the volume and range of conversation grows, the amount of money and resources the company devotes to staying plugged into those conversations is also, presumably growing.

How much do you think the Hilton guys budget for corporate comms every year? $12 million? More? I wouldn't be surprised. That was about the size of the North American PR budget for one of the big computer companies I used to represent, back when I was a full-time flack.

And how much is your PR budget, Tom? I'd guess at less than $100K. Yet Tom, with his constrained resources and, I'm sure, busy work schedule, is able to stay connected to the little guy conversations that make up his market and are responsible for steadily building his reputation.

The response I got from Tom Conrad reminded me of the way things were with Blogger back when I started using it, when the number of users could be counted in the thousands.

Back then, if you had a problem or a suggestion about the service, you could post up a note and get both a response and, quite often, a fix within a few hours. In the post-Google Blogger world, alas, the responsiveness hasn't scaled.

As companies get bigger, do they inevitably grow deafer? Seems to generally be the rule, but it doesn't have to work that way.

As your company scales, surely you can afford ever bigger ears to listen with, and more mouths and hands with which to respond. Selective deafness becomes a choice.

The Hiltons of the world get to stop listening to the little guy, simply because they can. And the little guys get to vote with their feet and their credit cards - one outrageously-large hotel bill at a time.