Blogging as disintermediation
Want to save money or increase efficiency? “Eliminate the middle man” is the normal advice. The fancy word for that is “disintermediation.”
Of course, if the middle man adds value, and you find out after switching to selling your product directly to consumers that you really do want shelf space with a high traffic retailer, the act of changing your mind and putting the middle man back in is called “reintermediation.”
Reading the newspaper today, it struck me that a significant percentage of the stories I read quoted bloggers or had commentary on what different blogs were saying on the subject, regardless of whether that subject was Iraq or movies. Taking the blogosphere pulse has been a trend in old-media stories for a few years now. Some what could it lazy journalism, since it takes only a few seconds for a reporter to do a search and get a good quote. But really I think it’s an example of disintermediation. Rather than ask a think-tank representative or pollster or PR flak what people think, reporters can quickly find out directly what (certain) people think on any particular subject.
The same goes for CEOs. If I were a big shot CEO with little time and a momentary inclination to find out what my customers think about my company, I could very easily just do a Web search and peruse a few blogs. Now, suddenly, there’s a direct line between a blogger ranting about a particular bug and the CEO.
Most consumer companies have support organizations who work to classify what issues customers are calling about. (It always shocks me when I work with a partner company and find out that they don’t really track customer support case topics, but that’s the minority.) If that support organization is worthwhile and has good data analysts, they should be putting together presentations and evangelizing through the company about the topics that people are complaining about, and be working to make sure the entire company knows how to reduce support calls and improve the product. But in general, the second hand nature of those presentations dilutes a lot of the impact. It’s a lot different to hear a customer complain to you directly than to see bar charts.
Contrary to that, bloggers and customer support forums have tremendous power because (assuming the search results for that blog or forum are high) odds are that a CEO, VP or other influential person might read it directly and have their thinking changed.
Trouble is, blogs are usually one person’s opinion, and forums are probably not representative of the general customer either. To get the big picture, you really need some reintermediation — someone with access to the support data who can really tell you what the trends are and what customers are really upset about and want to see fixed or improved.
Two personal examples. Before TiVo, I worked at SGI. Their support organization was about as far removed as imaginable. I’m sure they had great data about what customers needed help with; trouble is, in the release and engineering organizations, we never seemed to hear about it. We’d set up cross-functional teams for new hardware and software releases, and those teams would either not include customer support folks, or if they did, those support folks had no voice and presented no data. So every decision about what to release seemed to be made in a vacuum, influenced more by the personality of individual engineers or product marketing folks than by data. And although there were a few newsgroups talking about SGI products, no one in the company really cared what was said there. The big clients (folks like Disney and the U.S. government) were what mattered, not individual users.
At TiVo, early on, Richard B. (“TiVolutionary”) was our evangelist. I remember the day he sent an e-mail to the whole company, back in 1999, when a TiVo usenet newsgroup was created. His excitement was contagious. Not long after that, the TiVoCommunity forum came along. We made sure to encourage the forum and it’s been a big influence on the company ever since. A couple of years ago if a blogger said something about TiVo, there’d be a few of us who knew about it. Nowadays people come up to me and talk about blog articles all the time. It’s fair to say that the forums and blogs influence us a lot, since we’re a consumer company and it’s very easy to hear the voice of consumer directly. We also, fortunately, have an excellent customer support management team who, if I do say so myself, have access to great data about what customers call about.
I think it’s vital that both the individual (blogger/forum poster) and mass (general support call) voices are represented.
There are two big mistakes a consumer-oriented company can make. The biggest mistake is not tracking support call data. If you don’t have data, your decisions are based on anecdotal posts, and you can wind up making huge mistakes in what you prioritize and you have no basis for making return-on-investment analysis. So, if you’re a CEO:
- If you don’t have a support organization that can give you data, reintermediate immediately.
The second biggest mistake is relying only on your support organization and not letting the individual voices of customers ring through. Without reading the narrative of a real customer directly, it’s too easy to dismiss an issue as unimportant or not realize just how much customers care. So, if you’re a CEO:
- If you don’t read blogs or forums talking about your company, disintermediate immediately.
I publish my e-mail address and get probably a dozen customer e-mails a day (even now, when I don’t work in service operations or support at all). Sure, it takes time to answer those and direct them to the right place. I also read up on what the blogs are saying about us just about every day. It definitely takes time for me to look at the support data. But because I do both, I feel connected to TiVo’s customers and I feel confident when trying to influence what happens at TiVo.
Ten or twenty years ago, prior to the Internet, individual customer voices rarely had a chance to influence anything. Sure, a well-written complaint letter to the CEO might actually end up in the CEO’s hands. But that was rare. Additionally, thanks to data tools becoming more widespread, support organizations are now much more likely to have folks who can figure out the trends and use that data to influence the rest of the company.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s a much better time to be a consumer.