iBurst is one of South Africa's major national broadband providers, holding a licence that allows it to build out its own wireless network, as well as to lay fibre backbone infrastructure. The company was founded only a few short years ago, and has been rolling out its radio mast and backhaul fibre infrastructure in double-quick time.
It's also had to very rapidly scale up its customer support team, and adapt its business to its two distinct areas of operation: iBurst Wireless, a cost-effective wireless solution that's an alternative for people who don't want (or can't get) fixed line access, and iBurst Business, aimed at fixed line or point-to-point wireless solutions for small-to-medium corporates.
The problem was change. As the Chinese curse goes, "May you live in interesting times", iBurst was competing in a ferociously competitive market at the same time as it was making gargantuan capital investments in infrastructure.
Towards the end of 2009 it had also implemented a new billing system, and outsourced elements of its support call centre. Unfortunately, gremlins in the new billing system were causing iBurst Wireless customers headaches of truly epic proportions: incorrect bills, being cut off for non-payment on paid accounts, cancelled accounts still being billed. Customers were trying to resolve problems through the call centre, which was not yet satisfactorily resourced, and were getting the run-around.
It was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, and needless to say, customers were furious, and getting more so every day.
Brand damage was becoming significant, and consumer complaint websites were being flooded with complaints. "I hate iBurst" Facebook groups and websites were being created left, right and centre, and Twitter was glowing with invective.
iBurst was already addressing the operational issues: allocating more resources to the call centre, and the technical people were working around the clock on fixing the bugs in the billing system.
The marketing team was in a brand war-zone, however, and needed to contain the brand damage, improve communications to customers to defuse some of the anger and open channels to customers to resolve problems, and work out how to handle the mass of customers complaining online.
The key challenge was that people were giving up on the call centre, and taking their complaints online more and more loudly in an attempt to get a response.
iBurst brought in Sentient Communications in early 2010, a tech-specialist public relations company with particular strengths in online communications and rapid-response crisis management with both media and online audiences.
Sentient's role was to help the marketing team deal with the immediate threat to the brand, as well as to ensure that the activities of the rest of the business could continue - that the immediate crisis did not completely dominate iBurst's brand presence. The company was still providing great services to many satisfied customers, rolling out new products and stirring things up in the industry by active thought leadership in open-access models and campaigning for "Use It Or Lose It" spectrum management by the regulator.
This good work could not be drowned out by specific, short-term problems.
Together, iBurst's marketing team Sentient and iBurst's digital marketing agency digiVOX did a huge amount of work to understand the digital environment's who, what, where and why (the when in the online world is always the same: "RIGHT NOW!"), and developed a number of inter-locking strategies.
iBurst set up the BrandsEye monitoring tool to find hotspots on the Internet, and to be able to measure whether interventions were having an effect over the long term.
The marketing team and agency also reviewed the priority areas where complaints, back-biting and pot-shots were becoming habitual - and in particular identify specific individuals to understand why they had such strong personal feelings.
At the same time, certain channels were chosen as priorities to become communication channels: the iBurst Facebook fan page, iBurst Twitter page (@iBurst, and the popular myBroadband forum, which had become particularly vitriolic.
iBurst marketing, Sentient and digiVOX worked through the various channels and how users engaged, and experimented with different approaches. Sentient then formulated a written policy, with engagement guidelines [look out for Roger's follow-up article on rules of engagement later this week on Bizcommunity - managing ed]. This covered who was to respond and how, what the escalation paths were for various conversation threads (accounts queries, technical issues, user support, etc).
A key part of managing social media channels is resourcing. Monitoring, responding and escalating issues can be hugely time-consuming, and trying to do a perfect job can be exhausting, nerve-shredding and sometimes fruitless.
Decisions also needed to be made around when and how to respond - the nature of a consumer business is that not everyone can be happy all of the time, and some people are basically unsatisfiable. Some are conspiracy wonks. Some have a hidden agenda, such as flaming you on Facebook to then try sell you ORM services.
A very real danger to a marketing team that takes on the social media function is that by its nature it's a direct channel to - and from - customers. If a customer is not getting through to the normal customer support channels, but is getting helped by posting to Facebook or tweeting on Twitter, then before long the story gets around.
This becomes a substantial operational management issue where, before you know it, the marketing team is carrying the CRM can for the company, because another division is not giving the customers what they want. The real risk here is that the marketing team becomes responsible for areas completely outside of their control - such as resolving accounts problems. Part of the social media strategy work has to address this shifting of responsibilities.
It is easy to get sucked into a very reactive social media mode, where all the energy goes into resolving complaints. Social media is also a great tool for positive, proactive marketing.
Sentient's traditional PR work in helping build the iBurst brand also became a source of content for the digiVOX online engagement team. This positive messaging prevents the social media channels from being dominated by complaints and negativity. Posting fun, interesting and relevant snippets goes a long way to improving the tone - which also draws out positive feedback from customers (it's a reality that often unhappy customers are the most vocal ones).
Over the past few months, a division of responsibility has become clear:
The turnaround in iBurst's online reputation - as well as customer satisfaction - in just one quarter has been nothing short of amazing. Review of the BrandsEye reputation score firstly shows iBurst mentioned in dramatically more categories online - increasing breadth of conversation it is involved in.
More importantly, the reputation score, which measures the "positive" or "negative" tone or context of the mention, has gone from significantly negative to "a little negative".
Why are we happy about this? The reality is that a company providing a "commodity" consumer service such as telecoms will typically have a slightly negative online score - people generally speak up when they're unhappy. Everything working fine is what users expect - the marketing team is realistic about how much you can "surprise and delight" a customer with a service that is only remarkable to users when it's not working!
Now that iBurst's online reputation has been stabilised, that all three teams are clear as to roles and responsibilities, and have become more experienced in the environment, more proactive work can be done.
This will roll out over the next months, as social media channels are integrated more tightly into the existing CRM/customer response functions, the marketing team gets additional resources to communicate online, and new marketing campaigns are rolled out with social media as part of their fabric.
What has been key to the online reputation turnaround is co-operation and trust between the marketing team, the PR agency and the digital marketing agency, so that each can deliver what it is best at, and so that the combined result is greater than the sum of the parts.
Even more key: that the team acted, and didn't just talk. One thing makes an unhappy customer happy - and that's having their problem listened to... and solved.