Satrajit Sen

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Today's consumer has much to say about services and brands on online platforms. Are brands paying enough attention?

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Political leaders - whether it is Narendra Modi, Shashi Tharoor or Jay Panda - across political parties are all ears when their followers tweet, post or comment on social media platforms. In fact, the way they are clued in must lead to unconcealed admiration among their counterparts in the business arena who, although not exactly setting social media on fire, have not been idle either.

According to an online survey by ACNielsen and AbsolutData in 2012 (on a sample population of 2,000 people from all walks of life, spread across five metros and Tier 1 cities), nearly 40 million Indians use online reviews to tell others about their purchase decisions. Moreover, 67 per cent read online reviews before big purchases.

The survey also reveals that 23 per cent of India's Facebook users (78 million monthly active users) are fans of a brand or company's Facebook page. Besides Facebook and Twitter, there are various online forums that enjoy a high intensity of experience sharing and consumer conversation. According to the survey, 10 million Indians contribute to online forums. Are brands listening?

Talking shop

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Every consumer complaint needs to be addressed, especially on social media. "Consumers end up screaming, because brands didn't listen to them when they were speaking softly and politely. But if you make them feel heard and attended to, they usually calm down," states Kunal Jeswani, chief digital officer, India, Ogilvy & Mather.

Brands are doing that. When a visitor to the Bajaj Allianz website posted - on its Facebook account - that the policy-code generator on the website was not working, the head of market management and product development, Rituraj Bhattacharya, himself addressed the issue.

PVR, when it launched its online ticketing system, claims to have seen more complaints about payment fulfillment. "We used to get back to all the complaints within three hours of them being made online. This helped us retain those consumers who were initially not satisfied with the service. Currently, we have seen that the complaint level has gone down - as much as 75 per cent of the interactions are feedback, rather than complaints," points out Pramod Arora, group president, PVR Cinemas.

Besides catering to consumer demand, some brands are also using social media feedback to test their communication strategies and amend them, depending on what the people are saying on social media.

Recently, Mahindra allowed a change in its TVC after digital feedback. The company had come up with a new two-minute commercial for its XUV500. The original version of the film showed the XUV500 with an Indian (Maharashtra) number plate in a South African setting. During the making, those involved thought it would be 'cool' to show the XUV500 with an Indian number plate, going on a road trip in South Africa.

After the ad appeared online, there was much conversation about the apparent anomaly. The company decided to act on the feedback and changed the number plate to a South African one.

Creative common

Social media feedback can sometimes help a corporate generate new business ideas. PVR's deal tickets, given at subsidised rates for morning shows, was an idea that the company got from social media. These tickets are those issued for morning shows of a movie. For example, a 9 am show of the recent flick Chennai Express in PVR Saket would cost Rs. 120, whereas the same movie in the same theatre at 5:30 pm could cost Rs. 200.

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"We never knew that there could be a market for this. Our consumers suggested this idea through our social media presence and thus, we created a new business model out of it," states Arora.

Parle Agro's Hippo got help of a different kind from its consumers, three years ago. Launched in 2010, Hippo's baked munchies became a runaway success, but its nascent sales and distribution network couldn't keep pace with tracking stock, identifying and re-stocking empty shelves across 400,000 stores nationwide.

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Hippo had the brainwave of using Twitter as an alternative inventory-tracking tool. It urged followers to tweet whenever they found empty shelves in their neighbourhoods. People tweeted away from supermarkets, hypermarkets and local grocery stores in 50 cities. Hippo collected this information, analysed it and sent it to the local distributor, who eventually restocked the shelves.

Smaller brands too have used the medium effectively. Chi Kitchen & Bar, a Delhi-based restaurant with a Pan-Asian menu, identified a gap in the service, through a tweet. A lady once tweeted to the restaurant's twitter handle that the eatery, which is supposed to remain open till 11:30 pm, was found closed at 10:45 pm. It was later discovered that the staff used to start packing up by 11 pm, which resulted in a loss of at least a couple of lakhs each month. This was later amended and the eatery now remains open till 11:30 pm.

On the trail

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Most companies have in-house teams or hire social and digital agencies to monitor online feedback. Feedback is mainly divided into complaints, enquiries and suggestions. On an average (across categories), one would find about 50 per cent complaints, 25 per cent enquiries, and 25 per cent miscellaneous, including suggestions.

Feedback is first tagged in different ways to make sense for the brand. The next step is to respond. This process is usually completed between 24 and 48 hours and the reply to customer is posted back on the same forum from where the feedback came.

The frequency of responses depend on the volume of conversation on the brand. They may be daily, or several times a day, or weekly. Analysis of the feedback depends on how serious the brand custodians are about the brands. "We still find some brand custodians complaining that 'people on social media only complain' and that such messages are not worth taking too seriously," states Sanjay Mehta, joint CEO of Social Wavelength, a social media agency that resells Radian6 in India.

Finding a satisfactory solution may take time, but an assurance that the company is working on the problem helps. "We make sure that we get back to the consumer at least within a couple of hours of the query being posted. The assurance that we are looking into it, keeps his trust," explains Sandeep Komaravelly, vice president, marketing,

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Analysing feedback involves understanding the profiles of the users giving feedback, so as to match their persona to the nature of the feedback. "Let's say that there is an automobile brand, where a customer has given feedback about her test drive experience. We try and understand from the social media profile of the person whether she also test-drove other vehicles, and if so, which competitive brands she is talking about and what she liked or disliked in them," Mehta explains.

By understanding her social media profile, one would try to ascertain how much of an expert the person is, how serious she is about the purchase, and whether a response is required. This is true for certain other categories too.

"We work on online reputation management for a consumer appliances player. We log the city and model number of each type of appliance (refrigerator or air conditioner). We now have data over last three years and can show which model number and city logs the most number of complaints and therefore, are able to give precise feedback to the customer service and product teams," informs Rajiv Dingra, founder and CEO, WatConsult.

Who cares

Generally, large-scale consumer service brands get the most feedback. These categories include telecom (most of it sarcastic), BFSI, e-commerce and retail. Certain categories are more prone to complaints and these include telecom, banking financial, insurance and healthcare and travel and hospitality.

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Meanwhile, there are some new sectors that have taken to the medium well and also get to hear from consumers more often. These include television shows, films, music brands, sports, and also restaurants and other food and drink places or brands.

There are others who believe that this space will be critical in the future and are investing time and effort to learn now. And then, there are others who remain in denial, and take the space for granted. These are the ones who will be hurt the most. Komaravelly of Snapdeal belongs to the first group. "We do it on a daily basis and I am sure many of our competitors do as well. But I am afraid, there aren't many firms around who are paying the kind of attention this segment deserves," he says.

An online outburst doesn't necessarily guarantee a solution. In sectors like insurance, common complaints include mis-selling and rejection of claims, which are unlikely to be resolved. "Issues (to which policyholders may not even have legal recourse) such as buying plans without knowing the charges or premium-paying terms, cannot be resolved easily if the free-look period is over," states Bhattacharya of Bajaj Allianz.

There is a lot of social media chatter that goes unnoticed. This needs to be tapped, and brands have to be serious about suggestions, because the latter, if left unattended, turn into complaints. Many feel that the absence of a top-management official handling the social media feedback, hurts the brand. "Brands need to generate a relationship with its consumers on social media and for this, the top level management has to be involved in analysing social media feedback," explains Arora. He points out to a new breed of managers that is coming up - the chief customer officer.

In developed markets, a CCO is the executive responsible for the relationship with an organization's customers, influencing corporate activities of customer relationship. "This new role will emerge in more organizations. All digital consumer response management would fall in the CCO's domain," asserts Jeswani.

Are Indian brands listening?

A Note From the Editor

Marketers make all the right noises about valuing consumer feedback. Of course they'd like to get it but preferably in a controlled environment. Social media makes them uneasy because they can't control the interaction, the numbers or the vehemence. Worse, consumer frustration is publicly expressed.

Our cover story finds that telecom, financial services and E-commerce account for two thirds of all feedback received. Across categories, about half of all feedback is complaint of some kind, with service brands bearing the brunt of it. That is understandable because an E-commerce service delivery is more likely to fail than a product such as a car.

Half of the remaining feedback is an inquiry of some sort. The rest - that is a fourth of the total - consists of suggestions.

The problem is that marketers are overwhelmed by what they see as negative feedback in social media which many have categorised as a complaints channel. So, they don't pay much attention to what else the consumer has to say. They may be missing something.

As our story shows, amidst the cacophony that is social media, a whole bunch of companies is listening closely to what the consumer is suggesting. There is the case of PVR Cinemas which decided on heavily discounted tickets in the morning only after a consumer suggestion. Or take the instance of Mahindra which changed its TVC because of buzz on social media. There are many such cases besides.

It is true that consumers can be harsh. Sometimes their tone is ugly because they believe that this is the only way to get the attention of the corporation which is too large to care. To be fair to marketers, they are going through their own process of growing up here.

People are generally quicker to complain than to praise and that's true for consumers too, whether offline or online. I hope I am not imagining it but it does seem that there is more praise online for products or services than before. If that's right, it shows that consumers are seeing social media as a means of more than just bashing up brands.


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