A debate about Best Buy's behavior, and the retail giant's very existence erupted in the blogosphere this month. Although the issue qualified as "big" -- the electronics giant's future as well as the competitive threat Amazon poses to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers -- I believe these deliberations were so heated because much more significant issues are involved.
The discussion began when internet analyst Larry Downes questioned Best Buy's viability in a detailed blog post for Forbes. So far, the entry has received more than 2.5 million hits, and thousands of readers posted comments in response (Downes published a follow-up post in response to the feedback). There are reasons this issue struck a chord and these reasons resonate well beyond Best Buy, Amazon, the retail industry and customer service. They include the following four ideas:
1. Becoming a social enterprise does not achieve anything (by itself). Best Buy has been cited as a successful example of how a company transforms into a "social enterprise." The company has been rightfully lauded for creating an executive blog, an online customer, an online employee forum and establishing an early presence on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. But the brouhaha about the company's customer service illustrates a crucial point about the social enterprise: being social doesn't mean anything in and of itself; instead, HOW we behave over social media platforms and channels means everything. This holds true for all companies. Before Christmas, a New York Times technology blogger reported on the uncaring shrugs he received from two different Best Buy sales representatives in response to his questions about when a product would be replenished. You can make your company the most socially enabled enterprise on the planet but if your employees' primary form of human interaction consists of uninterested "I dunnos" then you're not going to be an enterprise that thrives over the long haul.
2. Everyone takes the walk; it is what happens on the walk that matters most. The criticism levied at Best Buy -- some of it fair, some of it not, and most of which could be fairly directed at many other companies as well -- teaches us about business writing in the social era and, even more importantly, about human interaction as a competitive differentiator. Both the Times blogger and Downes salted their clinical analyses of Best Buy's business issues with highly personal, and critical, reports of their own customer experience. In his original Forbes post, Downes describes his visit to Best Buy with a friend who was on the receiving end of what Downes describes as "anti-service". The store employee was attempting to upsell a service, Downes surmises, albeit in an off-putting way. The store employee was also doing what all companies must do today -- "taking a walk with the customer" to establish a deeper connection and trust. Competitive advantage is no longer about products or even service; it's about the connection the employee and customer establish on the walk. The more fulfilling the connection, the more likely the customer is to return and share the experience with friends and networks (think about the fulfillment many customers enjoy on the walks they take with employees of Apple's retail stores).
3. Coercion is so 20th Century; we must connect in the 21st Century. Why did Downes take such offense at the up-sell? I think because of the overbearing, coercive nature of the interaction. The world has flattened, and so have organizations. We've seen that customers, employees and citizens no longer tolerate command-and-control style of leadership and nor should leaders who want their companies to thrive over the long term. Human qualities like creativity, helpfulness and hope can't be commanded: they can only be inspired in people. You can't sufficiently motivate a sales representative to engender trust in every interaction. The best employees figure this out on their own but others need to be inspired to bring out these qualities.
4. 'How' is about much more than providing service. If you take away one insight from this episode, this is it: be careful, and mindful, in defining HOW within your organization. An official Best Buy response to the column emphasizes that the company will be around for the long haul because they "combine the 'what' of the industry (the world's most comprehensive portfolio of cutting-edge products) and the 'how,' services to turn everything on, connect it and protect it". Best Buy and other companies that define their "hows" as service should rethink that definition. HOW is more than the service itself and showing customers how to connect their flat screen television, providing expertise on an ERP upgrade, or sending a service representative to replace a valve; HOW is what happens during the service as well as during every other interaction between any employees and any stakeholder.
Yes, customer service is important, but it is only one component of what is of paramount importance in a socially connected and morally interdependent world: behavior. As we progress deeper into the Era of Behavior, all of our organizations -- not just those that capture the attention of writers and experts -- need to get their HOWs in order.