In a recent Direct Message exchange with Casey Monteiro (@Casey_ek_se) on Twitter, he referred to the social media presence of a prominent brand as “lipstick on a pig”. The brand he was referring to was FNB – the bank I’ve just switched my main account to based almost entirely on the advocacy of my peers and my personal experience with their social media presence.

My first instinct in response to Casey’s sentiment (which, in context, was applicable to all banks with a social media presence) was to be somewhat affronted. After all, the agency I started works hard to help brands establish and maintain their social media presence as a full time occupation. I’d like to believe that all that hard work translates into nothing short of a fundamental transformation in the service culture of those companies.

Casey was right though – few corporate brands achieve a seamless experience between their on-the-ball, client-centric social media profiles and the actual day-to-day touch points between “ordinary” staff and “ordinary” clients.

Michael Jordaan, as the Twitter-savvy CEO of FNB, has gained notoriety (and I dare suggest a few customers) for his candid, sincere engagement on the platform. His pride and passion are contagious – it’s not hard to get excited about a brand whose fearless leader embraces innovation so willingly. After all, that’s what I want from the brands I spend money with – they must do the basics exceptionally well, and delight and surprise me with market-leading innovations. Michael recently elaborated on his fascination with Twitter in a Mail & Guardian article:

(Twitter) encourages and facilitates quick, impulsive conversations with your customers and the public and shatters the traditional hierarchies and channels of ­executive communication…

But social media are changing the way businesses connect with the press and I love being part of a network that tunes me in to the multiple and overlapping conversations that make our society so vital, interesting and dynamic.

Clearly, Michael gets social media engagement, as do many modern executives and business leaders. But surely the true value of their enthusiasm should be measured in the impact of that enthusiasm on the service culture of the organisations they represent?

I recently switched to FNB. The overall experience hasn’t been bad, but straight away the unmistakable characteristics of corporate silos, hierarchies, competition and anti-collaboration have been evident. I was contacted by FNB Premier banking, and met with a consultant, but even though I qualify as a private client I was motivated to join Premier banking because that was what suited the consultant. I relented on the basis that Premier banking would be cheaper, but the truth is I’m fundamentally lazy and would rather enjoy the pleasure of a Private banker than, well, do any banking-related admin at all. I did explain this to the consultant…

As soon as I signed up for Internet banking, the Discovery Credit Card I have had for years reflected on my profile – because of the link between Discovery and FNB. Today I had a query about that card – yes, the same one that is reflected on my profile – and got told by my assigned Premier assistant that they couldn’t help me with my enquiry but that I had to contact the Discovery Credit Card call centre to get the query resolved. I replied – and yes I sounded like a whiny snob but I think I had a case – that if I wanted to contact the Discovery call centre I wouldn’t have switched to FNB Premier banking. Swiftly picking up on my tone the assistant agreed to email Discovery for me to resolve the query. Surely that should have been the default option?

I’m under no illusions as to how hard it is to replicate the service ethic of social media profiles across corporations, but the goal is to try your level best. After all social media is so much more than a bunch of websites that link people together – it is a fundamental shift in the way we connect, communicate and collaborate with each other, with our colleagues and with our customers. It is incumbent upon brands that invest in social media profiles to educate key service staff, every day, about the evolving connected consumer and how to engage with them. The risk for those that don’t is that the blatant dissonance between the online and offline experience of the brand is so off-putting, that it does more damage than if you’d never been there in the first place!

Am I saying that brands shouldn’t be on Twitter, Facebook and others if they can’t pull a Zappos and present a ubiquitous client-centric brand across all touch points? Absolutely not, that would make me a hypocrite. I applaud all brands that make an effort, but would encourage a more concerted effort toward acknowledging that no two customers are the same and that all attempts must be made to establish departments and teams, failing a service ethic that encompasses this truth across the business, that can ensure a consistently good (or even consistently average) experience of the brand for influential customers.

Client-centricity is a misnomer. Today, brands need to focus on identifying and influencing influencers, because there is no better salesperson than a satisfied customer. Satisfied influential customers influence the masses in turn, and that advocacy will motivate a change of heart in even the most stoic dissenters. This is the value we try to add to our clients – strategies and training that fundamentally shift the experience of the brand in line with the social promise of the brand, in the eyes and hearts of its customers.

Are brands on social media simply smearing lipstick on the pig? Yes. Does it need to stop there or can the pig be fundamentally transformed into a, um, non-pig-like thing over time? Yes. Who can teach your corporate pig how to be non-pig-like? Your clients. So listen to them.

I have asked my FNB Premier consultant to advise me on Private banking. We’ll see how that goes 🙂