I’ve never liked VIPs. At big moments in our lives – buying our first home, applying to college, seeing a doctor – it seems like we should all be equal.
It isn’t always that way. Friends in medicine told me that when the Clinton campaign or the Rolling Stones came to Seattle, their security detail asked Harborview to set aside emergency-room beds (the final car in a presidential motorcade is always an ambulance). But legendary ER director Michael Copass flat-out refused: the only VIPs in his world were firefighters and paramedics.
Here at Redfin, we’ve tried to avoid VIPs too, even though dozens of my friends have at this point become Redfin customers. It hasn’t been easy: in a multi-million dollar negotiation, everyone wants a leg up, and I don’t like to say no to any customer.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t VIPs at Redfin, or at every other online-savvy business for that matter. The difference is most of them come not from my social network but from online social networks in general: Twitter, Yelp and the blogosphere.
Redfin agents & engineers spend all day on those sites so when a client live-blogs every twist & turn of her real estate search, we all notice. And if one of our agents screws up with a customer who Twitters about it, a half dozen Redfinners are immediately emailing that agent to find out what happened (about 15% of the time the review is from a competitor who never used our service).
We’re not alone. A recent study in the Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics found that “an agent is more likely to bargain aggressively and capture a portion of the gains to trade for a client when the house’s sales price is closely related to the agent’s reputation and future business (referrals).” Other industries are no different: Redfin engineer Dan Fabulich told me that a fringe benefit of his mother’s food blog is white-glove service at any LA restaurant.
Translation: some customers are more equal than others. We judge their importance not by the old measures — the heft of their wallet or the fanciness of their title — but by the extent of their social network. More than any CEO, a stay-at-home mom with 2,000 Twitter followers is a force to be reckoned with. One of my favorite Seattle-area CEOs, Alex Castro, takes a screenshot of every Twitter complaint lodged against his competitors and mails it out to prospective clients.
And increasingly, consumers aren’t afraid to throw around the weight of their social networks. When Internet impresario Jason Calacanis tweets about the fantastic service he got from Tesla or asks someone at Apple or Dell or Canon to hook him up with new stuff, I can’t help but wonder if their response says more about the kindness of those companies or the power of his 70,000 Twitter followers.
What that means is social networks’ participants have sometimes figured out how to monetize those services ahead of the services themselves. Twitter may not host ads but Twitter’s users advertise good service all the time and are often rewarded for it.
I don’t like to think about how this affects the objectivity of Twitter as the new CNN, but it will have one big benefit: companies will invest more deeply in customer service not as a cost center but as a marketing channel. As Redfin’s Sasha Aickin argued in a recent directors’ meeting, we all need to stop worrying about how to make it easy for consumers to Twitter about us and just focus on giving them something good to Twitter about.
So how does Redfin square all this with our efforts to treat every customer like a VIP? We try to give everyone a voice by surveying every customer for a review, regardless of whether there is a close, and publishing every review on our site. Less than 1% of our clients have the gumption and the online following to review us on Twitter or Yelp, but 56% fill out the survey — which is so high that our agents have to assume any given customer can affect their reputation.