SOCAP International

SOCAP—Celebrating 40 Years

Four SOCAP chairs from over the past four decades weigh in on where we started, how far we’ve come and what the future holds.

SOCAP International celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2013. Much has changed since the organization was formed amidst a steadily rising chorus of consumer concerns. At that time, companies had haphazard systems for handling complaints, if they had a system at all. In forming SOCAP, corporate America signaled a new understanding about consumer needs and a willingness to engage consumers. Companies adapted to a new and more demanding commercial marketplace. And with the onset of technological innovation, globalization and other powerful political, economic and social forces, the best companies have been adapting their customer care practices ever since.

To mark the milestone, appreciate the changes and help members gain a more informed vision of the future, Matthew D’Uva, SOCAP president and CEO, recently spoke with four leaders of the organization:

    Linnea Johnson—current SOCAP chair and global CEC senior director at Unilever Sheila Sullivan—SOCAP chair in 2004 and director of global consumer affairs at Coty Inc. John Flintosh—SOCAP chair in 1996, who began attending SOCAP meetings as a Ford Motor Company manager in the 1980s Judy Gorman—SOCAP chair in 1978 and a trailblazer in raising the awareness of consumer affairs, first at Chase Manhattan Bank and then as marketing vice president at New York Life

The highlights of this lively conversation—along with a history of SOCAP as captured in the voices and memories of some of those who helped build a vital, vigorous and enduring organization—now follow.

“People are seeing consumer engagement at the core of building brand-loyal consumers and business advocates for our brands.” —Linnea Johnson, current SOCAP chair

Matthew D’Uva: How did your career begin in customer care?

Judy Gorman: I was always very consumer oriented and concerned that the consuming public was on top of what they were learning. I was a professional actress. While I was pounding the pavement in New York looking for a job, which turned out to be in network television, I was promoting and marketing temporary help services. I had some jobs—The Patty Duke Show, The Defenders, the film Bye Bye Birdie—and then everything left New York City.

I had some clients in the commercial services field, one of which was Chase Manhattan Bank. They hired a lot of clerks and secretaries. One day I took the head of human resources to lunch and said, “How do you make certain your employees understand the bank?” He was reasonably impressed with me, so I met the senior vice president of the corporate communications group. He hired me and that’s how my consumer affairs career began. They liked the ideas I had about educating the consuming public about money and credit. That was the early 1970s—the time that the consumer movement in America was just starting. … In those days, a complaint came in and companies just ignored it. They didn’t have a system set up. So I was in during the beginning days of consumer affairs.

Linnea Johnson: I was responsible for a marketing division. At that time, we had different divisions running their own customer care organizations. Lever Brothers. Chesebrough-Ponds. Lipton. All doing their own thing independently. The financial group decided to do a big review. They brought me in from the Lipton organization to look at it from the value of consumer engagement perspective. So I was on the team to review what we should be doing for consumer care across the four divisions. After we went through the review, we decided not to outsource but consolidate within one organization. I wrote a job description for the director of consumer services. I decided it was a more exciting job than what I was doing, so I applied for it.

John Flintosh: I started with Ford after I came out of the Army. I started in the finance organization and moved on to sales and marketing … sales planning and analysis, sales administration and operations planning. My first 25 years was in the parts side of the business, and I moved into service as a career change. New assignments, new people, travel opportunities. Ned Smith [SOCAP chair in 1977] guided that movement, picking out people he wanted to be involved in the service side of the business.

There was a very sharp focus on service at that time, at Ford and the automotive industry. Lemon laws were becoming increasing intrusive. We were confronted with increasing regulatory requirements. We were constantly put on the defensive by the people who would want us to think they were trying to help consumers but in reality were promoting themselves and their own active interests. Yet we also recognized that there was a terrific opportunity because no one in the automotive industry had a particular advantage in the service arena. Everyone was pretty much the same. There was a strong recognition within Ford to exert leadership— Why didn’t we step forward to set standards and goals for the industry?

“I think the psychological and emotional ‘service gene’ that’s mandatory to be successful in this service function of business is one that tends to appear a lot more in women.” —Sheila Sullivan, SOCAP chair in 2004

D’Uva: Tell me about SOCAP in the early days and how it has changed moving forward.

Gorman: It was wonderful. I was a charter member.

We had hundreds at the annual meetings. We had members like the Mattel Toy Company, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, American Airlines … all these guys were friends of mine. Everybody was excited about this up-and-coming field. All of us were innovating. All of the people had the support of their management. We had Esther Peterson, Ralph Nader, Betty Furness and Bess Myerson as speakers. We were growing the chapters. We were in the profession building process.

Johnson: What hasn’t changed is what’s at the heart of SOCAP. It’s an organization where people care for each other, where they network, where they are open and share information. Also what hasn’t changed is our desire to educate members on how to do their jobs better. What has changed is that SOCAP represents a much wider breadth of industries. When I started it was very much food and beverage. It slowly became consumer packaged goods. And now we have such a wealth of brands across industries. It has taken consumer care and engagement to a new level. We are raising the bar on the type of education we offer members, not just in print but digitally and in webinars. And we’re doing more outreach on the value of the profession as a whole. SOCAP helps us get to the C-suite and talk about the value of consumer affairs and consumer engagement to the business.

“There are legions of people in call centers all around the country and all around the world, so it’s more immediate, more intense, more consistent.” —John Flintosh, SOCAP chair in 1996

Flintosh: I was always impressed by the discipline of SOCAP meetings. They were well laid out. Lou Garcia, the executive director at the time, provided great direction. If a meeting was supposed to start at 9 o’clock, it started at 9 o’clock. They were well organized. The quality of the material presented was always outstanding. When I joined the board, it was immediately apparent that there were no shrinking violets. We were all engaged and involved. In the 90s, we had a lot of fun trying to define a theme for SOCAP. We decided on value-based customer satisfaction. We struggled to define it. Ultimately we failed by virtue of the fact that nobody could.

D’Uva: What role did you and your team play in consumer affairs, and how did that work within your company?

Johnson: When I first became responsible for consumer affairs, frankly most of the people within the organization referred to it as the complaint center. Consumers engaged with us by telephone and letter—this was pre-email days. We really only did a lot of engagement with consumers who complained. People who loved our products or had questions—we did nothing to engage with.

Today, we view customer engagement as a strategic asset. We play a dual role. We are the voice of the brand to the consumer, so we are the personal embodiment of all of our brand activities. We are also the voice of the consumer back to the business, so we can help enhance their offerings to consumers, give suggestions about what consumers are looking for, what kind of health issues consumers are finding. We watch for trends in consumer contacts and we are an adjunct to more formal market research studies going on in the company.

When we were independent organizations, even within the independent organizations, we didn’t do a lot of collaboration or cross learning. If a promotion ran on a product like Dove, the findings of that particular promotion were not necessarily shared with the brand team running promotions on Caress or Lever 2000. When we became a centralized organization, we had a lot more learning across categories. Once we became more collective with product suggestions and inquiries about product performance, we became a much more valuable asset to our R&D teams.

“Being a woman in a fairly responsible position—a token woman, really—who had some smarts and was fairly aggressive. … I knew what I wanted to do for the company, but it was very difficult.” —Judy Gorman, SOCAP chair in 1978

Gorman: At New York Life, as marketing vice president, I had to work with the group department, the life department, the pension department. It was very, very hard to get people to care about consumer affairs. They did it because they had to do it—they did it because there was a lot of pressure to do it. All the other major corporations were bringing in consumer people. The politicians— the mayor, the President—were bringing in consumer affairs people. It was 1973 that SOCAP was founded, and it was a fight … being a woman in a fairly responsible position—a token woman, really—who had some smarts and was fairly aggressive. … I knew what I wanted to do for the company, but it was very difficult.

Flintosh: We had terrific support within the company. We had people like Ned Smith at the upper levels. Phil Benton, president of Ford, was a strong advocate of customer service leadership throughout. Ned Smith and Phil Benton were instrumental in the formation of SOCAP, and we had mutual respect among the leading automakers. SOCAP was unique—the only organization where competitors could sit down and discuss ideas for improving customer service without attorneys getting agitated or nervous in the background. We realized that when you improve customer service for one company, you’re really ratcheting up customer service for everybody.

D’Uva: One of the things I think is interesting about SOCAP is that we’ve traditionally been an organization that is 60 to 70 percent women. We’re an organization founded in a the 1970s, and our second chair was a woman. So consumer affairs has been an opportunity for women to have a platform in business. Why? How has SOCAP helped?

Sheila Sullivan: I think the psychological and emotional “service gene” that’s mandatory to be successful in this service function of business is one that tends to appear a lot more in women. If you read Richard Shapiro’s book [The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business], it’s about being a welcomer … consumer affairs, being a service function, service functions are often associated with women in business because men don’t have the temperament or the patience. They don’t want to listen, and they don’t want to care. Women often are good listeners. If you have that “welcomer gene” and understand what you’re doing on behalf of a business, you care because by caring you do your job better.

I’ve seen some women who get to be managers and they’re so good. They have a wonderful, keen business sense. But they don’t develop the tools that are necessary to play in the boy’s locker room. So they never get passed being a manager. SOCAP has provided opportunities to develop those tools and skills. I grabbed them and swung them around my head a few times and threw out the lasso to see what I got back. I caught a couple of steers so I kept roping.

Gorman: I remember a few of us, such as Dianne McKaig, who was a lawyer and handled consumer affairs for the Coca-Cola Company. Most other consumer affairs people in my day had objectives that were far more focused— some were solely complaint handlers. They had a small staff that read complaints, answered letters, answered phone calls. I am not minimizing that, but most companies didn’t have the broader-based orientation. There were a lot of women, but basically the job in those days was answering complaints. It was a glorified clerical position.

Johnson: As far as women in consumer affairs, some of that has to do with longevity in an industry. In functions like marketing, the turnover is really high. When you get into consumer affairs, people become passionate about seeing the value of what we do. So you don’t see the turnover. We’re seeing a lot more men coming in. It’s not just seen as a care organization any more. Stereotypically, you say the woman is the caregiver in the home. That whole stereotype isn’t the same. People are seeing consumer engagement at the core of building brandloyal consumers and business advocates for our brands. That’s non gender specific.

D’Uva: How has power shifted between company and consumer? Is the consumer king?

Gorman: It’s a whole different world. Today, you contact the CEO, and you can’t even get an answer. So I question the importance of the consumer movement. I don’t even know what the movement is today. I have strong feelings, but I haven’t been living it.

Sullivan: I would tend to disagree. Yes, it’s harder for the consumer to get to the personal assistant of the CEO. Businesses have created consumer affairs departments to engage with consumers on purpose. By having the department, they have far more resources to engage with far more people.

Yes, the consumer movement has come a long way, and because of lemon laws, data privacy, HIPPA and everything else, consumers know that they’re empowered. At the same time, I think the vast majority of consumers really don’t have a clue about how businesses run. They are subject to a sense of entitlement without responsibility, which has contaminated the consumer movement to a certain degree.

The more that companies can do to deliver education within their messaging, the more they help enrich the consumer movement in all the best ways. It comes down to consumer affairs becoming the unpopular consumer advocate within a business. To be able to stand up to the marketers and say, “I respect that your package copy real estate is precious. I know that you don’t want to put all of this educational information in your advertising because the slightest thing might turn off a sale.” Use digital media to get your education out there in a way that engages the consumer.

Johnson: I think in the early days you sent a letter to the CEO, and you might have thought you were getting to the president, but you were getting a response from someone on behalf of the president. Today, it’s very easy for consumers to get a hold of an executive’s email or to have posts escalate to them on social media. Executives are more visible now because consumers have so many more channels to use. I think we’re much more transparent and have more information readily available at our fingertips. You may not get the president’s office, but you’ll get a very consistent response and a quick response. The C-suites almost get too much feedback from consumers.

Flintosh: We recognized that the customer is the focus of everything we do. Without a customer, you have little or nothing to do or worry about. If you called or sent a letter to the top level, it would get delegated to someone who was capable of responding. That’s no longer the case. There are legions of people in call centers all around the country and all around the world, so it’s more immediate, more intense, more consistent. But it’s also true that if you go to websites of technology companies to discuss some issue, good luck. You’re hard pressed, generally, to find the telephone number.

D’Uva: How has technology changed consumer affairs? How will it change the future?

Sullivan: Technology has changed everything about the delivery and exchange of consumer affairs. It’s even changed the intent of consumer affairs. Before, consumer affairs was about being responsive to someone who had a problem or a question. Technology turned that on its head, putting consumers in the driver’s seat. Brands want to earn the type of consumer-generated media that never even existed before.

In the old days, it was marketing saying, “Just answer the complaint and keep them happy and away from me.” Now marketing wants to partner with consumers affairs to make sure they’re included so they can optimize the impact of every dollar they spend. Technology has also created boundless opportunities for consumer affairs professionals if they embrace it. In the future, I think technology will continue to empower consumers, but brands and companies will be able to harness that power and use it to deliver exactly what the consumer wants—when and where they want it.

Johnson: It’s been such an evolution. It started with just letters. The CEO’s executive assistant tended to screen the letters. Since then we’ve come light years. Not only telephones but IVR for self-service, websites, virtual agents on websites, email, Facebook pages you can go to and ask questions, tweets, company blogs and forums. … There is just everything imaginable and the customer engagement center has to keep up with that.

There’s a much more rapid response expectation. You sent a letter and someone got back to you in two weeks. Now you send an email and you’re waiting for a response no later than the next day. On Facebook you expect someone’s going to address your comment pretty quickly. Technology has also upped the game in terms of hours of operation. Where you used to be open a few hours a day, now consumers are active 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Then there’s the ability of consumers to judge you based on the service of other service providers. For Unilever, it’s not just consumers comparing our response on Hellman’s mayonnaise to Kraft’s response on Miracle Whip, it’s consumers comparing the service they received from Unilever to the Zappos and Amazons of the world.

D’Uva: Globalization is also key …

Johnson: Absolutely. A consumer can have a problem in whatever country, and if he or she goes to a corporate Facebook page, you don’t know what country that person is from. But it can become a global issue instantly.

Robert Cohen is a freelance writer with SOCAP International.