Four SOCAP chairs
from over the past four
decades weigh in on
where we started, how far
we’ve come and what the
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.
at the core of
for our brands.”
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
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
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
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
mandatory to be
successful in this
service function of
business is one that
tends to appear a lot
more in women.”
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
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.
people in call
around the country
and all around
the world, so it’s
more intense, more
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
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.
in a fairly
had some smarts and
was fairly aggressive.
… I knew what I
wanted to do for the
company, but it was
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.