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eCommerce Customer Service lessons learned from Instagram

As you’ve probably heard over and over again, Instagram changed their terms and conditions a week ago, giving themselves the option to use and sell user content as they see fit.

They didn’t really, but a bit more on that in a minute

To make a long story short, Instagram is a hugely successful photosharing mobile app. You take pictures with your phone’s camera, add a grainy/black&white/sepia/hipster filter, and share it with all of your friends via your Instagram account. They were bought up by Facebook a while ago, and are looking for ways to monetize themselves.

Last week, they changed their terms and conditions, adding in a few clauses that looked as though they were saying “we own your photos, and we can sell them if we want, and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

Naturally, their users weren’t thrilled about it. Tools that help users download all their photos from Instagram so they can shut down their account are struggling to cope with the flood of traffic they are getting.

The response from Instagram didn’t take long to arrive. Only a few days after the terms of service were updated, Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s CEO posted an apology on their blog, along with an explanation of what the changes really meant. ”Instagram wasn’t going to sell your photos”, he says, “but we can use them in conjunction with advertisements”.

The real problem seems to be due to the legal language that is used in the Terms and Conditions. Legal language is not easily understood by laymen (which are the majority of the users), and it adds in a lot of clauses which confuse matters even more.

So what has this got to do with customer service?


1. You are not your customers.

Systrom thought he was making a minor change to the Terms of Service, or at least one that would go by unnoticed. He just changed a few words here, added a clause there – I mean, it was perfectly obvious (to him) what he wanted to say.

As demonstrated, the customers saw it differently. They didn’t understand, and the increasing number of scary headlines to the tune of ‘Instagram is stealing your photos’ didn’t help. Instagram lost more than customers this week – it lost integrity. And today, when every service (yes, even Instagram) has competition that customers can go to just by clicking an ad, or doing a quick search on Google, one of the main reasons your customers remain loyal to you is your integrity and certainly your willingness to be upfront about changes that you’re making.

2. Users ARE customers.

A lot has been made out of the fact that Instagram is free. All those millions of users don’t actually pay anything to enjoy Instagram’s services, and so they should not be able to complain when those services change.

Users are your customers. If you don’t have a payment model, then that’s your business to work on. You can’t jerk the rug out from under millions of people, changing the terms of service completely, just because you want to, even if they don’t pay you a dime. Even Facebook couldn’t do it with Beacon, and they have a little more marketing leverage than Instagram.

Just imagine that your customers wander into your online store, and apart from buying clothes, they can also sign up for a newsletter. The newsletter, which advertises your latest products, is free (of course). After more than 200 people sign up, you suddenly start charging them money for receiving the newsletter, just like fashion magazines. Do you think that’s good practice? Do you think that your customers will continue shopping in your store? The answer is probably not.

Again, don’t get us wrong – we aren’t against change, nor does free stuff remain free forever. It is how you carry out these changes that can keep the customers on your side, or turn them away for good.

3. Don’t confuse people.

If the additions to the Terms and Services had been laid out in a clear fashion, if the changes would have been explained in a blog post beforehand, if any number of actions had been taken before the change, Instagram would have won over a lot of public opinion.

But they didn’t.

Even if they didn’t intend to sell user photos – the reaction is now ‘Instagram WANTED to sell our photos, but we made them back down’. Not ‘You didn’t understand what Instagram wanted’. Instagram failed to follow the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid, and it cost the company in users who abandoned the service, and bad rep.

Make things simple for your customers. If you have to charge for shipping in addition to the cost of the shoes that your customers buy, make it clear and simple that (a) they need to pay more for shipping and (b) that it is for shipping purposes. Don’t add mysterious charges to their PayPal account that will cause them to cancel the sale and ask for a refund, as well as complain about your methods to all their friends.

It will be interesting to see how Instagram takes this matter further – will the changes in the Terms and Services stand, or will they revert back to what they were?

Patrick SpeijersAbout Patrick Speijers (6 Posts)

Patrick Speijers (1974) is co-founder and CEO of Robin, the social and web customer service app for online retailers. Robin is a multi channel customer service app, supporting communication through online contact form, e-mail and twitter. It has a handcrafted, beautifully designed, powerfull GUI for external communication, internal collaboration supported by an adaptive customerpanel. Robin works on desktop, tablet and mobile and has native apps for iPhone and iPad. For a special ecommerceinsiders deal, please send me an e-mail.

One thought on “eCommerce Customer Service lessons learned from Instagram

  1. Joseph

    I have to admit, I was one of the people who closed down their account as soon as this info was released… Now they have changed it, I still won’t be going back as the only reason they did this was because they were scared of the amount of people that were leaving & facebook would cry with the amount of money they blew on a company that isn’t making much profit (exactly like their own business model).


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