What to Do When Customer Service Meets Social Media: 5 Basic Lessons

by | Aug 24, 2011 | Best Practices, Blog, Blog Archive, Multi-Channel Marketing | 0 comments

In June 1984, the first online customer support forum for computer users sponsored by a computer maker opened its virtual doors on CompuServe on a Tuesday morning.  Around noon on Thursday, the volume of inquiries was running about five times what the company planners had projected, and by the end of the day on Friday, it was over 8 times the anticipated volume. 

Although the volume has been going up steadily ever since, less than 20% of customer service inquiries were submitted digitally before 1998, and as recently as 2005, just 45% of technical support inquiries were submitted via email or landing page.  By 2010, 75% of all customer support inquiries were submitted via landing page, email, or other digital means. 

At first, it seemed like the perfect way for companies to cut down on call center volumes.  The theory in those long ago days when people paid for online time by the hour and email was expected to be answered in 48-72 hours was that this would give customer service and support the extra time they needed to research an inquiry properly and provide excellent service.

Fast forward to 2011.  Social media has given unhappy customers a global, real-time venue where they can ask for help, or vent a complaint.  Word of mouse shapes public opinions at Internet speed — and the damage to brands, corporate and personal reputations, and even stock prices can last for years. 

We’ve all heard the story of the soldiers charged an excess baggage fee on their way home from Afghanistan, or the one about the airline that broke a musician’s guitar after refusing to allow him to carry it on board.  In the first case, the soldiers took their complaint to YouTube before their plane landed, and in the other, the customer exhausted every possible alternative to settling his dispute with the airline before taking his problem public.  In both cases, the customer service person strictly followed company procedures and tried to treat the customer with respect and courtesy. 

The reality is that if your company hasn’t yet had the experience of a customer complaint that goes viral, then you’re simply lucky.  For most major brands, it isn’t a question of if it will happen, just when.   And for a small business, a social media customer service crisis could truly spell disaster.

There are four major differences between the way companies have provided customer service in the past and what’s happening today.  The key differences are:

From a corporate viewpoint, it’s almost always better to have a conversation with a customer in private, where there’s a chance of reaching a solution without outside influence.  Lesson number one is that when a customer reaches out to the company via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, or any other social media site, do what you can to take it offline, then report back when the situation is resolved.  (Actually, the first lesson for some companies new to social media may be that they shouldn’t be surprised when people begin using social media to ask for help, advice, and solutions to problems.  Yet that seems to shock companies whose first brush with social media comes when a reporter shows up to ask about a viral video or “trending tweet”.)

The second lesson is not to hire a social media expert and expect them to become a customer service expert — and don’t throw a customer service expert into social media and expect them to be effective either.  The personality types needed for great customer service and great social media marketing aren’t usually the same.  The best solution is usually to develop social media expertise across the organization.  Human resources, compliance, legal, marketing, PR, sales, and customer service all need to be involved in the development of a corporate social media policy, and all employees need to know what’s expected of them online.

The third lesson is that whether you are active in social media or not, your customers are probably already talking about you there.  There are over 100 tweets per hour that contain some variation of “I hate company X”.  A quick search of YouTube for “bad customer service” turned up over 7,760 videos while “terrible customer service” returned 8,470 — many of them recordings made while the unhappy customer was online with customer support, and more than a few filmed with a cell phone while the person was in a company’s office or store.  So if you aren’t already monitoring social media, the question is, why not? 

How does your company monitor social media?

When we surveyed marketing executives last month, however, 40% of the respondents said they didn’t know how their company monitored social media — and if the top marketing executive doesn’t know how it’s being done, who does?  If you work in a regulated industry (financial services, insurance, health care, pharmaceuticals, casino gambling, etc.), monitoring isn’t optional — and free tools probably aren’t good enough.

Even if you don’t work in a regulated industry, can you really afford to wait 24-72 hours for a Google alert to hit your inbox?  Probably not.

Lesson number four is another one that some companies seem to forget:  don’t overlook the local and branch managers and employees when you’re putting together your social media and customer service lessons.  Corporate marketing has the vision and overall control of the brand, but sales are still made at the local level for most companies.  And local bricks-and-mortar sites are especially vulnerable to social media issues on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Yahoo!Local, and Google Places that hardly register with corporate.

So you’ll need a strategy for delivering training, pre-approved content, and support to local employees affected by “local social” sites as well as a way to monitor these sites quickly and effectively.

Lesson number five is simple, but hard to master.  Not all customers are equal, and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to handling a social media inquiry.  Social media experts sometimes advise creating two-tier service queues for social media users with high Klout scores, for instance, and others advise creating “exceptions” to policies that can be applied when a complaint goes public.  The trouble with that isn’t that social media rock stars get VIP treatment — it’s that it isn’t going to be long before there are so many social media rock stars that companies could wind up with more VIPs than regular customers.  And that just doesn’t work.

The other problem is that there are a certain number of trolls on the Internet.  That is, an unhappy person who uses the Internet and social media to voice a constant stream of complaints and rants that may or may not have any basis in reality.  Learning to spot them, and avoid giving them what they really want — attention — is a big part of growing an online customer service strategy.

These five basic lessons aren’t comprehensive, but they’re a start that might make the process of handling customer service easier and more productive.  What do you think?  What basics did we miss?