Many businesses have come to rely on social media as core to their customer service. The benefits include providing rapid responses, combating negative comments and positioning their brands as thought leaders—all with minimal overhead. As customers increasingly turn to social media to obtain and share information about all aspects of their lives, brands that are behind the social media curve have little choice but to extend their customer service to these channels, too, says Dave Capuano, vice president at Internet marketing research firm Verint/Vovici.
On one front, “negative online comments are permanent; they’re inked,” Capuano says. “Social media is something a business has to take into account from a liability point of view.” The other critical component is that customer expectations now demand rapid-fire response, and people aren’t afraid to post negative public comments to get what they want. “Businesses trying to drive that great experience need to find channels to engage customers to give them what they demand.”
Successfully incorporating social media into your customer service plan should not be attacked willy-nilly. “Plan out what experience you want your customers to have and how you want to interact with them,” Capuano says. Would you prefer they dial an 800 number or post a concern on your brand’s Facebook page? Make the medium explicit in all your marketing collateral. “Typically, when customers have an issue, they try to go to self-service channels on the web or the contact center to get it resolved. If their experience is bad there, then they turn to social media,” Capuano says. By this time, they are angry and more likely to post negative comments. However, if they know that tweeting a request to your company’s Twitter account will produce results, their ire may be tamed.
Keep the following in mind for devising and executing a successful social media customer service program:
– Determine the role of social media in your customer service. Is it to resolve the issue directly on the social medium or connect the customer with an expert to tackle the question or complaint offline?
– Decide which department(s) will oversee your social media presence. Marketing? Customer service? Product development? The CEO? A combination? Clearly establish who is in charge of which social media tasks and how any overlaps will be coordinated.
– Does your customer relations expert tweet using her own identity, or does she hide behind a generic business account? Consider making all social media interactions attached to a real person on your team.
– How does customer service fit with your other social media practices? Will a single account serve for both marketing and customer service agendas, or will these be discrete accounts?
– How will you track social media and customer interaction? This mechanism serves as a critical tool for improving customer satisfaction, resolving product issues, monitoring trends and keeping up with the public chatter about your brand. “Glean that information to figure out how to better your program over time and better engage the customer,” Capuano says.
– Cull Twitter or blog postings for questions related to your industry and offer practical advice that may not be directly related to your brand.
– Institute a training program in-house that formalizes how social media builds on your customer service and business objectives.
Julie Cole, owner
Company: Mabel’s Labels, maker of labels for kids’ stuff
Tactic: Collaborate the work of a designated social media coordinator with customer service to build community and brand.
Early on we realized that moms—our core customer base—were not responding to traditional advertising. But they did respond to other moms. Social media has been a critical part of building our business for that reason. This is especially true of customer service, which can be some of the very best marketing we do.
Our philosophy is that if we participate in these channels, we have to fully engage. That means not deleting negative posts and not taking issues offline; we respect that if a customer wants to complain through Twitter or Facebook, that is where we will respond. Giving excellent customer service through these platforms helps build trust.
Social media is such an important part of our company that we hired a full-time social media coordinator before we hired a full-time IT coordinator—and we are an Internet company. It was very important we hire the right person to be the voice of the company. Caitlin, the coordinator, started with us as an intern when she was a college student and was always very savvy about social media. Even though it was a natural progression to put her into the role of social media coordinator, for the first few months I still approved all the tweets that she sent out.
Caitlin communicates closely with our customer service manager to resolve any issues posted on Facebook and Twitter accounts. This manager attends all of our marketing meetings to ensure these departments work together closely.
Our employees are welcome to participate in any social media they wish, but anyone wanting to post about Mabel’s Labels from their personal accounts must take our social media certification course. Over a couple of hours, this class provides the basics about online etiquette, public relations and how social media communication that mentions our company must also reflect our core values and business objectives.
Our return customer rates are phenomenal, which we attribute to the word-of-mouth power of social media and our customer service.
Bill Elward, head of marketing
Company: Castle Ink, online printer cartridge retailer
Where: Greenlawn, N.Y.
Tactic: Seek out and respond to tweets about printer and ink problems.
We use social media tools to help us search for tweets about printer and ink cartridge problems on Twitter, and we respond with helpful tips and information. Rather than hard-selling people (we only have a promotional tweet about once per month), we’ve tried to simply be helpful in an area where we have expertise and experience. Typically we’ll link to a helpful blog post or articles about the topic at hand, but we also do a lot of direct messaging to help with specific problems. The happiest people are those who are looking to buy a new printer but have no idea which model is right for them. By pointing them to third-party information, we help them decide which model is the best fit.
People are usually so happy with this help they go directly to Castle Ink to buy replacement ink. We’ve amassed more than 11,000 followers through this process and estimate that five to 10 percent of our sales can be traced to Twitter.
We are a small business, so anything that levels the playing field like Twitter is a great help. Being able to interact with customers and potential customers in a more engaging way—and doing so in real time—is a win-win for us. We are 100 percent online and don’t have the benefit of face-to-face conversation that a competitor like Staples or OfficeMax enjoys. Plus, this kind of service lets us leverage our 10 years of experience in the industry.
Kate Gulbransen, Social media director and certified lactation consultant
Company: Hygeia II Medical Group, breast pump manufacturer
Where: Fullerton, Calif.
Tactic: Use Facebook, Twitter and a blog to support new and nursing mothers in a sensitive manner.
Our customers are primarily new moms who can be overwhelmed with caring for a newborn. Our goal is to answer their breastfeeding questions as quickly as possible around-the-clock through whatever channel is most convenient to them. If a mom is worried that she can’t use her pump because she dropped a piece down the kitchen sink, we want to respond in real time so she doesn’t worry unnecessarily.
We rely mostly on Twitter and Facebook as well as our blog. We are very proactive with every interaction we have with customers, but we walk a fine line between using social media as a tool to educate all parents who follow us on social media, while respecting the fact that these can be very sensitive and emotional issues. Moms have different comfort levels; some are perfectly comfortable talking about body issues on a public forum, while others prefer to take the discussion to private message.
If a customer posts a product-specific question on our Facebook page, such as whether she can use a certain brand of bottle with our pump, we respond directly on the social media channel, which helps educate all our customers about that topic. However, if something is more specific and personal, like if a mother is concerned that her milk supply is too low, I will reach out to her directly through email, perhaps ask for her phone number. I might connect her with a lactation consultant or another expert in her geographic area who can help her directly.
When we help customers solve a problem, we try to let the good publicity happen organically, rather than ask customers to post about it. We try not to be too braggy-braggy. Recently a new mother who works full time tweeted that her pump suddenly stopped working. We reached out to one of our retailers in her area to hold the pump on her behalf at no charge so she could pick it up the same day. Then behind the scenes we coordinated the shipment of a replacement pump to the retailer. The woman then tweeted about that experience, saying it was the best customer service experience she’d ever had.
Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.