Social: The next step in customer service

Dan Martin
Former editor
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Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, discusses how small businesses can leverage social media to engage with customers.

Interacting effectively with customers is becoming increasingly complex. The balance of power has shifted in the favour of the customer and thanks to social media; complaints can now be aired to a potential audience of millions.
But beyond crisis management and negativity, social media opens a window to your customers' opinions. This valuable insight enables you to not only find and respond to dissatisfied customers, but address customers who may be ready to switch from your competitors or have new ideas and points of view that could enhance a product or service you deliver.
In the grand scheme of things, social media hasn't been around that long, but organisations mustn't think of it as a passing fad. A report published recently by PR consultancy, Fishburn Hedges, found that 18m customers are already using it to speak directly to brands in the UK, and this figure is growing.
Customers are increasingly expecting to be able to have public conversations with businesses online, regardless of their size. Despite this, for the majority of companies, particularly SMEs whose resources are limited, social customer service is not yet widely utilised.
Social service's ultimate goal is to facilitate a complete view of the customer by integrating data from all existing channels: email, social media and telephone or in store feedback. This means that when your company is mentioned on social media, you're already listening. You have immediate access to all their previous interactions, enabling you to assess the type and level of response needed. Is this person a serial complainer, a loyal customer or even a brand ambassador?
This 'total social integration' is of course the long-term objective for social customer service but many smaller companies currently lack access to the kind of technology to do this.
This doesn't mean that small businesses can't practice social customer service. Simple processes, such as Excel spreadsheets used to log complaints made via social networks, help to ensure that unhappy customers are prioritised and dealt with quickly. This is also a useful technique for gathering feedback.
Businesses must use the free tools available to keep on top of the conversations taking place about them online: Google Alerts help locate articles and blogs mentioning the business, while tools such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite provide updates when the company is mentioned on Twitter or Facebook.
Naturally, however, as the number of social customers grows, more complex systems may be needed.
Bigger companies may consider hiring a social service manager to handle this process full time, while smaller businesses may be better placed to incorporate these responsibilities into an existing role or to split actions between a team.  
It's worth doing some research into your competitors' tactics when it comes to social service to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. Ultimately however, you must do what's right for your customers. See how active your customers are on different networks and monitor the types of interactions they want to have with you.
If you're going to use social, you need to do so consistently.  
Allow customers to complain
Customers want to interact with companies and be able to air their views and it’s imperative that businesses allow them the freedom to do so.
Sometimes it's appropriate to let your customers vent and sometimes it's appropriate to intervene. Resolving issues quickly, personally and empathetically can have great results. Remember that public posts represent an opportunity to be visibly proactive in your conversations with customers, while sharing advice with a wider community.
Make yourself available
It’s crucial that companies keep pace with the volume of discussions taking place about their brand online and are able to react to customers quickly but very few SMEs can afford to devote every hour of every day to social.
Manage your customers' expectations of when live queries will be dealt with – but make sure you stick to it and are available at those times.
Consider publishing "business hours" in your Twitter biography to let them know when you'll be monitoring your social channels. Alternatively, post tweet schedules, for example, "Steve will be answering your questions from 12-3 today".
Take a personal approach
When dealing with live queries, smaller businesses have a unique opportunity to leverage a distinctly personal approach. Of course, social media profiles need to reflect a company's branding and values but customers expect interactions to feel authentic and genuine and to get a sense of the human being behind the message.
Consider posting video blogs or attributing social media posts and responses to particular spokespeople. This also helps spread expertise and share the responsibilities. If your business serves a particular geographical community, make this clear in your communications and emphasise your location to win more local customers.
Take a measured approach
Above all, it's important that company owners and managers take a measured approach to social media. This means providing their people with the right training and support to enable them to make the best judgment calls when interacting with customers online.
Small businesses simply cannot afford to ignore social customer service. Delivering a consistent service across all your communications channels is crucial to attracting and retaining loyal customers. 


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By Richard Lane
26th Nov 2012 18:19

I enjoyed reading this post. It is important that communication between a business and its customers is reciprocal. Whether it is through social media, over the phone or in person, the customer has to feel that they are being heard. For example, using a social media site such as Twitter to get in contact with a business and not getting a response for a couple of days is something that should really never happen. Especially seeing as being responsive is something social media allows everyone to be. 

Richard Lane, partner at durhamlane, specialists in sales training courses and IT sales training

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