Whether they’re full of praise for your products and services, or downright critical of them, the social customer is someone no business can afford to ignore. They know their own mind and they’re not afraid to share their thoughts with others. They’re independent, well informed and more influenced by other consumers than they are by branding and advertising.
For savvy businesses, the social customer represents both an opportunity and a threat. Online conversations can be a treasure trove of market feedback, but can also trigger a PR disaster should a customer gripe ‘go viral’.
As Dr Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT Global Services, puts it: “Social media is the room where like-minded people congregate to rant, rave and recommend.” Those that rave or recommend can become a company’s most valuable brand advocates. Those that rant, however, can be its worst nightmare.
Know the rules of engagement
That’s why many companies today feel a lot of pressure to get involved with social media, but at the same time, feel a lot of anxiety about what they might find there. It’s like being at a party where they don’t know anybody, says Dr Millard. If someone asks them a question, it would be rude just to walk away – and yet this is what companies do to their customers on a regular basis on social networking sites. If they jump onto the dance floor and take control, meanwhile, they will be considered crass, even arrogant by other partygoers.
For many companies, a grounding in basic ‘netiquette’ may be needed first. The best strategy, says Dr Millard, is this: “Work out which dance floors your customers are on, listen to what they are saying, and then look at ways to boogie with them that aren’t going to result in a slapped face.”
Some businesses have learned this lesson the hard way: in 2009, Canadian singer-songwriter Dave Carroll scored an Internet hit when he wrote a song about his guitar being broken by baggage-handling staff at United Airlines and posted the video on YouTube. Within four days, United Airlines’ stock price had dropped 10 percent, at a cost of $180 million to investors – an effect some financial analysts attributed to the buzz surrounding Carroll’s video. To date, the clip has been viewed over 12 million times – long after United finally paid to have the guitar repaired.
Others have better social skills, such as South West Trains, which uses its Twitter feed to keep passengers updated of rush-hour developments in a polite and professional manner, even when frustrated commuters are tweeting less-than-courteous messages about the company’s services.
The company also uses Twitter to monitor customer experience: for example, when a passenger tweeted about a problem with a train door in Winchester, social media staff were able to inform the company’s network control centre of the fault, even before the guard on the train had reported it. “That was when everyone here started saying ‘Wow’,” the company’s information and customer experience manager Allison Dunn told the BBC.
Target the right people and places
When a company is making its first overtures to customers in the social media space, there’s a lot to bear in mind. In order to connect with the customers that matter most to your business, it’s essential to identify exactly where members of your target demographic congregate online. Remember, some customers may not be as engaged in social media as others, so you’ll still need to pay attention to existing customer-support channels, such as an 0800 helpdesk and email contact address. In fact, says Dr Millard, social media is often a secondary channel for contact, used by customers dissatisfied by the response they got from a company’s primary contact channels: its call centre, its website or a face-to-face interaction with one of its employees. In other words, they air their issue with a company in a more public forum, so getting existing channels right is vitally important.
Also, bear in mind that social media isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. Your customers may be posting photos on Flickr and Pinterest and videos on YouTube. They may be reviewing your products on sites like Tripadvisor or Ciao or chatting about them on forums such as Mumsnet. They may be parents or foodies or beauty-product aficionados who keep their own regular and widely read blogs. Or they may be responding to posts and discussions on your business’s own blog or customer support forum.
Understand their needs
You’ll also need to understand customer appetite for social media in the sector in which your company operates. In a recent study, Dr Millard found that retail/fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and travel were the top two sectors for social activity, while finance and local government were the bottom two, preferring to stick to established and more private channels for engaging with banking customers and citizens. For the purposes of Dr Millard’s research, social activity relating to 14 major brands in 7 industry sectors was monitored for two weeks across a number of online forums, as well as social media sites (primarily, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.)
Technology has a clear role to play in finding your audience. Analytics, says, Dr Millard “can help companies to better understand the torrent of data being thrown at them from multiple channels and media.” These tools, she continues, “are getting better at making sense of this unstructured space,” enabling companies to monitor social conversations and reach out to the right customers. But these tools can only ever provide ‘triggers’ for action. Reaching out to customers in the right way and at the right time requires good judgement, too.
How to manage social media effectively
You’ve found your audience, they’re starting to engage with you – the next challenge is managing their conversations across disparate channels in a way that enhances rather than hinders your customer service.
Here are three golden rules to get you started:
1. Respond promptly and make it personal
When you step into a conversation, do so quickly, because when consumers are able to initiate discussions on the move, using smartphones and tablet computers, they increasingly expect a rapid response. But remember, it’s a conversation, and customers expect personal service – an automated response simply won’t do.
2. Have an integrated strategy
Companies must also have a clear strategy in place for dealing with the myriad directions in which these customer conversations might proceed. That means linking social media into overall channel strategies for customer experience, so that responses made this way are part of ‘business as usual’: should this customer with a complaint receive a straightforward apology on Twitter, for example, or should they be directed to a call centre or email address for more personalised resolution of their issue? In some cases it could even be both but it’s about knowing when to move a conversation from a social setting into a one-on-one discussion via a call or even face-to-face. How will you integrate the social media sites that your customers use most with your internal customer relationship management (CRM) systems, so that their tweets can be linked to the customer records you keep on them and stored in those systems? Should your Twitter profile offer an alternate means of communication – in 140 characters or less?
3. Connect customers to the right expertise, quickly
To solve complex customer problems, organisations need to ‘speed date’ customers with the most appropriate expert, wherever they may be. Smart companies are starting to experiment with a model known as ‘networked expertise’. For example, when a customer with a query about their new washing machine arrives, it might be dealt with by front-office customer service staff, a back-office technical employee, a mobile field-service engineer, or a home-based employee with in-depth knowledge of that particular model. In other words, that query ends up with the member of staff best placed to deal with it, in terms of expertise and availability.
Customer behaviour is more social and connected than ever before. Customer care must be both those things, too, but it’s vital you navigate the social media sphere with care. Be responsive, certainly, but think about your response and test it first. Start small, on smaller blogs or forums, before you launch out into more public spaces. Strike the right note – or risk tarnishing your social reputation among the people that matter most to your business.