Social media and customer service are ultimately linked. Three ways to succeed at both.

By Sarah Scoular

When Josh first asked me to write about Customer Service and Social Media I arrogantly thought, “sure, no problem!” As I sit down and try to shape my thoughts and experiences into a cohesive post I realize this is much more difficult than anticipated.

With 2 years experience answering customer service issues via Twitter and Facebook, 5 years experience answering via email and approximately 15 years of customer service experience total, I have plenty to talk about. But how do I make it relevant for everyone? Obviously, the solutions I give our cable and Internet customers (powercycle your router) differ from what a bar like @TheSandbar might tweet to their patrons, but customer service is customer service is customer service.

If your business offers a product or service, whether you believe it or not, you are in the customer service industry. Even if you’re a tiny business of one or a huge conglomerate, you have a customer base, both internal and external. Your job now is to support that product or service by creating relationships with your customers and gaining their trust. How will you reach that customer base? How can you build a bridge to lead them back to you?

The answers I’ve found time and again are:

  • Authenticity
  • Transparency
  • Engagement

Authenticity

Step back and ask yourself, “how do I like to be spoken to?” Is it with a canned answer or script? Probably not. We thrive on human connection. We respond to warmth, genuine caring, and humor. Isn’t it easy to recognize corporate speak? That is because real people don’t speak that way in the real world. Is that truly how you want to be perceived?

In the beginning, I had to get over the fear of answering a post online. Answers were run past $100,000’s worth of salaries before answering in 140 characters and the corporate speak was blatantly obvious to followers. Now it takes seconds in my mind to answer. Don’t over think it, inject your own personality.

Take advantage of real-time opportunities; some of the most positive interactions I’ve had were from replying to a random comment in our Twitter stream or responding to a foursquare check-in. This proves you aren’t a bot and you’re actively engaged with your followers.

When making decisions about products, customers turn to the social web because they trust their friends. CEOs, traditional advertising and marketing executives are not credible sources amongst consumers. Think about it. The last time you purchased a high dollar item did you do your research? Did you read the reviews, not only on the product’s website but also on CNET or Consumer Reports? Did you tweet, asking for feedback about the product?

As a business you have to gain your customers trust. You do this by building a relationship. You can’t buy your way in; you can only break through with genuine connections. It doesn’t matter how good you say you are, your success depends on how people feel you are. Invest in customer service; your agents are the ones that can positively market your brand. If your customer service is actively engaged, truly believe in your product or service and are experts in your brand, you’ve struck gold. You can only succeed by having an advocate of your company at the helm of all interactions.

Be sure to take the conversation offline as well. Trust in a brand is created when you can put a face to the name; I know firsthand most people find it difficult to be negative to once they’ve made a personal connection. It’s important to be a face in the community, attend local tweetups, Social Media Club events and Social Media conferences.

Transparency

I understand, most companies are hesitant to air their dirty laundry. Certainly you wouldn’t want to proactively tweet about every hiccup, as your service could be perceived as unreliable. However, if there is a major issue or problem acknowledge it, ahead of time if possible. People like to feel as though they have the inside scoop and be treated like VIP; we tend to be less critical when we are “in the know.”  If you make a mistake, fess up. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. NEVER delete a tweet, only apologize if necessary. Once you hit enter the world can see and will think you’re hiding something if you delete. Like Grandma always said, no one likes a liar.

Conversely, it’s ok to use facts to expose the other side of the story. For instance, I’ve helped customers who repeatedly complained about service issues yet refused to schedule service calls and fielded billing complaints from customers who hadn’t paid in several months.  In these instances, gently pointing out the facts to show they are not allowing us to help them (without publicly revealing proprietary information) tends to quiet their complaints.

Engagement

So how and to whom do you respond?

It should go without saying but you’d be surprised; proper grammar, punctualization and spelling are an absolute must. You are a professional, speak as though you are a professional and not a 14 year old girl texting her friends. There is nothing that can’t be shortened into 140 characters, if it doesn’t fit it’s ok to break it up into multiple tweets.

Use keyword searches to find the conversation, moderate and respond accordingly. Reach out to every mention or response found; for negative tweets, reach out by asking if there is anything you can do to help. Not only should you be looking for keywords, but look for the context in those searches. Find the conversations around your key search terms. This will help you find the bigger picture and identify other influencers to reach out to.

What to respond to:

  • Direct mentions, whether positive or negative
  • Compliments of your product, service or people
  • Recommendations or referrals to your products and services
  • Customer Service issues and inquiries
  • Retweets of posts

What not to respond to:

  • Generic mentions without positive or negative commentary
  • Posts/forum threads that require membership to respond to, unless it is a customer service issue or misinformation that needs correction
  • Blatant vulgarity or inflammatory comments

Ask followers for feedback and always strive to be better. What do you think we could do better? What more do you want from us?

Promotional posts should look to engage whenever possible. Don’t broadcast without asking questions or directing the post to a certain demographic. Broadcasting without engagement is like screaming with your eyes closed and fingers in your ears. Not very effective.

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These are the practices I follow daily and plan to take with me wherever opportunities to engage with customers exist. I have to give an enormous amount of credit to Ben Smith who has lead me down this path and opened doors for me to connect with Chris Brogan, Jeremiah Owyang, Sarah Evans, Brian Solis and Jason Falls, without which I wouldn’t have the knowledge I’m sharing with you today.

I’m curious what you think. If a company is actively engaged in customer service via social media, does that positively or negatively affect your view of that brand? Would you choose a product or service over another because of their presence in social media? Does it add value to their product?
 

You can find more information about Sarah at her blog and Twitter account.

 

2 thoughts on “Social media and customer service are ultimately linked. Three ways to succeed at both.

  1. Debbi

    THIS is a fantastic post, Sarah. I agree 100%- if you are a business, you have customers, whether you think you do or not. You must have customer service skills, and the person providing the service needs to be empowered to respond.

    Any business who is using social media should read this. And frankly, a lot of the information could apply to individuals as well.

    Thanks for sharing! (And thanks for the Sandbar shout-out, too!)

  2. Sarah

    Thank you for the positive feedback Debbi! You're definitely welcome for the Sandbar shout out. I've only experienced great customer service there, both in person and online.

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