How to tweet your customer right
Social media has transformed the way consumers interact with brands.
Sam Knowles charts the rise of the social media consumer.
Social media has changed the world - and particularly the world of brand management. Influential and connected consumers, customers and stakeholders are increasingly playing a key role in building and sustaining - but also damaging - corporate and brand reputations.
Our recent research for both UK-based PR consultancy Fishburn Hedges and American Express have charted the inexorable rise of the social media customer.
The Fishburn Hedges study shows that by April 2012, more than a third of Britons (36%) had interacted with brands through social media. This has nearly doubled in just eight months. In August 2011 just 19% of British consumers had used social media in this way.
Similarly, the 2012 American Express Global Customer Service Barometer showed that 17% of Americans had used social media at least once in the past year to obtain a customer service response. These studies show that the brands that embrace social media and use it intelligently as a customer service tool will be the long-term winners in the reputation game.
Twitter is fast becoming the new call centre, and this will have a profound impact on how companies monitor, staff and respond to customer comments and complaints.
The Fishburn Hedges study found that using social media to interact with brands is more satisfying for the complainant. Sixty-five per cent of consumers who complain on social media prefer it and call centres have become a turn-off.
Novelty is part of the appeal but also thanks to social media's real-time immediacy, customers are getting responses that are dealt with more personally and more quickly than ever before.
Moreover, more than two-thirds (68%) of those who have used social media channels to communicate with brands believe it gives them a greater voice, and 40% of all consumers believe that social media has improved customer service for good - whether or not they currently use social media for customer service.
Similarly, American Express's 2012 Customer Service Barometer found that US consumers who use social media for customer service are more likely to tell others about their customer service experiences, spend more with a company they feel provides excellent customer service and abandon a purchase due to a poor service experience.
Using social media for customer service is also not just the province of the younger, Generation Y and Generation Facebook customers. The Fishburn Hedges study found that not only had almost half of 18-24 year-olds questioned dealt with a brand using social media, but that 38% of 35-44s and 27% of over 55s had done the same. As social media comes of age, the proportions for all age groups are increasing.
Out in the open
Using social media in this way is, of course, much more open and permanent. This makes it potentially more damaging to brands and companies. When a consumer tweets how dissatisfied she is with a hotel, @ing the company Twitter account, she not only records a complaint with the brand.
When a frustrated broadband customer posts a blog linked from his Facebook page about being disconnected for the fifth time that week, it doesn't just arrive in the cable company's inbox.
Echo's study for American Express have found that those in the US who use social media for customer service tell more than three times as many people about poor service than those who don't use social media in this way. The upside is that when it comes to good service, the number is nearly five to one.
The implication is clear: get it wrong, and you'll be flamed; get it right, and you're using social media to capture and harness a volunteer sales force. Companies that engage in the right way can turn detractors into advocates.
The way social media currently works also varies from country to country. Fifty-four per cent of Indian consumers have used social media to get a customer service response during the past year, 45% in Mexico and 30% in Italy. This contrasts with just 10% in France.
Consumers in the US and Germany are most likely to use social media to get an actual response to help with a service issue (50% of those polled). Those in the UK are more likely to use social media to vent frustration with a bad customer service experience (46%), while consumers in India are most likely to ask questions of others via social media (also 46%).
On average, nearly half of consumers who have used social media to get a customer service response see an improvement in terms of how quickly they feel companies respond to general inquiries or complaints. Consumers in India (80%) and Mexico (72%) are most likely to say that companies have generally improved.
Do the right things
As part of our research for Fishburn Hedges, in-depth, qualitative interviews with social media pioneers inside savvy brands helped us to identify a range of best practices (see box). Companies that make best use of social media for customer service are fleet of foot. They don't let genuinely damaging content linger and fester. But they also are selective about what they respond to, when and how they respond to it.
Just because an individual - or a group of connected individuals - are talking negatively about your product, don't just dive in and try to sort the problem out for effective engagement. It is critically important to understand the full context of the comments and complaints.
There's plenty of evidence that more and more companies are looking to emulate these pioneers. A snapshot of jobs advertised on LinkedIn during one month in 2012 found vacancies for 279 heads of social media and 1,062 social media consultants. What's more, 134,974 roles had "social media" in their job title or job description.
The rise of social media has made service quality more transparent and important than ever before. Brands and services that fail to live up to their promises will draw the opprobrium of disgruntled customers, criticism that often leaves an indelible trace for future customers to find.
Establishing relationships with customers, listening to their comments and complaints, and sorting out problems quickly and politely can stop a complaint dead in its tracks. Our research shows that customer service has become a strategic differentiator in the marketplace.
Social media in customer service is taking off as real people are responding, rather than callers being stuck behind automated call routing and messaging. The best companies are training and releasing their staff to manage this in a professional and responsible manner. Welcome to the new world of 'social business'.
Best practice for social media customer service
1. Don't be paralysed by uncertainty: where call centres arguably erect barriers between brands and customers, social media can remove them and bring proximity. It shouldn't be a psychological straitjacket, so join in - but clearly define your strategy first.
2. Don't let social media define you: your brand must define it. It must be a continuation of the brand using the appropriate channels and not a knee-jerk reaction to following how others are using it.
3. Make more of the emotional insight you have: customer data offers insight into behaviour, but social media takes that to a different level, enabling brands to tap into emotions.
4. Pick your battles - but enter them fast: speed is critical in the real-time world of social media, but brands should not feel the pressure to answer every query put to them.
5. Address structural barriers in the business, not just headcount: there are many ways to resource social, and new hires are not always necessary. Try sharing expertise and removing structural barriers first.
6. Fear not the #fail: No one is perfect and sometimes, just sometimes, it is simply a flash in the pan.