It used to be that most customer contacts were made in person, on the phone, or by letter. Then e-mail became more popular and available. More recently, additional “channels” have been added to the mix, including social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, company blogs, websites, and even YouTube (for video). Social media have one thing in common: a single person can communicate with many, and communication tends to be public.
This differs from the more traditional contact methods where customer service communication is less public. It remains to be seen whether social media has significant “staying power” as a means of communication with customers and whether customers really prefer service and support in social media. Be that as it may, it exists now, and you may be required to use it.
Companies have noticed the apparent number of people on these services and concluded that prospective and current customers can be served effectively via social media. Their beliefs are founded more on hope and hype than on reality or data, but there’s an expectation that employees will interact with customers using the “new media.” Since each medium has different strengths and weaknesses, you can’t necessarily take a technique that works on the phone and transplant it to a Twitter (140-character message limit) interaction. One also has to take into account that interactions in social media are usually public, so other people can watch you as you interact (although the numbers and effects of “the watchers” are way overblown). In this section, we’ll discuss specifics about what to say to customers in a few social media situations and share some
ideas on social media customer service strategies.
Before we go through some scenarios,we need to talk about the different types of social media.
Short-Form vs. Long-Form Social Media
The main distinction we need to make is between communication that is arbitrarily and artificially limited in length, versus communication that has no such limits.Twitter, for example, is a short-form communication medium because it limits any one “tweet” (message) to 140 characters. Similarly, Facebook has “walls” where posts are limited to 420 or 1,000 characters, depending on who is posting and where. LinkedIn appears to have a limit for their status updates of 100 characters. (Note that it’s always possible these can change.)
On the other hand,we have posts to blogs (yours or others’) that have no practical length limits.People can write as much or as little as they please. This also applies to discussion boards, comments on YouTube, and in group discussions and other open areas on LinkedIn or Facebook.
There’s another distinction worth taking into account: who owns and controls the particular medium. If you or your company owns and hosts the blog, you can do what you want, write what you want, and delete what you choose. If you post on other blogs, you don’t have the same control and have to abide by the rules of the owner/operator. If someone posts obscene material on your blog, you can ban the person and delete the comment. If someone posts obscene material about you on another blog over which you lack control, you can only hope the owner/moderator will do the right thing.
Before we look at some scenarios, let’s talk about (1) the purposes of interacting on social media and (2) the limitations.
Purposes of Using Social Media in Customer Service
Why do companies participate in social media? Here’s a quick list of rationales/purposes for tying social media to customer service:
■ Identifying unsatisfied customers who complain and trying to turn them around
■ Handling a complaint expressed in the social medium (respond on Twitter via Twitter)
■ Improving a company/brand image by showing in a public way that the company values its customers
■ Marketing services/features/products, distributing discounts
■ Gathering information about customer feelings and sentiments about product features, and about competitors (passive knowledge acquisition via reading)
■ Collecting specific information from customers about features and benefits, competitors,wants, likes, dislikes (proactive, via direct questions/surveys online)
■ Managing reputation when company has a large problem (product recall, defect)
■ Recruiting new employees
Limitations of Social Media
Can social media actually be used effectively for these purposes, and what limitations apply? This is where things get tricky because there is no systematically collected data to justify any generalizable claims about social media and customer service. That said, it’s important to understand media limitations in order to make good decisions about providing service using social media. The more you understand each medium and its limitations, the better your decisions about their use.
Things to Know About Social Media and Its Use
Here are the things you should understand about social media.
First, let’s talk about “reach.”How many people will actually see, and then read, what you write? The more who read, the larger your reach. While your posts/messages are public and theoretically “available”to the millions on Facebook or Twitter, only a very few will actually read your post. These are the people who are followers or friends (signed up to specifically see what you write) and who actually make the effort to see and read what you write. It works the same way on LinkedIn and most other media platforms. In addition, people may read what you write by finding the material via a search engine, using the “right” search terms.There’s a third way. People may “find” you because someone else they “follow”mentions what you wrote or recommends you as someone worth following (this is often called “going viral”). Your audience, then, is limited to the number of people who have signed on, plus the number of people who search for you, plus the number of people who get referred to you and happen to be interested in reading what you have to offer.
Of this set of people, only some of them will actually see any individual message or post you send because not everyone is going to be interested and available at the time you send your message or during its practical life span. Simply put, the number of people who see what you write is limited, and among those who see it, the number of people who will read and pay attention is even smaller.
Platform attrition (people who no longer use the particular social media platform but still have accounts) also diminishes your reach. Even if you have 50,000 friends accumulated over a number of years, at least half of them have probably quit the platform completely.Bottom line: your reach is a tiny fraction of what it appears to be.
Here are some other things you need to know about social media:
■ The number of people who come across complaints about your company will be much higher than the number of people who will see your responses and any resolution.
■ You cannot control who reads complaints on most social media platforms, and, since you can never reach all of the people who read the complaints, you can’t completely
reverse the effects of the complaints.
■ The negative effect of complaints made in social media is much less, on average, than the effects of complaints and true “word of mouth”done among people who know each
other. That’s because people do consider the source of complaints and will put much more credence in the experiences of their friends, families,and acquaintances outside
of social media.
A possible exception to the above is when a person is a media star or is otherwise highly recognizable in the social media world—a person of great influence and credibility.
■ Social media contacts can’t replace additional customer contact channels, so any involvement will tend to increase costs.
■ It’s a mistake to believe that most people prefer to receive their information and customer service through social media. Surveys that suggest that are misleading and/or the
questions have been badly phrased. Given the choice and all things being equal (similar speed of resolution), people will usually pick the most personalized way to interact. Of
course there may be customers who would still prefer social media contact, but it’s not as many as the hype suggests.
Now let’s look at some specific situations.