CUSTOMER service operations are bulky, cumbersome cost centres, haemorrhaging money and resource for what can often seem like little reward or return on investment. However, no matter what industry you operate in, you cannot do without it, and you cannot afford to do it badly. Aggrieved, dissatisfied or unhappy customers cost money. Never has this been truer than with the advent of social media.
Customers have embraced the web and social media as their preferred source of product and satisfaction information. Furthermore, peer reviews and ratings are becoming trusted above all other sources.
Twitter’s recent figures state that one billion tweets are posted per week and up to 500,000 new accounts have been set up in a single day. It stands to reason that bad reviews, complaints or negative mentions that appear in the social cloud can spread like wildfire.
It only takes one influential person to draft 140 characters on a negative experience with your company before 250,000 followers see it, and their decision to do business with you is influenced. The sheer scale of these social media sites, combined with the real-time nature of content, poses a threat to businesses’ bottom lines like never before.
Without an efficient, proactive process to deal with negative sentiment in the social cloud, the damage to a business brand might be irreversible.
Protecting brand reputation
A recent survey by IAB UK found that 27% of consumers expect a response within days when complaining via a company website, but expected a response within the hour via Twitter and Facebook. Time is clearly of the essence, and there is a worrying trend emerging where customers are exploiting this, and the wider corporate fear of social media, to get what they can for free. And it is working.
Many businesses are becoming increasingly concerned, and affected, by what is being termed as “social media bullying”. For business-to-consumer (B2C) relations in particular, the unprecedented reach and visibility of social online communities and networks have introduced an ugly dimension to this phenomenon.
Customers are leveraging their social clout to solicit better deals from businesses – whether it is free product replacement, upgrades, free shipping, unwarranted discounts or rapid service levels.
There are two key reasons this is working so well. First, it is easier for customers to hide behind the anonymity of a social persona than complain on the phone; they are bolder in their statements, can be persistent in their objectives and more threatening in their demands. The second reason is that few businesses have adequate policies in place for customer service on social media; the potential speed and scale of the medium causes knee-jerk reactions from business and personnel, enabling customers to break through the red-tape processes of contact centres and often get what they want, faster.
“Buying off” these bullying customers by succumbing to the freebie requests may well stem the tide of negative brand sentiment in the short-term, but it does not resolve the problem and will quickly become a cost issue as others cotton on. If bullies sense that policies are more lenient or the quality of answers is better on social channels, it will set off a stampede – everyone will go social to get the best service, best terms, and best deals.
Instead, organisations must apply the same customer service ethics and policies from elsewhere in the business into the social media sphere. For example, you would not expect an employee from finance or HR that has never been customer facing to simply get to work in the contact centre, and respond to customer complaints, without any training. So why would that be okay on social media?
One fairly well-known budget airline experienced this in recent times. A boastful customer posted online that he was able to fool the airline’s website into giving him free flights. Of course, the story – true or not – had the potential to proliferate across the globe, and fast. However, that potential was only made a reality when an employee saw the comment and decided to take it upon himself to respond. The response was inappropriate, which made the situation worse and more visible to the public and damaging to the brand.
This is a small-scale, but interesting, example of how the lack of social media policies and tools for customer engagement can serve to erupt a simple social media mention into a potential brand crisis. So how should organisations deal with these “social bullies” without hurting the brand, relationship with other customers, and the business?
Dealing with social bullies
First, you have to know who is talking about you and what they are saying. Monitoring social networking sites and communities on an ongoing basis is essential. You will also need to evaluate the validity and criticality of each mention. For example, some of the bully talk may be legitimate gripes from valuable customers that are frustrated.
Employing a group of specialists to constantly monitor and respond to conversations affecting your brand in the entire social ether, while perhaps feasible for the largest of multinational corporations, is a significant cost and a huge drain on human resource.
Instead, savvy organisations are investing in innovative technologies to automate elements of the process, standardise social media policies with other customer engagement channels in the company, and form and even use online communities and social networks to drive business revenue.
It’s important not to let one new communications channel bloat customer engagement operations and its cost. Despite scare stories, social media is simply another service channel, and one that can be tamed. The key is to formulate standardised processes and practices for customer service in the social cloud that are consistent with those for your website and traditional touch points such as the phone, retail store or a branch office.
Answers to all customer queries, complaints or mentions should be provided from a common knowledge base, unified across traditional and social channels. By consolidating customer engagement operations through integrating all channels (phone, social, self service, email), the traditional cost centre turns into a revenue generator by fostering more loyal customers at a reduced cost to serve.
And on that note, I should mention that social media is not all that bad. On the flip side, those loyal customers you are creating can be turned into advocates who can provide positive brand sentiment across the social media sphere. If you have the tools in place to alleviate the negative, and promote the positive, then social media has the power to work for, not against, your bottom line.
Andrew Mennie is general manager EMEA at eGain Communications
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