How do you deal with customer service issues on social media – aka social customer service? A 2013 study found 67% of consumers have reached out for help on social media, so it’s likely the majority answer that question by coming to you. This is a serious connection point between you and customers, and one to be treated as such.

Despite this importance, a lot of social customer service advice follows relatively banal trends: “surprise and delight your customers” or “customer service is an attitude.” You may have even seen these quotes, attributed to Henry Ford and Derek Sivers respectively: “Don’t find fault. Find a remedy” and “Customer service is the new marketing.”

These statements are as unhelpful as they are bland: how are you meant to put these into practice in your day-to-day work? If a customer reaches out wanting you to fix something, how is it practical to “surprise” them? If customer service is the new marketing, should you kill all your marketing, hire more customer support and hope for the best?

Better yet, if customer service is an attitude as well as the new marketing, if you just apply that attitude can you do away with customer service and marketing?

Obviously, we need more nuance in how we think about social media customer service.

If you’re reading this, you’re clearly thinking about what makes good social customer service – and that’s great. In this post, we’re going to argue you should aim for one thing: happy customers and happy potential customers. We’ll look at the conventional takes on social media customer service and see how these can be adapted and improved in order to deliver vastly happier customers.

Social media customer service step 1: Creating the right incentives

Here’s what the typical approach to social customer service is: you should monitor what customers are saying about you on social media and respond to them quickly on that platform.

This approach advocates the usage of monitoring tools, typically those that can turn posts and tweets into trackable tickets – while still responding to the customer on the platform they’ve used. This is convenient for you: you can track the number of incoming messages, response times and the productivity of your social team and, over time, improve all of these.

Indeed, speed is important, with nearly 50% of social media users expecting to receive a response within an hour.

(Chart by Visualizer Lite.)

To help make this approach work, tools like Sparkcentral, Respond and Lithium enable your team to respond directly to customers in real-time, at scale, across all social networks.

Social media customer service helper: Sparkcentral

Unfortunately, this conventional approach also creates all the wrong incentives: it makes speed the number one priority. This incentivises responding to a customer quickly with relatively useless fast response (for example, asking the customer to submit a ticket on your website so you can look into this further) or asking for more info – rather than immediately working to fix the problem, which is that the customer actually wants.

Speed is important on social media, but speed should not be advocated at the expense of substantive responses. This means giving social teams the licence to move boldly and quickly, and with budget where necessary, to ensure responses are substantive and actually address customers’ problems. You may find, for example, that alongside measuring the time to first response, you also want to start measuring the number of responses per interaction, as getting the number lower requires dealing with problems more effectively.

Let’s look at a case study to see how this works in practice. The tweet below is from Casey Neistat, an entrepreneur and YouTube star with over a billion views:

Neistat complaining to his million Twitter followers about your product is clearly a problem, so Canon were right to respond and try to take the conversation out of the public light and avoid any further damage:

Sony, however, responded faster than Canon – within minutes of the tweet being posted. Sadly, the opportunity for a big public-relations win was ignored and the response lacked any substance:

Arguably a better and more substantive response would have been to offer to help Neistat switch to your cameras and lenses.

Whether it’s a dissatisfied customer, a happy customer offering praise or an internet celebrity, fast responses are insufficient for good customer service: substantive and fast responses are the right way to deal with social customer service. This is not a case where “customer service is the new marketing,” but it’s a case where there are very obvious marketing gains to be had from doing social media customer service very well.

Happy customers is always the goal. Achieving this on social media means giving your social team the authority, flexibility and budget to respond properly and promptly, right on the social platform the comments are coming in. Make sure you’re not creating the wrong incentives and set your social team up to succeed.

Put the customer first: integrated social customer service

67% of consumers have reached out for help on social media

67% of consumers have reached out for help on social media,
according to a 2013 study.

Let’s now turn to integrated social customer service. It’s typical for social media to be run by one person or team and customer service or support to be run by another. This is natural, as the two require different skills. Yet, as we established at the top of this post, managing social media requires being able to deal with a significant amount of customer service. So how do you reconcile the two?

The answer here should be you develop training and a robust framework for social media managers to effectively deal with customer service. This may mean tight collaboration on common issues, solutions and approaches between traditional customer service and social media managers. We know speed is important, however, so this doesn’t mean simply delegating between the two teams; it’s vital both can handle what comes to them effectively.

Indeed, one 2011 study found 37% of respondents cited “getting passed around” as their number-one source of customer service frustration. Avoid this frustration by making sure your social teams are properly equipped to deal with customer service issues, rather than leaving them to take best guesses or deal with issues on a case-by-case basis.

the number one source of frustration for 37% of consumers

“Getting passed around” was the number one
source of frustration for 37% of consumers.

We can examine what this means in practice. Here’s what you should be doing:

  • Providing customers with the answers they want, right away. If you receive a significant number of support requests and aren’t available 24/7 then say when customers can expect a response in the platform’s bio.
  • Where extra details are needed, make it easy for the customer: ask for details that let you work out the problem, rather than asking for it to be explained in detail.
  • If you need to check with others and this takes time, make this convenient also: ask for an email or say you’ll follow up on Twitter later – and then do so.
  • Where sensitive information is required, take the conversation private – but on the same platform.

Here’s what you shouldn’t be doing:

  • Ask a customer to repeat the same problem into a different medium (i.e. live chat, contact form or phone number), for your convenience. This applies even when sensitive details that need to be shared privately are required.
  • Require extra details which you could work out yourself.
  • Pass the customer between different support Twitter accounts.
  • Say you’ll follow up and then forget to do so.
  • Blame other teams for a customer’s unhappiness! Be careful when treading the line between expressing empathy with a customer’s difficulties and undermining your colleagues.

The goal, still, is happy customers. The ideal is social media customer service requests can be addressed quickly, efficiently and to the customer’s satisfaction by a single team member.

It’s important to recognise that the ideal outlined above is just that: an ideal. Some responses will fit the mould and can be dealt with easily, but often issues will be more complicated, requiring input from others internally, extra research or additional details from the customer. These are the difficult social media customer service instances to deal with, and getting these right is where you have the opportunity to excel.

As when we looked at the importance of substantive responses in the previous section, the by-product of doing social media customer service very well is often good marketing outcomes, but this only comes from the clear goal of making customers happy. Social media customer service offers the opportunity to excel, so make things easy for customers and take the opportunity.

Social customer service done right: Conclusion

The platitudes frequently used to discuss social media customer service are as unhelpful as they are misleading. Be very clear you’re not aiming to surprise or delight; settle for the humble goal of resolving issues to a customer’s or a potential customer’s satisfaction. Settle for happy customers and you’ll do very well.

Achieving happy customers often means going out of your way and working in a way which is not the most efficient or convenient. Indeed, many of the most popular social media customer service systems offer up the wrong incentives, prioritising speed over the substantial responses which often take longer but result in increased happiness.

Furthermore, whilst it’s more convenient to work with separate social and support teams and direct social media customer requests to the support team, asking customers to repeat the problem they’re having or their inquiry is not a recipe for those happy customers we’re after. A social team well-trained and integrated to your customer service infrastructure, however, can respond to customer service requests on the platform they appear on and in a way that’s convenient for customers. This is the route to happy customers.

Forget the platitudes and focus on something very simple: make sure customers and potential customers come away from your social media customer service interactions very happy with the experience. Aim for this and find appropriate metrics to measure change over time, and you really can’t go too far wrong.

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