A colleague recently raised the issue of how we handle complaints that come in via social media, and this got me thinking about the impact of these channels on how we deliver customer service in general. It’s a massive topic, with an awful lot of angles to consider, so here are just a few thoughts.
To start, though, I thought I’d have a quick look at what people were tweeting about in relation to my organisation (LinkedIn has a handy feature called Company Buzz which makes this easier). As expected, the results were not great.
You can immediately see why this subject is an important one, especially if the individuals posting such comments have a lot of followers (as the recent Dooce vs Maytag story proved). But do these individuals expect the Council to respond? And if so, what should we be doing?
More and more organisations are accepting the fact that the web in general, and social media especially, continues to present challenges to how they interact with their customers. Nowadays you can email a company and have a reasonable expectation of a timely response within hours or days, rather than the weeks or months that postal correspondence might take. For any companies who don’t take email seriously, they risk appearing unprofessional, rude and behind the times. On several occasions I’ve emailed small companies, via their website, to enquire about a service or product. Usually I find that if I haven’t heard back within a week or two, I’m not going to hear back at all. And 99% of the time, that’s the last they’ll hear of me and my money too.
Social media have not only made it easier to interact with companies, they have also made it far less formal – even more so than email. This should be seen as a tremendous opportunity for engaging in discussions with your customers, and given that their expectations are already being raised by the companies who are ahead of the game, it’s fast becoming an essential part of your customer service strategy.
One thing that social media have enabled the general public to do, more than any other technology before, is to reach a potentially vast number of other people. The tools of mass communication are now open to us all, usually for free, and this is without doubt a revolution. But, for an organisation, this brings about the significant risk of reputation damage. Social media provide every online citizen with access to a potentially global soap box, from which they can broadcast their thoughts and opinions to the world. And if their message strikes a chord with others, this can soon escalate into a cacophony of discontent.
Heads in the sand?
Without doubt the worst thing an organisation can do, when a barrage of complaints and concerns are being vociferously cast about the Web 2.0 world, is to ignore them.
Long gone are the days when companies could sit back and relax in the knowledge that no one person could make enough noise to cause any real concern – where only the hackneyed threat of “going to the press” might cause the PR team to break into a sweat. The individual no longer needs the press to get his or her message out there, and the general public has proven itself to have a healthy appetite for what the individual has to say.
How to engage?
Having discounted option 1, which is to do nothing, we must therefore work out how to tackle option 2 – doing something.
A key element here is the issue of monitoring - making sure we hear about the conversations that are taking place. There are some easy ways of going about this – setting up Google Alerts is a good start. You can also do basic searches (either across the entire web or site-specific, e.g. searching Twitter for your company name). Taking it further, you might even want to engage the help of a monitoring service such as Radian6. This subject probably warrants a blog post of its own, so I’ll leave that for another day.
Once you’ve located a conversation, though, you then need to find an appropriate way to engage with it.
A good example is Alastair Smith’s (of Newcastle CC) case study of Facebook engagement – how he got involved in an anti-council Facebook group and managed to turn around some of the negative sentiment. Although this is a great story, it does show the critical requirement for people who know what they’re doing, and who are familiar with the platforms they intend to use. Not all organisations will be lucky enough to have staff with such skills, especially as many of these platforms are, relatively speaking, very new.
For any major organisation, consideration needs to be given to the more formal aspects of complaint handling. Most of us will have procedures in place for how we handle phone calls, emails and letters. But these are far simpler channels, in most cases one-to-one. What if someone sends a message to our Twitter account? Or comments on a blog post? Who deals with that, and how?
For a public organisation such as mine, this question is crucial. What if someone sent our corporate Twitter account a Direct Message expressing concern for the well-being of a child? Could we respond to that quickly and appropriately? What if we didn’t?
This is possibly a question that has already been partially answered. A citizen can reasonably expect to be able to email a council via their website and get a response, so presumably a structure will already be in place to handle such correspondence. This might be simply farming all enquiries out to a centralised customer service centre for response, for example, and a similar approach seems logical with social media correspondence.
However, because of the open nature of social media, it may also be prudent for customer service staff to work evermore closely with communications professionals, to ensure consistent and appropriate dialogues.
Customer service – more than just complaints
Of course, customer service is about more than just handling complaints. I recently thought it would be really useful, for example, to be able to contact my library service via their Twitter account in order to make suggestions for new titles that I’d like them to consider buying. I sent them a message to that effect:
@TalesOfOneCity Do you accept library stock recommendations via Twitter? If so, please consider getting Design Meets Disability by G Pullin.
And heard back the very next day:
@prettysimple thanks – I’ll pass your request on to our stock selection team!
Great customer service! In many ways, such requests could be handled in exactly the same way as a complaint – by passing it on to the relevant individual. But making this type of added service known to the general public could mean an unmanageable barrage of requests clogging up the system. Also, my experience of working in libraries tells me that pretty soon, people could start using the service to request renewals, reservations and all sorts of general information, which again would be unmanageable and would divert people away from the ‘self-serve’ routes which libraries now rely on.
For this reason, it’s important to establish boundaries of reasonable service, beyond which we should probably not venture at this stage. Setting users expectations higher than we can deliver is a significant risk, and indeed one that should be part of the discussions when we think about engaging in social media in the first place.