With social media now a mainstream activity — after all, nearly 700 million users are on Facebook, 300 million users are on Twitter, 61.4% of global internet users are managing online profiles, and millions of other users are engaging online across thousands of social platforms — it’s imperative that a business have a functional social media plan. Indeed, social media is useful in at least six parts of your company’s functions: sales, marketing & public relations, customer service, research & development, human resources, and executives & management. All in all, it sounds really lovely. Businesses pounce on the opportunity to integrate social media plans in their regular activities, but in many cases, they fall short.
If You Don’t Execute, You’re a Failure
As of late, I realize that social media interaction is merely a false front for a lot of companies to show that they care. Consumerist recently highlighted findings that showed that companies are hiring social media folks (both internally and externally) to listen in social channels for complaints, reply to the consumer feigning concern, and drop the matter entirely. The idea is that if you can get unhappy customers to STFU (at least in the public realm), you’ve done your job because the customer likely is now going to stop campaigning for attention publicly and your company looks like they’ve been proactive.
About 2 years ago, I connected socially with a corporate communications employee at a large telecommunications company. I expressed my dismay at a number of service offerings in the hope that it would be conveyed to the appropriate people and that things would change. Over a year later, I discovered that some improvements were to be announced — this was communicated to me via a third party forum. When asking for official comment, these employees appeared to be completely out of the loop to the point that my contact had to check with his superiors to ensure he was conveying the correct information. Recently, I had issues with the same company and independently emailed another rep I became friendly with, and he apologized profusely for the issues I encountered. That was it. Little did he know that part of the issue at that point was a software error, which I learned about a month later when I called their technical support line for assistance. In this situation, I think that my earlier related complaint should have been at least followed up upon with a “why did this happen? Let’s figure it out.” The apologies and the appearance of “I’m listening!” with no follow-through started uncovering an unfortunate truth among many publicly traded/Fortune 500/large companies (and even in smaller companies as well): corporate communications/customer service folks in the social media realm seem to be merely puppets appearing to care about the customers. I’m still an advocate for this company, but I’m starting to see through it as this company’s involvement is hardly an isolated incident.
Large companies seem to fail at social media in many ways. An earlier case I highlighted featured another big brand who wanted to seize the day in social, but did it without the recognition that there’s a person on the other end. When messaging the company for assistance one day, the reply I received at that time was blasé — it appeared that the person on the other line forgot about the whole idea that this is a person-to-person interaction.
Customer Service Needs to Change
If social is going to work, it needs to work with a true understanding that real time participation requires a complete shift of thinking in the human realm of expectation, both in terms of response time and in terms of the how of engagement. (An example of engaging social and customer service is by using customer service software.) Formal and canned responses and fake replies showing you “care” (when you don’t and are just doing it for a paycheck) are part of the thinking of the days of yore. Those who do this will fail — if not now, soon enough — and will lose to the compassionate competition who truly show that they are human.
Customer Service is Flawed
The reason for the failure in social amongst these companies is that people are jumping into it with the the mindset of the traditional days of formal communications. Back then (and it’s still pervasive today), customer service was driven by canned replies powered by pre-written scripts and lots and lots of macros. Macros are still helpful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s time that those macros start showing some emotion while still giving the customer exactly what they want. Customer service as a whole needs to be changed entirely with a nod to the emotional approach of social media.
Customer service is flawed for another reason. A company often hires a customer service arm with the goals of addressing customer complaints and seeking customer satisfaction. As a company grows, customer service — the first lines of user support — become less and less powerful. Whereas within small companies, a support representative can go above and beyond to ensure customer satisfaction, employees at larger companies don’t have that leisure. In the example of the telecommunications company, the representatives I spoke to were both “powerful” people by title but were actually completely ineffective in actually adequately addressing user concerns. They exist because the company needs to employ them to communicate to customers like you and me, but they don’t have enough clout to make significant changes that will satisfy the customer. Perhaps they’re trying and being stonewalled internally; large companies have bureaucratic setups that often do. Perhaps they’re so disheartened from on the internal red tape that they’ve given up and won’t pursue the matter further. Customer service as a whole also needs to be changed entirely so that companies give their first responders access to internal resources to truly effectuate change.
Large Businesses Have a Challenge
I have often said how much easier it is for large companies to adopt and implement social media, especially with an established following. They have the budgets to make social media become a reality relatively quickly. Yet their big challenge is that these large companies still maintain customer service departments with old school thinking. For a company’s social media program to be truly successful, the internal departments need to fully align with the public and social face of the company. This includes making customer service more responsive, more emotional, and more productive, ensuring that the customer gets what he wants when it’s within reason and not making excuses in the name of laziness because there will be too many hoops to jump through. Better yet, those hoops need to cease to exist and these employees need some freedom to make things better for customers. Today is the day when people will blog about whether they had a good experience with you or a miserable one, and you can actually proactively steer that conversation in a positive light. Most importantly, everyone needs to be on the same page and everyone needs to exhibit this culture internally for it to be a true success. It’s not impossible if you realize that one well known company has been doing it for years.
Putting the Human Back in Customer Relations
Ever see a reply to a customer service response that addresses your issue but seems monotonous, boring, and straightforward? Is that the type of interaction you’re looking for, or are you like me, someone who craves some human in what is truly a “social” interaction? I know I’m not alone in the thought that throughout the customer service discipline, we need to get emotional again. It makes us slightly more vulnerable than we’re used to with hardened and firm replies, which is actually a good thing because it puts us on the same level as our customers: the level of the human.
As many of you know, I am the community manager for domain name registrar Namecheap. We have a great system set up internally so that whenever there is a concern addressed via social media and I need to escalate the issue, I have every single online employee at my disposal. Since our hours are 24/7/365, and since emergencies can arise at any time, I always have access to someone should there be an issue and can reply to the customer immediately with a solution. I’m lucky in that we’re not the biggest company, but this is the mindset that companies need to adopt to be truly successful.
I often feel like Craig Newmark who, despite his tremendous success, calls himself a “customer service rep” — and that’s actually his role. He’s this guy who founded one of the most successful websites in the world but decided to take a backseat providing excellent customer service to the customers. As much as customer service is often manned by the little guys, the people they interface with are the people who tell their friends about you, which translates to more and more people supporting you — or doing just the opposite. Some of my favorite social media consulting projects are those where I can improve upon a company’s customer service program and make them truly successful — it’s worked really well so far.
As companies get more excited about social, it’s important for companies not just to hire new social media marketing talent but to optimize their internal departments for a truly social experience. It’s especially important for companies to afford the first response the luxuries to actually do things right by the customer, letting them go out of their way to create customers for life, possibly by giving them incentives and especially affording them freedom to be creative and excited about their role in customer support. A company’s long term survival will be dependent upon it. After all, in the days of social, it’s only a matter of time for a company with an amazing customer-centric culture to seize the day and become the next best thing.