The Success of Customer Service is Dependent Upon True Social Engagement

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.

My Philosophy

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.

35 Comments

  • Tamar, I understand this is directed at large companies but I’d appreciate when that’s made clear up front. Social Media does not apply the same for small, medium, and large scale companies (I know you know this).

    Plus, what many consumers do not know, is there are massive state and federal regulations preventing many fields of business (health care for one) to engage at the level of transparency they would like. It will be years before laws are adapted to allow businesses to engage as they should. There are still many walls to tear down before we get to real transparency.

    • Michael – it was made clear in the article.

      That said, I understand the issues relating to health care companies. Perhaps I should have been clear up front that these are B2C companies in tech/retail/CPG/restaurants/etc. But yeah, health would definitely be the exception here as a result of the issues the pharma industry faces.

      btw, note that I never actually said anything about transparency. My concern is that companies pretend to listen and REPLY but don’t act. I know in the pharma industry, you’re listening but can’t even reply. There’s a big difference.

      • As I reread through the article I see “Large Company” more frequently than I did the first time through. No disagreement from me on companies that pretend to listen and reply, experienced that several times, would love to see that change. I guess for me, a ‘truly social experience’ involves transparency, or at least as much as we can get.

        • I agree with transparency, but that’s a (somewhat) different issue. I think that companies need to start going above and beyond like Zappos did AGAIN as reported today on Consumerist.

  • Hi Tamar,

    Very insightful article. I agree with your argument that many large companies are trying to use “old school” tactics in a “new school” world. Some claim to be embracing social media, but only as an announcement platform, rather than an engagement platform. Many think they can get instant results by hiring “social media experts” when what they really need to do is ask their most passionate and knowledgeable employees to take on those critical roles.

    -Marianne

    • Hi Marianne,

      Exactly — but engagement only goes so far if they can’t truly do something for a customer. What’s the point in being human when you can’t actually be a human who can act? Emotion only goes so far. Eventually people realize that you’re full of it.

  • Totally agree–The people who are manning the social media channels need to be able to engage, but should also be company experts with the authority to take action.

    • That’s the REAL shift. Companies aren’t willing to give their first level responders this responsibility and authority. This post is a real game changer, but companies will shrug their shoulders and do what they do because they won’t be able to get executive support. :(

      • This is a golden point to me.

        You can hire the best social team, give them the best tools, develop the best strategy, do everything right “at corporate” but if your employes [on the ground or on the phones] aren’t enabled, they can’t deliver a proper experience in the first place and no amount of twitter / facebook support is going to change that. Social Support has become a crutch for many brands; the solution to a bad business process that is shiny, new and therefore something that gets funded.

        To succeed in social, brands need to look at the full customer experience and realize that social buzz will only be as good as the worst part.

  • Jerrick says:

    That i always solve customer problem on spot for those easy problem.
    Those come to technical issues mostly we will follow up with them through email or phone call.
    So we able to make our facebook clean from bad comment.
    We always use more social method to reply customer to let them feel that we are human and not computers. We need to reply customer on the spot while we know that most of company unable to make it which bad comment and issues may taken few minutes and even hour to reply back.

    I hear lot of namecheap in forum. I sure you must be smart to operate the business.

    • Curious question, Jerrick – what happens if sometimes there are bad comments on your Facebook wall? Do you take the approach of “it’s my territory, so I’ll delete it,” or “we want to be fully transparent and let everyone know how concerned we are to fix this thing?”

      I ask because I have the latter philosophy, but I’ve seen culture clashes with “social media folks” and upper management who says “this is OUR wall, so we’ll do what we please.”

      Thanks for your comments. :)

  • Nick Stewart says:

    Great article. I think people have really good BS detectors and will quickly figure out if you are there to actually help them or if it’s a false front.

    • I think it’s not happening soon enough. Should I have called out these companies? Perhaps. But I would say that ALL Fortune 1000 companies are EXACTLY the same. How often do you hear people call Microsoft for a red ring of death on their XBOX 360s out of warranty and find out that Microsoft stonewalls the customers, making them feel miserable? How often do people go into Dell Hell? (Note: I LOVE DELL and have NEVER had problems with them in my 8-10 computers I’ve owned from them since 1995. In that case, I fault it to the customer for buying the bare minimum and no support plan, but perhaps I shouldn’t because that’s the reason for their reputation… user error that the company is often against fixing.) You get my drift. Every company fails at it. Except, well, Zappos. That’s why I linked to them a bunch of times in this post.

  • Wow, this post really struck me because I had a pertinent experience the other day. I received an email alerting me to an item (a limited edition watch) that was available. Cool. I want it. I click the link in the email and go…to the main home page of the website. I think to myself…weird, they didn’t put me on the purchase page. Then spent 10 minutes searching the site for any sign of the watch….nothing. Then, using my easiest escape valve, I tweeted my frustration directly toward the company in question. They replied fairly quickly, asking what I was looking for. I replied with the answer….and then….nothing…..I pinged again via Twitter the next day, asking what happened, and then a few hours later got an “oh, we were waiting to find out…it’s sold out now, sorry!” I think this perfectly illustrates the disconnect you’re talking about. Obviously the sales team who sent out the email, the web team who created the site and shopping experience, and the social team are not on the same page. Perhaps I should forward your post to them :)

    • Wow, that’s awful. And they couldn’t make the effort to get it for you when it wasn’t sold out! Yep, that’s exactly it. Being on the same page is crucial. Please let them see this post. :)

      • Yes, I pondered how I would have handled it myself, and I would have either offered a different watch suggestion, or sent an apology gift.

        • Yeah. But if you wanted just that product, they should have made the effort. It was a failure on their part and I’d say it’s probably just one guy’s fault too.

          FWIW, 1SaleADay has a new super discounted watch everyday. ;) Maybe you’ll find it there!

          • Thanks I’ll check that out! I did realize that it probably was one person on the other end who really dropped the ball…that’s why I’m not calling them out by name. Could be it was an anomaly.

          • That one person is probably ruining it for everyone else though. :( If they can’t make a stellar effort, they should find a new career path.

  • Adrienne Cox says:

    Tamar,
    Your comprehensive posts are always jammed with insights! A brief postscript to it — After PBS served a customer well recently helping a user quickly on a problem with video on his phone –one customer service triumph turned into an outpouring of goodwill on Reddit! The happy PBS user posted a simple comment on Reddit which took off… There is a payoff –sometimes a very public one — for serving customers well!

    • I always hear about these stories on Consumerist, but never Reddit. That’s really cool, Adrienne!

      Side note: One of my favorite business colleagues, Jen Sable Lopez, recently flushed her old HTC phone down the toilet in one of those high powered ones. She asked T-Mobile on Twitter for help, and they immediately said they’d send here the newest phone AND they overnighted it. Now that’s the kind of service I wish more companies adopted.

      • Adrienne Cox says:

        Truly a WOW. Thanks for the reply. Have to admit, Reddit is a bit new to me.
        Many folks talk about T-Mobile’s varsity CSR’s, for good reason. My son as a toddler once threw my phone into the baby pool, should have had a T-Mobile! :)

  • Gibranna says:

    Companies often pretend to demand a high level of customer service but do not empower the employees with the ability to make decisions and solve customer service issues. “The Customer is Always Right” as long as making the customer happy doesn’t effect the company’s bottom line.

    Also, as you have written in the past, using social media as another medium to provide exceptional customer service is key. Facebook, Twitter etc is just another eyes and ears for companies to respond to customer needs.
    Your right on the money!

    • Yup Gibranna, that’s the thinking that *really* irks me. Companies SHOULD give their reps free reign to spend a little to make a customer a customer for life.

      And totally. When they’re using social media, they need to be truly social to succeed or else they’re just fakers.

  • This article clears my doubt about many aspects in customer care with Twitter or any other Social Media. DELL is adopting a strong customer support through Social Media it seems. But I had a chance to chat with Airasiago and Tunes hotels which belonged to the same group of Air asia. They could not resolve my issue and they were totally reluctant to consider it even. I think when social media is outsourced the outsourced agent may bot have interest to tackle with customer queries if they do not have back end software integrated with twitter to monitor the actual interaction through integration with CRM as DELL is having. Thanks for the information.

    • I don’t agree, Babu. It’s not about the tools or software. It’s about the mindset the employee has coming into the interaction. Clearly, these guys are there to silence, not to help.

      With Namecheap, I don’t have a CRM system at all. I use HootSuite for the most part to monitor what’s being said about my brand and its competitors. I pay $5.99 per month. That’s it.

  • Yes I do agree with you. Software tools acts as catalysts for support

  • Edited says:

    “Software tools acts as catalysts for support” Totally agree with it!

    Editor’s note: Glad you liked it. But as your name isn’t in the Name field, I edited it according to my blog policy.

  • Nick says:

    Tamar, you have really hit the nail square on the head with this article. Too many times I find that companies rush into the social marketing thing because it’s ‘the right thing to do’ without thinking what kind of an impression they’re leaving or how they are affecting their brand. Often it is in a way that they have to go back and try to ‘fix.’ Yes, I think that a company is wise to use a knowledgeable social media manager.

  • Subhakar Rao says:

    You are right Tammer. If you don’t execute it properly you will not succeed. So its better to recruit social media team give them authorization so that they can engage the customers and solve the queries.

  • Extreme John says:

    So true Tamar. I’ve had personal experience with customer representatives on a particular telecommunications company and every time I report an incident or issue regarding the service, their answers seem to be so monotonous and can’t really give me the exact technical reason why I’ve had a bad connection service. Customer representative services nowadays need to have a major revamp to improve customer satisfaction.

  • Edited says:

    I am absolutely taken by this post. You are correct in saying that true social engagement is the secret to successful customer service. You need to interact with the social community in a way that it does not look that you are only after the search engines.

    Edited: Thanks Sheila – but I have a blog policy for a reason and I have edited your name and URL in accordance with these policies.

  • I am talking about a well known company who may be the leader in online shopping. I bought one item and that item has to be delivered within 7 days from the day of purchase. After 7 days i got an email to rate the seller but till that time i have not received the item and i got 4 to 5 reminders about the feedback. Customer Service has to be spot on. It requires direct one to one conversation with the customer service people. Also there is one more problem, Customer Service Representative are always not aware of what exactly is happening in the company.They just do the normal script.

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