At first, it seems like no big deal. A customer tweets one morning about a problem she's having with a firm's product. But then, some of her Twitter followers repost her tweet to their followers, who do the same. By the end of the day, thousands of people have seen the complaint.
What they haven't seen is a response from the company. Even though there's an easy fix for this customer's problem, this firm hasn't told her about it; in fact, the company hasn't even noticed her tweet. That's because it isn't systematically monitoring and responding to social-media posts about its business that raise customer-service issues. As a result, the firm's reputation has taken a hit—and it doesn't even know it.
The company is far from alone in this. A survey of U.S. Twitter users by market research firm Maritz Research found that only 29% of businesses respond to complaints tweeted about them. You'd never see companies ignore most complaints coming in by phone or email, so why do they blow it when it comes to social media?
Probably, they simply haven't realized that many consumers prefer raising issues via social media because it's so easy. "Before, if you had a complaint, you had to find a phone number, pick up the phone, sit on hold, go through a call tree and speak with someone who might or might not be helpful," says Ryan Holmes, CEO at Vancouver based HootSuite Media Inc., creator of a popular social-media dashboard. "Social media has flipped that on its head."
It's only natural for social-media users to post about your business using those channels. But few companies are set up to respond to these posts, says Sajan Choksi, CEO of Innovative Vision Marketing Inc., a Toronto-based call-centre operator: "The same thing happened when email came along and companies initially didn't understand how to use email for business."
It's time to figure it out for social media. "The old axiom was that one unhappy customer will tell 10 people; but, with social media, they'll tell thousands," says Holmes. "The stakes are much higher."
But the rewards are bigger if you get on top of this issue while rival firms haven't even realized it is an issue. If you respond quickly to customer-service concerns, you can nip unfounded criticism of your company in the bud before it spreads widely. What's more, you can convert disgruntled clients into fans. The Maritz study showed that when a company responds to a tweeted complaint, 83% of consumers said they liked or loved the firm for doing so—regardless of the outcome of the complaint.
There's another upside: you can boost your sales by replying speedily to people who are thinking about buying from you but first need some questions answered. Maggie Fox, CEO of Social Media Group, a Toronto-based social-media marketing agency, says many posts are of this sort. "You need a process to ensure that you send this post to the right person in your company," she says. "Other wise, you'll miss out on that sale."
A growing minority of firms are experimenting with how best to adapt to this new era. Choksi says a significant number of his clients, including SMEs, have outsourced management of customer contacts via social media to his firm this year. But things are still at the trial stage.
The first step in developing a response system is to settle on criteria for determining whether to respond to a given post. Not all social-media messages that refer to a company or product are tied to a customer- service issue.
Choksi's firm uses software tools such as the response-management systems Tracx and Convers IQ to aggregate feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs and other sources, then does keyword searches to spot posts that need replies. Next, a customer service agent drafts a response and sends it to a designated person at the client, who approves or rewords the response, then posts it. Innovative Vision and its clients agree on canned responses to recurring issues—say, advising a customer: "Here's a URL for our FAQ page, on which point 4 answers your question."
There's an art to identifying the best search terms to use along with your brand and product names—and misspellings of these. Fox says you can spot complaints by trying terms such as "broken," "sucks," "unhappy"—or the harshest hashtag in the Twitterverse: #fail.
But searches are imperfect. "Computers understand only content, not context," says Choksi. "The best method is to have a human read the posts at high speed to identify which ones you should respond to."
Social-media users expect a quick response. Fox recommends posting a reply within 12 hours—24 at most. And that includes weekends, she says: "If someone posts a complaint on Facebook on a Friday evening, it will fester all weekend."
Choksi suggests a far more demanding standard: reply within five minutes. "If you don't respond to a negative post for even four hours," he says, "it can go viral."
You'll have to judge which standard makes sense for your firm. Whatever your choice, be sure to avoid a common blunder. "Companies often don't respond because they don't have the answer yet," says Fox. "Big mistake. To consumers, it's perfectly acceptable to say, 'I'm looking into your problem. Let's take it offline to resolve.'"
Consumers who read a posted complaint look for whether the business has responded and promised to address the concern, but generally not at what happened after that. So, be sure to reply in public and invite the customer to continue the discussion through her medium of choice, such as phone, email or private chat. Holmes says most people realize that "it's difficult to resolve a customer-service issue in a 140-character snippet on Twitter." Besides, the customer probably doesn't want personal details posted publicly as you work with her to resolve her concern.
Fine, you may be thinking, but what's this going to cost? As with most things, that depends. "If you get more than 100 posts a day, it may make sense to outsource this so someone at your company doesn't have to stare at a screen all day," says Choksi. He says that his company can provide 24/7 coverage for an all-in cost of $10 per hour—totalling about $87,000 per year. If you opt instead for 9-to-5 coverage, the cost would be about $21,000. But if you get no more than a few dozen posts per day, says Choksi, you'd probably decide to handle them in-house.
If you do, you could use the free version of HootSuite to notify a designated employee on his mobile any time someone posts about a customer-service issue. Or you could set up the software so he checks posts once a day—which, if there aren't many, might take half an hour. This employee could use the software's assignment tool to forward the post to the right colleague, such as someone who handles billing issues.
However you manage your responses to social-media posts, says Fox, you must make it crystal clear whose responsibility this is: "Does marketing own this issue? Customer care? If it belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one."
Above all, companies should ensure that when someone posts about a customer service issue about their business, they don't default to the worst possible response option: total silence.