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Being 'Social' With Customers: A Tricky Business

If you're an SMB that's decided to take on social media, I commend you. The world of Twitter and Facebook can be an intimidating one to navigate, but it can also yield dividends in the way of enhanced customer loyalty and new business.

If you're an SMB that's decided to take on social media, I commend you. The world of Twitter and Facebook can be an intimidating one to navigate, but it can also yield dividends in the way of enhanced customer loyalty and new business.But if you think social media "done wrong" is better than no social media at all, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Ashu Roy, CEO of eGain, a company that offers software tools for multi-channel customer service, says he's noticed a troubling trend: Businesses are treating their customers differently in the social milieu than they're treating them elsewhere (over the phone, for example).

Here's an example (any resemblance to real-life company or customer names is unintentional): Wondrous Widgets is a company that makes…you guessed it -- widgets. One day, John Doe, one of two new marketing staffers hired to handle the social media channel, discovers that Mr. Grump, a dissatisfied customer, has Tweeted extensively over the past few days about an allegedly defective gadget he purchased for his daughter at Wondrous Widgets. According to Grump, the item broke just three days after he purchased it, and now he's telling all his friends about the experience.

Doe decides this is a perfect opportunity to convert a disgruntled customer into a "raving fan," so he jumps in the fray to get the details from Grump. Before you can say "tweet," a pages-long Twitter thread has unfolded. Grump has threatened to blacklist Wondrous Widgets, and Doe has caved, offering the former a full refund, plus 50% off his next purchase. Grump is satisfied and Wondrous Widgets has won back a customer. All's well with the world, right?

Not exactly. As it turns out, Doe has unwittingly ignored some of Wondrous Widgets' customer care policies. For one thing, Grump may have just started his grumbling a few days prior, but he actually purchased the widget for his daughter's birthday two months ago. As a matter of course, Wondrous Widgets gives customers a credit, not a refund, for returns past 30 days. And as for the 50% discount toward the next purchase, that wasn't in the rule book either. So now Wondrous Widgets has set a dangerous precedent. Apparently, complaining "socially" bears more fruit than calling customer service.

According to Roy, one key to running a business is consistency -- that is, treat all customers the same all the time. The key phrase here is brand-aligned customer service. "Some say that social networking is different from the channels that came before…the phone and the Web, for example," Roy says. "But it's not. Social networking is just another way to engage with customers. The same thing happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the Internet. Everybody was talking about how the Web was different. But again, it was just another channel."

Here are some tips from Roy on using social media to interact with your customers:

-Learn about your customers socially. Capture their social behavior and identities to get a sense of how they act over time. Build analytics around this information.

-Strive for consistent customer care. Don't respond with knee-jerk reactions to what customers are saying about you in social channels such as Facebook or Twitter. Make sure that your social content synchs up with your website content, and with ALL other content from your customer care staff.

-Teach your staff how to be social. The goal, again, is brand-aligned customer service. The tone across customer engagement channels should be consistent, and customers should get the same information and service (and deals) whether they contact you via the phone, your website, or Twitter.

It's important to conduct proactive, productive social interactions. Keep in mind that "sometimes a customer just needs to vent," Roy says. "The best response may be no response at all. Or you could let them say what they want to say, then move the conversation out of the social realm." (eGain, for example, offers a solution that allows complaints to be captured via a "social manager dashboard." A query is then routed to a customer care agent, and the customer is invited to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody on the phone.)

-Keep tabs on social interactions. Your staff shouldn't be left to their own devices when it comes to Facebook posts and Twitter Tweets. "Do some quality assurance on outgoing social messages, just the way that contact center calls are recorded," Roy says.

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