How Social Can Improve Customer Service: Expert Advice

Social networking can improve your internal help desk and external customer service results. But beware: Facebook and Twitter tactics can backfire.
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Social networking has changed the face of many organizational functions, but perhaps none more so than customer service and help desk--for both internal and external customers. Companies can leverage social networking capabilities to provide help to customers and employees, and the open platforms provide a forum for anyone with expertise to weigh in--and anyone with a similar issue to gain knowledge. But integrating social networking into your organization's customer service strategy has to be more than, say, popping up on Facebook and answering a question or two now and then.

"Thanks to social media, customers have a voice like never before," said Laura Thomas, marketing communications senior consultant at Dell. "When customers wanted to discuss a product or service in the past, they'd dial a call center and their problem would be addressed behind closed doors. Only the customer and the company would hear the complaint or praise. Now, these issues are aired publicly to potentially huge audiences of potential buyers. At Dell, we still rely on a number of traditional channels for help desk services, but are increasingly looking to social networking to actively engage with our customers and ensure they have a good experience with us."

Kate Leggett, senior analyst at Forrester, said it's important for organizations to understand what communications channels customers want to be interacting on, then develop a social networking service model from there. For example, "once you have established that Facebook is the right medium to engage with your customers, you can offer customer service either from a separate tab on your Facebook page or by listening to comments on your Facebook page and engaging customers who need help."

Leggett added that there is no right way to set up customer service presence on a social network, but that there are some basic tenets companies need to follow. For example, if you do decide to leverage Facebook, "ensure that your customer service services are tied back to what is offered by your company on your site, and ensure that you follow the same business processes for inquiries routed over Facebook as what you offer from your company website [so] that Facebook is not seen as a backdoor to your customer service organizations."

Social networks can provide important data on the problems customers are having most often, as well as the products they would like to see changed (and how)--but only if you listen.

Dell's Thomas said that the company has found that listening and engaging with customers via social networking can directly result in improved customer satisfaction scores, customer loyalty, and brand metrics.

"Last December, we opened the doors to our Social Media Listening Command Center, which allows us to monitor over 22,000 daily posts related to Dell as well as mentions on Twitter using the analytics tool Radian6," she said. "Since the launch, we've seen a significant decline in negative commentary about our products and services--proof that the ability to listen and respond instantly is a smart investment in any company's future and a way to continually improve both business and customer relations."

Adam Mason is the director of client services at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He deals with all frontline support for faculty and staff on campus and works with the group that provides support to students.

Mason said the university has used Yammer for internal communications and is currently using ServiceNow Social IT, experimenting with the platform to make communications with other groups more transparent.

Loyola Marymount is not actively using public social networks to provide customer service at this point, but Mason said he wants to embrace the platforms moving forward: "That's where the students are going to be," he said. "They're not going to be on our internal email systems; they're going to be on their cellphones saying, 'The projector is not working in this classroom,' or 'something stinks,' or 'I really love this professor.' And, honestly, if we're not paying attention to it, they're going to say it anyway, and we're going to miss it."

Indeed, "missing it" can cost your company money and potentially customers if questions and concerns are not dealt with in a timely manner. After all, with social networking, it's not just one person who sees that a question has been left hanging; it's everyone who follows the page or is a fan of the company.

To that end, providing customer service via social networking requires much more than answering questions. Organizations will need to develop a dedicated presence, as well as a plan for what questions to answer live, how to publicly smooth ruffled feathers, and what to take offline and how.

"The key is to embed it throughout every facet of the organization--from sales to marketing to engineering to customer service to HR to finance," said Dell's Thomas. "While social media needs to spread across all aspects of the business, it's necessary to have a centralized process for customer response and a team dedicated to this. Initially at Dell we had more than 20 employees with Twitter accounts, not all of which were effective. While we had a number of employees focused on Twitter who were able to answer questions and direct customer issues or compliments to the right departments, it wasn't an efficient use of their time, nor the best way to solve problems."

Forrester's Leggett added that the initial company response to an inquiry can be done publically, but that best practice is to take the conversation with a customer offline as soon as possible and engage the customer either via direct messaging or a channel that is more conducive to extended help, such as chat, phone, or email. "Not a lot of customer service can be accomplished in 140 characters."

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