Companies start their social media outreach for a number of reasons and from a number of starting points: PR, sales, marketing, corporate comms, HR, IT. Whatever the reason they started their social media channels, they quickly realize that the discussion branches out into just about every area that the business covers.
The key is to plan ahead for that. It may have been the case that a shoe company started a Twitter profile to talk about their corporate and social responsibility, but the conversation then turns to color offerings or return policies or shipping or coupons. The tide of social media conversation is an unstoppable force, so don’t try to fight it. You have to go with the flow but be prepared for it. Don’t be naive to think you can truly steer the conversation to your liking. As best, you can nudge it in a certain direction … for a time.
One area that companies often don’t consider when starting their YouTube channel or Twitter profile or blog is customer service. Inevitably, customers will find a way to reach a company to voice their complaints. A company may have a 1-800 number, a ‘Contact Us’ form on their site, or even a live Web chat, but when they truly want to voice their complaints, they’ll turn to social media. Just look at @comcastcares. Comcast realized that frustrated customers were taking to Twitter in droves, and they got there to listen and to respond.
As the head of marketing, or human resources, or IT, you might think that customer service “isn’t my area,” but it is, inasmuch as it is the company’s responsibility. If you’re in charge of your company’s social media channel, there is no area that isn’t now your responsibility. Your customers will just see COMPANY NAME on the Facebook page and think that it’s a way to reach your company with questions — any questions. Customers don’t make distinctions like CSR, PR, IT, internal comms, etc. They just want answers. And with (very public) customer service complaints on social media, it’s even more important to resolve them.
The advice I’ve always given when it comes to customer complaints on social media is “publicly acknowledge, privately address.” What that means is that you should respond to the complaint in the same open forum in which it started but then resolve it privately. Some other considerations:
- Respond quickly. Time is of the essence when it comes to responding to issues in social media. For one, you don’t want other customers piling on and starting a conversation thread that “you suck.” Second, responding quickly shows that you are, in fact, on top of social media and that you’re listening.
- Acknowledge the complainant. When responding, do not issue a blanket statement that could have been pulled from a press release. It’s a person doing the complaining, so talk to them like they’re a person. Address them by name. Be human.
- Don’t (necessarily) apologize. I learned long ago that there’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry” and saying “I apologize.” For former implies sympathy, while the latter accepts responsibility. When someone complains about a service issue or a bad product experience, you have no idea if it’s true or that it happened in the way the customer explained. You should express concern for the situation while not accepting responsibility, unless you know that it is true. For example, someone complaining about a known product defect is not arguable. Instantly admitting fault could show up in court documents later, if it came to that.
- Request their info. In the public social media response, tell them that someone will be in touch with them. Then, if you can get in touch with them directly (Direct Message, Facebook mail, etc.), then ask them for their contact information (phone, e-mail) so that you can privately address the situation.
- Listen. The customer who complained obviously had a reason for doing so. It may be warranted or completely unfounded, but they still have their reasons. You have to hear them out no matter how erratic they may seem. I’m convinced that 51% of customer service is simply saying “I hear you.”
- Resolve it. This sort of goes without saying, but the other 49% of customer service is actually resolving the issue. Whatever you do, do not respond that you’ll look into the issue and then never get back to the person. That can (and probably will) make the situation worse, since you not only didn’t fix the problem, but now, you’ve created another one by ignoring the customer.
- Close the book. When the customer service issue has been resolved, you can go back to the comment thread and say as much. Better yet, kindly ask the customer, where appropriate, if they can comment about how their issue was resolved.
Before customer complaints start finding their way into your social media channels (and they will), you need to have a plan in place on how to address them. Who will they be sent to internally? How will they be tracked? Who will respond?
These are areas that may not be part of your job description, but when you oversee your company’s social media outlets, they all become your responsibility. Develop a plan to deal with that.