3 Practical Tips for Improved Social Customer Care

If you had to guess, which point of customer interaction would you say generates more conversations for mainstream brands, products, or services than any other, and possibly more than all other points of interaction combined? If you said “customer care,” you’re right.

The combination of personal social/mobile technology and the now-familiar “extreme expectations” on the part of customers — loosely defined as expecting what they want and then getting it when and where they want it, for example in the palm of their hand — has created a significant opportunity for marketers. From Bain:

“More than 60 percent of Internet-connected individuals in the U.S. now engage on social media platforms every day. Many now expect real-time customer service recovery and quick responses to their online feedback. Hyper-connected individuals regularly broadcast their opinions. And they rely on their friends and social networks for news, reviews, and recommendations for products and businesses.”

Precisely because customers are so likely to engage both brands and each other in conversation before, during, and after a purchase marketers have an unprecedented capability to amplify positive conversations. Ratings, reviews, images, and videos of products in use as well as stories about customer/company interactions can all be sources of inspiration (or indicators of desperation) that factor into subsequent purchase decisions. But those are really just the beginning.

There are some clear precursor best practices when building more of your marketing program around social technology, of course: connect your social media (care and marketing) strategies in business objectives, implement social technology across the organization, and then measure results against established ROI benchmarks. Ironically, it’s the “cross-team/whole enterprise” that presents the largest challenge. It’s ironic because the underlying idea — to get customers talking openly with each other about a product, for example, runs into a brick wall as internal factions see the customer/company conversation as a “we/they” or “my department/you department” thing rather than the “us” that all of this really is.

In a recent SAP blog post, customer service evangelist Shep Hyken perfectly captured the challenge of implementing social technology at an enterprise level:

“Customer service is not a department. It is a philosophy to be embraced by every person in any position within an organization.”

The blog post continues on, making the even more fundamental point: customer service is (now) the heart of marketing:

“Realizing that consumers lose trust in advertising and rely on word-of-mouth marketing instead, companies must realize that great customer experiences can quickly become their strongest marketing asset. Keeping customer service interactions consistently above average is the key to becoming an amazing company in the eyes of the customer.”

In other words, getting the entire organization aligned around the singular objective of creating a consistent, excellent customer experience is the new marketing best practice. But really, should it not have been this way along? In that cliché sense of “everything old is new again,” perhaps with customer more able to exert direct pressure, savvy organizations will respond by re-orienting around the customer.

3 Strategies for Building Favorable Conversations

Recognizing the futility in trying to “boil the ocean,” rather than starting with “aligning your organization,” here are three straightforward but effective strategies for ensuring excellent customer care interactions.

1. Real Time. Real Space.

Meet customers where they are, when they want. Most leading brands now offer customer care (meaning “support, pre-sales, and innovation/research”) in channels ranging from email to chat to phone to social. Some still accept hand-written letters, too. By ensuring that customers can get consistently excellent service regardless of channel you can ensure that customers’ conversations are predictably excellent.

As testament to the power of social technology, phone response has actually improved for many brands given the expectation of immediate response on social channels. But on that note: a customer’s demand for immediate response doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have to acquiesce and deliver it, especially if you are just starting out. The key is to set expectations: if you can only respond to Twitter during business hours Monday through Friday, say that on your Twitter page/profile. You can always expand your service hours later, after you’ve proven the case.

2. Express Lanes and Concierge Service

Moving up in complexity and potential hazard, some firms are experimenting with “express lanes” and/or “premium service.” Not to be confused with the long-standing pay-for-support programs common in enterprise software support these new service programs more closely resemble Disney’s FASTPASS. Got five minutes? Call 1-800-SUPPORT. Got five seconds? Pay $1 and skip to the head of the call queue. Same ride, less waiting. This is an offering that makes intuitive sense: you pay more and you get more, a concept that most customers understand and accept given that it is more or less how the rest of the world works. But it’s also an offering that risks a backlash: more than a few companies have tried and then abandoned this approach, citing egalitarian concerns, while others are engaged in variations that appear to work and result in enhanced customer satisfaction.

Concierge service is similar: think Mercedes-Benz and its first-name-basis Service Advisors. When our cars need care, I call Mercedes-Benz of Austin and always speak to Bobby: Bobby always know what was done on our cars last and what is needed next. He also knows what kind of loaner I like and the days/times that work best for me. You can do this easily with social customer care (it’s more complicated with a phone system because of the synchronous nature of phone calls) by simply assigning specific social handles (aka, customers) to specific agents. But beware: customers have to understand this, and your workflow has to account for specific agent-availability. If concierge care is appropriate for your brand it’s a great way to consistently and measurably delight customers.

3. Customer Collaboration

If your customer care platform includes a peer-to-peer component, connect customers with questions to customers with answers. This is an established best practice for telecom, tech, and similar businesses with a complex product and diverse customer base: simply put, customers scale across customers faster (and more efficiently) than do dedicated agents. But wait, there’s more: you can gain more from a customer support forum, for example, by actively (versus passively) encouraging customers to visit it. When a question arrives on Twitter, your social agent can send a link back to a vetted answer in the support forum. This “teaches” your customers how to use self-help (peer-to-peer) for future questions. Even cooler? Connect your IVR system to your peer-to-peer resources: as customers press or say “broadband connection,” scan your support resources for applicable, popular solutions and offer to send them via email or text.

Three approaches, each easily in reach of most organizations and each designed for a specific application. Most important, however, is to recognize that while the immediate business objective may be scale (capacity) or ROI (expense reduction, improved sales) the end-game is “more and more favorable conversations with and about your brand, product, or service.” It’s about seeing social technology for what it is — an enabler of engagement and hence meaningful conversation — rather than one push channel. Make 2015 the year you invite customers into your business, and 2015 may just be your best year yet.

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