Last week, RightNow and Harris Interactive released a study on consumer response to retailers’ use of social media during the 2010 holiday season. The study detailed the astounding result that listening to consumers and responding in a timely, effective way has a positive impact on their propensity to return as a customer or to advocate for the brand even when a complaint launched the original interaction. While I don’t mean to sound cheeky (well, maybe a little), this somewhat obvious and intuitive observation might profit from even a bit more exploration.
Clearly, whether online, in social media, or in stores – responding appropriately and quickly to customer complaints can yield positive results. Not responding to heartfelt complaints adds salt to the wound and, given the current communication tool set available to consumers, can spread that injury well beyond the original complainer and the original problem. The issue is not so much that retailers don’t understand this, but that they have limited resources and many have yet to become comfortable in social media.
In the early days of e-commerce, retailers often had insufficient experience and insufficient resources to respond quickly to e-mail inquiries. Retailers had to overcome resistance, training, staffing, process, and other challenges to begin using the communication mode that their customers clearly preferred. There were many debates at that time about removing e-mail addresses from the site if you could not respond in a timely fashion. This would be unthinkable today.
Today’s equivalent conundrum would be the many companies (retail or not) who have social channels in place with no plans, and in some cases, no idea on how to respond to customer service or satisfaction issues in that very public forum. Some use Twitter separately as a customer service channel; some have adopted Facebook. Many businesses feel pressured to launch a Twitter or Facebook presence before they have the resources to appropriately manage, build, and respond effectively. Most are still experimenting with the right mix of channels, how to best represent the brand, how to bring in other customer voices to help support the official response channels, and how to harness and contain individual events that can quickly create a volatile public situation. Retailers are simultaneously watching each other, attempting to build internal support and systems, and taking their cue from their consumers. It’s not an easy task.
Monitoring the social buzz both on and outside of your own channels is critical, as is having a response plan in place that includes escalation (when to respond, when not, how, time lapse, etc.). In many cases, consumers may not be looking for true resolution through social channels, but just a chance to be heard and the courtesy of a response. When consumers do post a negative comment, they’re not always expecting much, so when a brand responds, they’re pleasantly surprised that resolving their concern was so easy (compared to a phone call or e-mail conversation), hence the large positive response percentages seen in this study.
Businesses also have to get out of reactive mode as their primary or default efforts in social media. Absent a proactive, consistent outreach effort or the use of a promotion or sweeps vehicle to create buzz, many of the inbound comments will be negative. It’s just human nature to use this choice opportunity to vent or complain more than to praise. As consumers, we expect and feel we deserve a positive product or service experience. After all, that is what we were sold and what we paid for. Unless we got an extraordinarily positive outcome, we are unlikely to crow about it and will just get on with our day. Do you post a positive comment every time you like the item you purchased? In addition to quickly and decisively responding to the negative, businesses need to balance the negative by asking for reviews and opinions or otherwise enticing users into a positive dialogue or other interaction online.
We need to remember that the most important optimization is not of your site or your online marketing campaigns; it is of the customer experience. The customer’s experience does not stop at the sale, but extends to the resolution of any service or product issues and one customer’s experience can impact so many others. This study and experience show that a good faith effort, continuity, and consistency in brand interactions throughout the entire customer experience will return generously to the businesses that can execute well against that imperative.