It is not uncommon for a business owner or manager to break out in a sweat at the mention of social media. The things the customers could say, the questions they could ask and the demands they could make!

For many retailers, the social media landscape is perceived to be a minefield for customer service disasters. Fear mounts in these open forums because it is incredibly difficult to hide or ignore complaints of bad customer service. Online, everyone has a voice and not only their own audience, but yours too. Issues that were previously contained within private channels are now exposed to other customers, key stakeholders and potentially even the media. It is not only a chance for crises to be publicised, but also an opportunity for your teams’ responses to be scrutinised. But this is just one part of the pie.

It is true that social media acts as a megaphone for customers. Although this beckons troubling thoughts for businesses that are prone to negative or unpleasant exchanges with their customers, the positive opportunities must not be overlooked.

Social media is a terrific tool for obtaining insights on your target audience and it can assist with not only understanding your customer better but also with improving your service. It is also wonderful for those who create positive experiences for their consumers, as happy customers now have a soapbox from which to share their delight and excite their networks about your brand. Indeed, according to research released in June 2012, Aussies are more likely to hit social media to praise a company’s service (40 per cent of respondents) than to vent a frustration with a bad experience (34 per cent).

In the last year, almost one fifth of Australians have used social media to get a customer service response at least once and the primary reason for Australians engaging with a brand on social media is to ‘share information about [a] service experience with a broader audience’.

Rather than lamenting the power shift from company to consumer, consider the low cost advantages of using social media as a new stream of market research.

We all know feedback is invaluable, whether it is positive or negative, so learn to appreciate that almost one fifth of your customers are making it easier for you to improve your business.

A great case study can be found within KFC Australia. In March 2011, KFC introduced The Double – a meaty, bun-less burger – for one month. The Double was a roaring success, but the fast food giant’s Facebook page was flooded with complaints once the menu item was discontinued. After hundreds of disappointed fans gave their feedback, KFC turned the situation on its head and put forward an irresistible ultimatum: get us 500,000 fans and we will get you The Double. The page received over 10,000 new fans that day and KFC Australia customers were satisfied not only because they got to enjoy their beloved burger, but also because they felt that their feedback was received and acted upon.

This direct customer-to-company communications exchange means that social media also carries with it an air of perceived authenticity or transparency, making it the ideal platform for service recovery.

A well-known example of an offline wrongdoing made good by an online action was an apology video issued by Domino’s Pizza President, Patrick Doyle. Doyle was able to win back public appreciation for his brand when he turned to YouTube to deal with a situation where staff were found to be committing unhygienic acts to customer food. Speaking directly to his customers, Doyle apologised and offered a sympathetic, human response to a human issue and received great support and publicity for doing so.

The Domino’s Pizza example leads us back to what is at the crux of social media from a business perspective and how it creates a direct link between a brand and its customers.

Value added
For brands, social media is a marketing tool that allows them to connect with their audience to further increase loyalty and stimulate consumer advocacy. An effective social media program must add value or utility to consumers’ lives – otherwise there is no impetus for them to extend their online network to include your business. Sometimes a brand will set up a social platform that is exclusively purposed for customer service – this is common with airlines and telecommunications providers on Twitter. But for the most part social media is not a pure customer service tool and the best away to avoid falling into this trap is by creating and implementing an effective social media strategy.

As many businesses are yet to learn, investing in a social media strategy is as important as a marketing or customer satisfaction strategy. There needs to be clear direction and objectives – meaning that fans need to know that you’re on Facebook to do more than just service their complaints.

Fashion label Louis Vuitton has a brilliant social media presence because customers know the Louis Vuitton Facebook page is their virtual ticket to becoming a VIP customer. The Facebook page will live stream store openings, host virtual runways and reveal never-been-seen exclusive content. Customers head to the Louis Vuitton Facebook page to indulge in their love for the brand – not to ask for available dress sizes or complain about faulty bags.

Strategies like Louis Vuitton’s ensures that not only are you in a position to regularly engage your customers, but also your organisation’s resources are being used most effectively. Your PR and marketing team that handles social media may not have access to product specifications or stock levels, so every time a customer service comment is posted on Facebook that customer is wasting time for your staff – who have to resolve the issue internally before satisfying the customer. On the other hand, if your customers know that Facebook is the place to seek inspiration for their next dinner party or outfit choice then your social media team can devote their energy to making sure your page looks great and is always full of new, interesting content.

Talk of a social media strategy may seem slightly removed from the topic at hand – customer service – but it is intrinsically linked, because how you manage your social media platforms will directly impact the way your customers will expect to be serviced online. Further, customers who have a good experience on social media are likely to tell an average of 42 people about your business, versus the 15 people told by a non-social media user. More than just customer service, this is how you will build a network of consumer advocates and, ideally, reach new audiences.

The recommendation is simple: view social media as the incentive to be a better business. Companies are being found increasingly accountable for their mistakes, so hopefully there will be more energy devoted to avoiding disappointment. Good service, on the other hand, is more recognised and appreciated than ever.

Tips for Customer Service in Social media

Pre-empting customer needs should be a focus for any business and by listening to the gripes within your industry on social media you can prepare for any potential issues. Follow competitors and monitor the feedback they are receiving. Take note of what your customers are loving and don’t ignore the problems they are facing – almost all problems have the capacity to become recurring issues.

2.Build your relationships before you need them.
It’s much easier to forgive a friend than a stranger, so make sure to use social media as an opportunity to grow the personality behind your business and build relationships with your customers. One of the first steps is to always respond to your fans or followers, whether their comments are positive or negative. Humanising your brand will often encourage complaining customers to behave with more compassion.

3.Take serious issues offline
It is important that you are always seen to be responding to complaints online, but that’s not to say that everyone needs to know the details of what went wrong and how you’re going to fix it. If there is a crisis, address the situation broadly in the open forum but take it to a private place (direct message, email or a phone call) before it escalates.

4.Social media strategy so that you don’t just become a CRM
Social media is about building a community around your brand and connecting directly with your customers. Your Facebook page or Twitter feed should be a place for sharing news, adding insights and delighting your audience. Naturally, some people will use these avenues to vent their frustrations with your brand, but if you establish a greater purpose for your platform then less people will feel comfortable dumping their complaints there.
5. Reward your best fans
A successful social media community is one that manages itself. It’s when an audience feels so connected to a brand or organization that they see it as their duty to defend it against others. It will take time and careful nurturing to get to this stage with your online community, but one way to fast track this process is to reward your best fans. Build and encourage consumer advocates by recognising those who have gone out of their way to appreciate your brand – send them a nice thank you email, a voucher, or a prize if you can. This will galvanise their support for you.

Remember, you must not:

Removing complaints from your Facebook timeline does not remove the issue and in most cases it will only fuel the fire. There have been many documented social media disasters that started by a brand deleting unwanted feedback.

If a customer came up to your store counter and asked a question or offered some feedback, would you simply turn around and pretend not to hear? No. That would be rude and unacceptable and it is just the same online. Always acknowledge those who have made the effort to engage with your brand online, if nothing more, it is the polite thing to do (and an easy way to deliver good service).

3. Promise what you cannot deliver
Never promise anything online unless you are sure that you can make it happen. Even if you later retract your own comment, it’s impossible to guarantee that no record has been kept.

Margarita Peker is a communications specialist at Klick Communications.