Micah Solomon, a customer-service and marketing strategist, and author of the forthcoming book, "High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service," says social media is changing the way customer service is delivered.
How has customer service changed in the era of social media and online connectivity?
How a company should provide service in our technologically altered world isn't a fundamentally different proposition than it was five years ago, but it's faster. It's more transparent, more unforgiving. To keep up, I encourage the companies I work with to bone up on the following new guidelines for working with today's customers:
Serve them fast • As far as speed, your business isn't just competing against others in your industry. You're competing against expectations created by Amazon.com, Starbucks and smartphones that offer instant opinions from experts, and more. No matter how otherwise perfect your product is, in the eyes of the customer it's broken if you deliver it late.
Shoulder your customers' burdens • Companies thriving today realize that what reasonably could be considered a customer responsibility is now a great opportunity to take something on themselves. This is why your bank is telling you when your mortgage payment is due, your pharmacy reminds you that it's time to refill your prescription to avoid running low on medication, and your credit card issuer alerts you that your bill is looming.
Accept that the balance of power has shifted • To build customer loyalty, you first need to accept that your customers feel newly empowered in their relationships with companies. They expect businesses to respect that sense of empowerment, and they lash out at those that don't. Specifically, they expect that your company will make itself easy to contact and will respond to their comments at a high and thoughtful level. Which I suggest you do, because customer feedback will be offered, whether you welcome it or not.
What can businesses do to address online complainers?
In the old days (say, three years ago), a manager usually had a chance to take a disgruntled customer aside and work things out in person. But online, and especially in the social media arena, things are much more public, fast-paced and, frankly, scary for those in business. Realize that digital arguments with customers are an exponentially losing proposition. So, you need to learn to bite your tongue and think of the future of your company. A lot. Breathe, slow down, and, above all, avoid reacting in anger. In addition, reach out directly to online complainers. Be sure you can respond in a considered, positive manner. If the complainer follows you on Twitter, that makes you able to send a direct message so do it. Include a direct email address and direct phone number. If, however, the complainer isn't one of your followers, you'll need to figure out another way to make contact. How about replying publicly, on Twitter, listing your email address and expressing your chagrin and concern? By doing so, you have a good chance to move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation.
Avoid the fiasco formula, which is Small Error + Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster. Be aware that a negative event in the online world can gather social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident. A day's lag in responding can be too much. Minimize the likelihood of public social media complaints in the first place. If your friend saw you had your fly undone, would he tweet about it? No, he'd quietly tell you. In this same spirit, why should unhappy customers complain indirectly via Twitter or their blogs when they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form on your website and know that it will be answered immediately and with empathy?
Twitter@DawnHouseTrib Micah Solomon, author