Why Social Media is Not Customer Service


Reputation management problems often exist because of a significant communication breakdown. A confused consumer could not get in touch with an informed (or caring) representative, a product’s limitations were hidden in the fine print, expectations were not clearly defined prior to the start of a project, etc. All of those situations stem from poor communication and are entirely avoidable. I already wrote the Online Reputation Management Guide, which can help companies recover from a problem, but how do you avoid the problem in the first place?

In an attempt to trim costly customer service budgets, many companies have turned to offshore outsourcing of their help centers. In 2005 Gartner published, “Five Reasons Why Offshore Deals Go Bust” and in 2008 they published what should have been common sense to many, but apparently was not, “Customer Satisfaction is Key When Determining Offshore Outsourcing Options.” When your offshore or outsourced customer service solution fails to meet the needs of the customer, how is the cost to your brand being measured? How are you measuring your community and are you tracking the right metrics?

I recently had a personal experience with a hosting company’s clearly offshore’d customer service department. I contacted their call center for help with a rather technical problem. I was told after some button pushing that the problem was fixed. Guess what? It was not fixed, in fact a new problem existed!

The customer service rep did not have the training needed to help me and rather than put me in touch with someone who did, they stuck to a script repeating that the “problem was now fixed.” This is when I started to feel insane. Making your customers feel insane does not help your brand. It enrages them, they look for a new service and, during the process, they tell everyone they know how horrible you are.

Unfortunately, the story did not end there. Life happened and I did not move host providers as the Web site was not a priority in my life at the time. Unfortunately, I did not realize that there was a gaping security hole that allowed a hacker to install malware. In a moment of desperation I reached out once more to the host provider this time through their online help center. I received no response. I gave up and tweeted about it. Later that night, the company’s Twitter account asked how they could help. My response — stop tweeting, find my support ticket and fix the problem!

Lisa already told you that Twitter won’t make you suck less, but companies still aren’t getting it. Customer service departments aren’t coordinating their efforts with marketing. Social media gets delegated to marketing interns while outsourced, understaffed or poorly educated customer service teams have to handle a backlog of support tickets and calls.

What is social media teaching your customers?! On-site customer service won’t get the job done, but screaming about us on social networks will!

Whoa. That’s a big deal. Companies thought social media was going to help them improve their online reputation, but until they fix the core problem, they are actually adding fuel to the fire. Do not get me wrong, I was excited that the company saw my tweet and eventually helped fix the problem, but how discouraging is it to know that without my powerful Twitter account, I would have never received adequate customer service? New priority for the weekend — switch hosts.

I wanted this post to be a bitch fest, but I also wanted to leave you with actionable suggestions. So, what can companies do to help improve their online reputations through customer service?

Be Accessible

Your contact information should appear on your Web site and be easily accessible. Put it in the footer, your meta description, your contact page, on 404 pages, etc. It also helps if your information is correct! It is easy to make a small typo and disastrous to the brand if it happens with your contact information, so get it right. In addition to contact information, provide your hours of operation, so that customers understand when they can reach a real person. If an online form is the only way to reach you, make sure it is being delivered to the appropriate department and answered in a timely manner.

Keep track of the questions you get and setup a FAQ page. Create video tutorials with Techsmith for complicated or confusing products and services. Have you customized your 404 page yet? If a user cannot find what they need, include contact information and a link to your HTML site map. Oh yeah, create an HTML site map! This is not just a tool for search engines. Finally, make sure your on-site search works. Some users use navigation, but a good number still rely on on-site search to immediately point them in the direction of what they need, so make sure you get the most from on-site search.

Understand User Behavior

Years ago I had the honor of watching through a one-sided mirror as volunteers in our target demographic were instructed to find a particular item on our Web site. The results were surprising and hilarious. As an employee, you are familiar with your site, company policies, products, etc. You know where to find information and what your Web site’s kinks are. Your users do not and you need to do usability testing to understand areas that need improvement.

Educate yourself on how to use Web analytics. Analyze your site’s goals, funnels and exit rates. Use a service like Crazy Egg to see what users are clicking on. Use Google Website Optimizer to test user satisfaction.

Listen to Your Community

If you have a blog with comments enabled, I guarantee that your community is giving you advice about what they would like to see improved with your products or services. Whether the comments are relevant to the blog post does not matter, thank them for the feedback, prioritize it and get to work.

Depending on your Web site’s platform, you might be able to easily add a forum. For some industries, forums are a great tool since the community wants to manage conversations themselves. If your site lends itself to that, look into services like phpBB, Wetpaint or PBworks.

You can also set up product or service reviews or a rating system. Adding reviews to your site gives users a voice, adds unique content to your Web pages(!) and helps you collect vital information about the quality of your products or services.

Ask Your Community

There are some fantastic and cheap services like SurveyMonkey and Polldaddy that make it easy for you to setup, send and measure community feedback. Strapped for cash? You could even setup a Google Form on a landing page then track results in a Google Spreadsheet. It’s nifty and free.

Community-Powered Customer Service

This is an area that seems to terrify many businesses. What brands do not realize is that anyone can create a customer service page on a site like Get Satisfaction and it would be a heck of a lot better for your online reputation if you were involved in the conversation. Rather than waiting for individual support tickets to roll in and responding when you have the time, let the community help power responses, prioritize issues and alert you to bugs or policy issues. You can use some fantastic services like Get Satisfaction, Suggestion Box or UserVoice. As of this week, Get Satisfaction integrates with Facebook pages. Now you can put a support tab on your page and move those questions off of your wall and into a customized and easily managed area.

In today’s digital world, there is no excuse for poor customer service. Social media cannot replace this pillar of good business, but it can complement it. Make sure you are effectively communicating with your users, listening to their concerns and working towards a solution. Customer service IS the backbone of a strong online brand and positive reputation.

Your Comments

  • Ross Hudgens

    I agree totally. I recently wrote something like this in the same vain about Comcast, but you do a better job and provide clear action items for improvement.

    The quicker to near-instant answers I get, the happier I’ll be. Social Media still creates a delay from the lack of thoroughness you can provide with 140 characters. When corporations start understanding this, they’ll start to retain my business.

  • Jeremy Martin

    Great post Rhea. I was actually just talking to my wife about this because her company has the same problem. They have marketing team run the social media but there is no communication between customer service and marketing so things slip through the crack a lot. Great point that social media does not make you a better business or replace customer service, you still need to manage your reputation by taking care of your customers.


  • Daniel

    I almost don’t want to comment because of how seriously I take this issue. I’ve been labeled an idealist because I want companies to handle their business properly. So be it. I’m an idealist.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      I’m totally not an idealist… $17k spent to stop the trademark registration of SEO. Yep, not an insane idealist at all. You’re in good company, feel free to let your idealist freak flag fly. After all, we ARE outspoken here.

  • netmeg

    This is an ongoing sore point with me. I’m always ranting on WMW, on FB or on Twitter about how customer service is going to hell in a hand-basket. The social media aspect is just latest band-aid that so many companies are trying to put on a gaping wound.

    It doesn’t do a bit of good to put a warm body in place if that warm body is not in a position to help. It *ultimately hurts your brand*. I don’t know anyone, if asked, who would rather talk to an outsourced call center than an actual employee of the company who has the knowledge, the skills, and the authority to make things right. You’re saving pennies this month but losing dollars over time. The ideal situation is not to NEED a Twitter account for customer service, because you’ve prevented or handled the issues before they get to the point where someone has to monitor for complaints on Twitter. I beat my head against the wall till it’s bloody trying to convince clients and vendors (looking at you, Google) of this. I’m the one who needs the band-aid.

    • netmeg

      Here I am replying to my own comment; that’s how worked up I get about this. I mentioned Google above. That’s a prime example. I’ve been an AdWords customer (on behalf of clients) since AdWords started. I have some pretty large spends under my control. I have always had gold star access to support. But little by little, over the years, AdWords has cut back on their one-on-one support – even for the largest advertisers – in favor of their forums and Google Groups. Now you can’t even reach someone on the phone if you need to.

      Now, I have some super secret contact ties, and I actually live in the same city as most of AdWords, so if necessary I could go down there with a big bass drum and walk up and down in front of the building till they listen to me, BUT I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO DO THAT.

      It’s impossible to get an answer on a question or problem in less than 48 hours, without making a nuisance of myself and risking not having anyone to go to when or if something serious needs attention. I don’t want to be herded into a forum to ask a question that may or may not get answered.

      AdWords had Twitter presence, but it’s pretty much dwindled over the months. Mostly it’s only announcements of blog posts, and general questions being answered.

      If you want a prime example of someone doing it wrong, you need look no further than Google.

      • Rhea Drysdale

        The kraken hath been released. There’s nothing more frustrating than using tools like forums and groups at the expense of real communication. Those should be areas of learning for newbies, a place for brand evangelists to talk amongst themselves, a place to inform company reps, but it absolutely should not replace traditional customer service. Don’t get me started on Google. I love the Web Spam team, they’re real and they listen. YouTube? That’s another infuriating story. It’s interesting to see such different approaches across the brand.

  • finn

    You’re so unbelievably full of sh**, Rhea.

    I use to be big, huge, a God. God, I made Gods look like peons.

    And I did it with Social Media, a coke AND a smile.

    I used to run a liquor store on the corner of 17th and Vine. Fair prices, little poker game in the back.

    Till the cops got me. Apparently, 21 is the REAL drinking age. I told them it wasn’t very European of them.

    While I was in prison, the chaplain tried to steer me right. I learned the language, talked the talk,

    But try as I might, the parole board wouldn’t set me free. B******s.

    That’s when I saw the light. Just a flicker, but even a spark during “lights out” shines like a beacon in the night.

    As it did for me.

    Night after night I would see that flicker, just for brief moments. After weeks of watching out, tuning my eyes to the darkness, I found the cell from where the flicker came.

    His name was Vince. His girl smuggled him a cell phone in an unmentionable place. He was charging his phone through the outlet in his room. Guards always looked the other way for a fin.

    Yeah, I threatened to rat Vince out. You shoulda’ seen him. Fear in his eyes, crystallizing into panic until finally he cracked,

    “It’s not what you think, Finn. It’ll set you free.”

    I believed him. Porn was hard to get in the penn with the economy the way it was.

    “It’s this new thing, it’s called Twitter, everybody’s doin’ it. I heard from Shaquille O’Neal last night. He spoke. Shaq spoke, to…ME. Finn. Shaq spoke to me!”

    And then he showed me his Twitter. And at that moment, the emptiness inside me was filled with a love I’d never felt before.

    So, yeah, I had to go to indescribable depths to get my own phone. But this jailbird got to tweet. Within two months, I found a lawyer who looked over my case, found a loophole, and had me freed in time for SXSW ’09.

    And now I’m writing on your blog.

    So don’t you go saying Social Media can’t do customer service. Social Media has changed presidential elections. Social Media restored freedom in Iraq. Social Media shaped the political campaign.

    Social Media can set men free.

    Customer Service? Seriously? Social Media gets their shoes shined by Customer Service, and Customer Service does it with a smile.

    Welcome to my resurrection! Bitch

    (AKA – :-p – good sh**, Rhea!)

  • Kristin

    Rhea –
    I ran into this with my hosting company not too long ago, their support tickets would take days to be answered but the second I “bitched” about it on Twitter I had someone contact me immediately… when i asked them for help, they said to email someone completely different… Unfortunately in the end i wound up with two different service tickets and transferred hosts!

    It is nice to see that the company cares (no pun on comcast there) that they’re interacting but at the same time I agree, they need to communicate better with each other.

    Great post! I know so many people who have been in similar situations!

  • Maranda GIbson

    “Companies thought social media was going to help them improve their online reputation, but until they fix the core problem, they are actually adding fuel to the fire.” I don’t think a lot of companies realize how crucial this is. They can contact me via Twitter or Facebook and while we rush to embrace these news forms of communication we forget that the “old school” ways of doing things still works.

    Nothing is ever going to take the place of great customer service on the other end of the phone, not just on the other end of a keyboard.

  • Nathan Hangen

    I had to read this one twice, which is a good thing.

    Very thorough advice, and I agree about the Twitter screaming. I hate doing it, but why does it work so well? Why do they care on Twitter and nowhere else?

    Because we are the voices and we scream loudly?


  • Andrew@BloggingGuide

    Companies should really look into this. Why do they have to outsource if they can do it via twitter?

  • Stephen Hyder

    I have worked in the customer service field for over twenty years now. It always saddens me when a company won’t provide good customer service until a public spotlight is shined on them. Even though I think it’s sad that it works this way, I am excited, as a customer service enthusiast, that social media is forcing companies to ramp up their customer service responses and practices.

    It’s frustrating when your job is to provide issue resolution for your customers, but resources and training aren’t provided to make sure you can do it properly. Many companies see customer service as a low end, or low skill, job that can be done well by anyone that has at least a semi-decent grasp of speaking in whole sentences. Therefore, they hire just about anybody thinking that anyone can be trained to do the job. This just isn’t true.

    I worked in a major call center for a large bank. I cringed almost daily at the way in which many of the reps communicated with the customers. Even if the original issue was resolved, the bad interactions with the reps had impact on customer loyalty. It would have been better for the company, in the long run, to set the bar higher and pay a little more for quality reps. Good customer service reps do impact future company earnings as they show the customer that they are valued by quick and proper resolution of issues.

    If Twitter can help consumers receive better customer service by always keeping the spotlight on these companies, that’s great! We’ll eventually know which companies have responded the best by how little we here about their issues on the web :)

  • Claudia Guzman

    Great article. I totally agree also with the article. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Elyse DeVries

    Hi Rhea,

    Great post! To spring-board off of Ross’s comment about his blog post, I actually had an interesting social media customer service experience recently. After trying unsuccessfully for a couple of weeks to fix a problem via the Comcast phone trees, I finally looked up @comcastcares and sent a message to the email listed on their account. Wow, what a difference. The attention I received was phenomenal… I couldn’t believe the speed and the thoroughness of the response. I don’t think I’m going to go the phone-tree route again.

    To be fair, I did tweet about the problem initially and did not receive a response from Comcast, but frankly I was just happy that social media led me to another, more efficient way to solve the problem. However, my experience would have been better if I hadn’t had to waste all that time trying to get help via the phones. So I second your point here: “Social media cannot replace this pillar of good business, but it can complement it.”

    Using social media and social media monitoring to manage customer service is definitely tough, but some companies ARE improving their customer’s experience through social media. Hopefully, they will also use this opportunity to listen to their customer’s frustrations and improve their processes.

    Incidentally, my company is currently running an ROI of Social Media series right now and our topic for May is Social Customer Service. We are hosting a free webinar on social media customer service next week – in case anyone here interested in further exploration of the topic.


    Elyse DeVries
    Marketing Specialist, Alterian

  • Lindsey Sulley

    Great post Rhea, lots to think about! Thanks for the link to crazy egg, i’m going to give it a try later.

  • Austin

    Social media is a great marketing tool, but I think people put too much importance in it. Some people live on social media sites, but many people haven’t even been on one. You have to tailor your services to your target market, not just focus on a small portion of it.

  • Jimmy

    my hosting server site does not provide much support from twitter or facebook account but there complaint cell phone is very efficient and works actively even without receiving a message from someone’s twitter account.

  • brian

    I find it hard to gain lots of traffic from social site. I guess there good for backling as well

  • Vernon

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. While social media is great, it is certainly not a replacement for customer service. I think when social media is used properly, it can enhance the overall customer service experience. Having a plan in place on how utilize the social media tools available is the best bet.

    Great Post!

  • Maisie Kersch

    Thanks for the excellent writing. It is nice to finally read someone that can entertain with words.

  • Jason Scott

    Great article, I agree with the fact that 140 characters simply isn’t enough to answer the majority of customer queries.