Why Social Media is Not Customer Service

April 22, 2010
By Rhea Drysdale in Reputation Management

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.

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