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Fixing Customer Complaints in a World Gone Social

By Christopher J. Bucholtz
Aug 16, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Henry David Thoreau's quiet wisdom is best exemplified by sayings like, "in all things, simplicity." That's a nice credo to live by -- but it may be a hard one to fully embrace if you're trying to provide great customer service these days.

Fixing Customer Complaints in a World Gone Social

After all, if you work in service, you have customers coming at you through a wider variety of channels than ever before. The phone is still No. 1 in terms of use, but when you add SMS, email and chat, you have an exponentially more difficult service puzzle to solve.

Social media channels like Twitter and Facebook create another wrinkle: They give customers the ability to air their complaints in public, essentially calling out your company in front of the entire world.

Rewarding Squeaky Wheels

This phenomenon has triggered a variety of responses, as discussions at CRM Evolution in New York demonstrated this week. The way companies look at social media service requests is a great method for reinforcing bad customer behavior, observed the ever-pragmatic Esteban Kolsky, principal of ThinkJar.

Due to the public nature of social media, companies are perhaps too eager to provide answers and assistance to people complaining on Twitter or Facebook. By hurriedly moving to pacify these customers before their posts are widely seen and may cause greater damage, businesses are training customers to bypass traditional service channels.

Essentially, "the loudest yeller gets the best service," Kolsky said. And that, we can all agree, is not the best customer behavior to encourage. Sadly, because so many organizations have broken service processes, it's often the method most likely to get results.

In the same panel discussion, social media analyst Natalie Petouhoff offered a solution: "Raise the bar on service for everyone."

That advice is on target -- but raising the bar is easier said than done -- and that's partly due to the nature of social media. Businesses have added email, chat and SMS to the phone in a set of incremental moves; these moves were made easier by the fact that all of these media are generally similar and are based on one-to-one conversations.

Social is totally different -- it's a one-to-one-to-many conversation. It's revolutionary, while earlier forms of communication have been evolutionary.

That's why social media-based service approaches are usually layered over existing service operations -- it's not yet well understood how to integrate them to provide a consistent approach across all channels.

Also, social media is often in the realm of marketing rather than the territory of service, putting yet another layer between social efforts and the core service operations. When that happens, service inquiries through some channels invariably result in better outcomes than do others.

Fix the Problem - Don't Relocate It

What's the answer? How do you avoid training customers to make social media their first stop when they're dissatisfied with your products or services? You don't abandon social media; what you should abandon is the mindset that's led to those traditional one-to-one channels becoming unsatisfying for many customers.

Stop thinking about these service functionalities as a necessary evils and start thinking about repairing them with the same mindset you apply to social media service requests.

Consider this: You rush to react to negative comments on social media because you're afraid of the widespread visibility they have and how they could color potential customers' views of your business. But running customers through ineffective service processes has the same result -- the likely loss of a customer.

And that customer may well use non-technological social networking methods (i.e., word of mouth) to complain not just about the initial problem but about your poor response to it.

The reach may not be as great as in social media, but the numbers show many more people attempt to use the telephone and other one-to-one channels -- so the numbers of people influenced by the comments of unhappy customers are approximately equal.

What are customers getting from social media service requests? They're getting responsiveness, quick action and rapid resolution. This is not something that service organizations should reserve for people who are eager to go to social media. They're things that should be provided to every customer in need.

Another factor: The agents tasked with responding to social media often are more empowered to solve problems than colleagues responding to more traditional channels. That guarantees that the public complainers are more satisfied -- and that more customers take the social media route to try to gain satisfaction.

All businesses would prefer to have service issues handled quietly, effectively and out of the view of social media. If you aren't willing to invest sufficient thought and resources into making one-to-one channels as effective at resolving service issues as social media channels, you're training your customers to air your dirty laundry in public.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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