Social-media platforms provide small businesses with the power to solicit customer feedback, and even defuse customer complaints, at low to no cost. As useful as these sites can be, a Twitter or Facebook account saddles you with a responsibility that, if ignored, can damage your brand’s reputation or your rapport with customers.
A social-media account lets customers circumvent your official customer-service channels. If customers are frustrated with your product or service, they may go straight to your Facebook page. And once they’ve posted a complaint or concern, fans expect you to respond to it immediately. According to a 2012 study commissioned by Oracle Retail, 81% of Twitter users expect a same-day response to their queries. In this story for the Wall Street Journal, HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes asserts that to keep client rants from going viral, fast action is critical. “Rather than having to obediently wait on helplines or for email support, consumers can now shout on social channels and be heard by a mass audience, instantly,” writes Holmes.
Erin Bury, who is with Toronto-based digital marketing and design agency 88 Creative, warns that one angry customer doesn’t represent just one tweet: “They often involve their friends and followers, some of whom likely share the same sentiment.”
That’s exactly what happened to British Airways. Last autumn, the airline lost several pieces of businessman Hasan Syed’s luggage, a relatively minor offense. But when he reached out for help via formal customer-service channels and got no response, Syed turned to Twitter. He paid an estimated $1,000 to send this promoted tweet: “Don’t fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous.” According to Holmes, it took British Airways 10 hours to notice and address the complaint. By then, it has already been retweeted thousands of times and picked up by popular tech news websites. After just a few days, stories about the incident have run everywhere from the BBC to Fox News.
Bury admits: “Every digital strategist, CMO and community manager lives in fear of the dreaded vitriolic customer complaint on social media.”
So, how do small businesses with limited resources avoid this mess?
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Jennifer Evans, co-founder and CEO of Toronto content marketing measurement consultancy SqueezeCMM, says, “The reality is that social media never sleeps, and you can be as real-time informed as you choose to be.” She advises small-business owners to install Twitter’s app on their smartphones and set alerts for any mentions or direct messages. Using a media monitoring service such as Google Alerts helps to let you know when you’ve been mentioned online. You also can leave a running search for keywords related to your company on Twitter and automate other alerts through services such as ifttt.com.
Bury adds that if you’ve set up alerts in social-media management dashboards like HootSuite or TweetDeck, you’ll need to cast a wide net. In addition to your Twitter handle, set up alerts for your brand name—and even misspellings of your brand name—to catch every comment or complaint.
Holmes argues that this responsibility should actually fall to every member of an organization, not just the business owner or marketing staff. “Surely some of British Airways’ staff stumbled across that paid rant on Twitter before it went viral,” reasons Holmes. “But I’m guessing that customer service just ‘wasn’t their job,’ so they may have simply ignored it.” Holmes says this happened so often at HootSuite that the company’s engineers developed a tool that let anyone “assign” a Tweet to anyone else for followup.
But if your entire staff has been mandated to monitor social media, how can you control what they’re telling the world about your company?
“In terms of employees, here’s our policy: use common sense,” says Evans. “The key is making sure people feel heard. If you’re not confident you know how to respond, ask. Someone’s judgment will be as good in social media as it is off it, generally speaking.”
Feeling like you may as well just avoid social-media channels altogether if it’s all angry customers and trash talk? It’s not all damage control. Catherine Graham, CEO of web-based business-management platform commonsku, says it’s also important to monitor social media for positive feedback: “It’s equally important to thank the client who said something nice about you as it is to pacify the ranter.”
Special Report: How to Connect With Customers Through Social Media