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Social Media and Customer Service: Be Prepared

We get calls, emails, RFPs and referrals on a pretty regular basis (December, by the way, was THE month that everyone wanted to talk social media). Whether the call comes from the marketing director, the business owner or a freelancer already working with the company, they all want to know about marketing in the social media realm.

Generally, they don’t actually say that. But they assume that social media for business = marketing. Some know or have an idea that social media can facilitate actual lead generation and/or sales. But that’s it. We remind them that social media is as much for retaining the customers you’ve got as it is for attracting new ones.

Our initial conversations then ALWAYS include discussion about customer service. And that can be a bit difficult for the marketing team in a compartmentalized company to grasp at times. And I don’t mean that in any judgmental or demeaning way at all. Until this point in history, those two departments – marketing and customer service – have been very separate.

Now, most companies we talk with understand, at some level, that entry into the world of social media “opens” the company to the potential for negative responses from the public-at-large. In fact, this is one of the biggest fears of the traditionalists in most companies – losing control of the message.

Once we get through to the naysayers the idea that the negative comments will exist whether the company participates or not – and wouldn’t it be better if the company could actually engage the commenters and take part in the conversation? – we still have to put the appropriate mechanisms in place to handle any potential customer service issues that arise. And we have to do it BEFORE those issues do arise.

We ask questions (depending on the nature of the business) like:

  • Does your company have an organized customer service process or protocol in place?
  • Who are the players in your company and which personnel can handle which types of customer complaints?
  • Should the salesperson be notified in addition to the logistics personnel or customer service personnel?
  • Does the company use CRM (customer relationship management) or BPM (business process management) software to log and track customers, sales and complaints?

Whatever the practice, make sure everyone involved in your social media efforts understands it.

More questions:

  • Does your company have a crisis communications protocol? Why not?
  • Do we need to retain and collaborate with a PR professional to create such a plan?
  • How do we identify a crisis?
  • Who is involved in handling it and does everyone on the team know how to reach the necessary personnel in the event of a crisis?

You may not be able to envision what a crisis looks like now – but you don’t want to delay your corporate response when one happens trying to figure this all out.

After those discussions take place, we’re ready to begin. It starts, then, with effective monitoring (actually, it starts with quality customer service professionals at the company-level – but I’m not HR). Whether the company is large enough to warrant the expense of paid monitoring services (many of which are stellar and full of some amazingly robust features) or the company is small enough that a small grouping of free services can be used, anyone in the social media space must be monitoring it for direct engagement and indirect mentions.

On Facebook, this means looking at Wall posts, post comments, photo comments, Places comments and Community Page updates. On Twitter, this means finding not only posts with your company’s profile name but also posts mentioning the company with the “@” symbol (which posts won’t show up in your “Mentions”), posts mentioning your product and posts with other identified, relevant keywords. Across the web, several other services can track your company’s mentions on websites, consumer review sites, blogs and blog comments.

Some companies create their social media team with personnel from many departments, including customer service. Other companies leave social media in the hands of the marketing team. Others still may outsource community management and/or monitoring to an outside agency.

Whatever your company’s situation, everyone involved must collaborate on the back end to create a seamless process, a flowchart, for how to handle customer service issues. And everyone in the flowchart must be made aware of the expectations placed upon them with regard to the social media-generated complaints. And it must be prompt – because time and angry customers wait for no one in the world of social media.

The bottom line is this: social media for businesses is about marketing – and lead generation and sales and reputation management AND customer service. YOU can’t decide that it’s going to be about only one or two things in that list. Your customers will decide for you. So you’d better be ready.

We’ve got some terrific social media customer service stories to tell. They’re too long to include in this post – but stay tuned (spoiler: they all have happy endings…).

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