In the ‘good old days’, companies could contain, if not completely hide, most of their customers’ frustrations as a result of poor customer experience. Not any more.
Customers are now controlling the conversation around customer service. Social media outlets have given them big megaphones to voice their frustrations to an increasingly connected population.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others are rife with customer service stories – most of them negative – and this is having real game-changing consequences for many companies.
Guy Tweedale looks at the upsides and downsides of this new trend.
1. It levels the playing field
The number of channels available for consumers to communicate with their suppliers has continued to grow: phone call, text, chat, email, and website. But for all those channels the balance of power in the relationship still tipped towards the company rather than the consumer.
With the rise of social media consumers can see that the balance of power is now starting to tip in their favour, which has increased consumers’ confidence when dealing with companies.
Companies should see this as an opportunity because, as many companies have discovered, confident consumers are not necessarily high maintenance; they can be very loyal when treated well.
2. Makes consumers more informed
The advent of the internet has dramatically increased the amount of information readily available to consumers, which has significantly changed the way people buy, particularly for expensive products.
Initially that information was usually written by the companies selling those products and could be viewed with some cynicism and mistrust. Over time, more companies followed the likes of Amazon, putting user ratings and reviews on their sites.
Now, social media has taken this a number of steps further, giving greater access to even more peer-generated information to a greater number of people, with consumers openly sharing their likes, dislikes and experiences with companies and products.
While in the past we could ask friends and family for a recommendation on a new camera, for example, social media allows us to get dozens of recommendations on cameras very quickly. For example, a colleague of mine mentioned on Facebook that she was investigating different laptop models. Within an hour, she had seven models recommended to her and a stern warning against another model. It is true that these recommendations are filtered and influenced by personal circumstances and should be read with care, but these are real users sharing their real-life experiences and thoughts, which can be very helpful to consider prior to making big purchasing decisions.
What should companies do?
First and foremost, they must ensure that they continue to improve the quality of the products and services they offer. Recent research we conducted in Europe showed that the most likely reason people contact an organisation is because of an error made by the company in areas such as billing, technical issues, problems with delivery, or a missed service call.
When customers do call, customer service agents are now dealing with a more knowledgeable customer base, customers who also expect the agents to be knowledgeable and able to answer questions and resolve issues quickly and easily.
3. Far less frustrated consumers
Did the heading of this section shock you? It’s understandable if it did, because the negative customer service stories in the social media sphere are given so much more attention than the positive ones. A vent of frustration for many, social media can also actually help consumers to feel they are more connected and informed.
The more social-media-savvy companies are encouraging their customers to follow them on Twitter, become fans on Facebook and to read and contribute to their blogs – they are trying to be wherever their customers want them to be, communicating with them there in the way and form demanded. This keeps customers up to date and engaged and, especially from a customer-service perspective, reassured that their issues are reported and being resolved.
Further, the instant gratification that comes from having the ability to vent to a company via Twitter and get a tweet back with an updated response is comforting and can reduce frustration, anxiety and the urge to damage a company’s reputation in the Twittersphere.
4. Authenticity in customer experience
Social media in its current guise has an almost organic feel to it, and an authenticity that other channels do not have. It feels personal and unbiased, not corporate and controlled (even if it is). Companies should harness that power and use it to develop better relationships with customers. Social media channels also provide more opportunities to make customers feel good.
When customers join certain social media sites, they are suddenly “premium” members. Top tweeters see their tweets come up on the home page. The insinuation of exceptional status reassures customers that they are special. In fact, a recent article I read reported that tweeters believe that they are higher priority than other customers when complaining about customer service issues.
If they think they’re special, they expect companies to agree… and to see to it that their issues are handled quickly and effectively. So, yes, customers feel good but they also have much higher expectations, which companies must meet.
5. Customer service is (finally) a higher priority in the boardroom
Social media has democratised customer service in another way as well, and that’s with the executive office.
Elevating and prioritising customer service is a favourite catchphrase in executive speeches and in annual reports, but we all know that for many companies it’s traditionally been viewed as a place to cut costs, not invest in. We also know executives are famous for viewing their own customer service efforts and results through rose-coloured glasses. Senior executives are finally realising that it is not enough just to balance the cost of adding more customer service reps against irritating some customers. It is about preventing real damage to the brand.
Customer complaints are no longer just in the realm of customer service; they’re now part of the corporate world of branding and reputation management. And that is because social media is forcing these executives to pay attention.
It is too early to see the entirety of the impact social media will ultimately have on customer service. Like with any new channel, there are upsides and downsides, many of which we have yet to discover. The democratisation of customer service has begun.
Guy Tweedale is Senior Vice President, European Operations of Jacada (www.jacada.com)