Where Customer Service Goes to Die
Social customer service has now become a key point of contact between brands and their customers. Consumers, particularly within the Millennial demographic, take to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks when they have a problem with a company.
Sixty percent of 18-24 year olds go to social media when they have an issue. Companies have been quick to respond to this shift in customer behavior: Of the top 100 internet retailers, 80 percent now respond to customers on Facebook and Twitter.
CMOs are sinking huge resources into staffing social media channels to prevent customer complaints from turning into horror stories trending on Twitter. However, is social customer service a smart long-term strategy for companies?
Consider the purpose of social media: It is fundamentally a broadcast channel. It is an open forum where customers go to express their praise or criticism to the largest possible audience. In the case of a complaint, Twitter and Facebook are often the final points of desperation to get someone to pay attention.
The truth is that by the time a customer takes to social media, it is already too late and the reputational damage to the company has already begun with the potential to wreak havoc. A smarter strategy would be for companies to invest in providing better information via their website or call center, because these are still the first places that customers turn when they need to find an answer or a solution to a problem.
'United Breaks Guitars'
By now, everyone has heard the story of David Carroll's terrible experience after United Airlines broke his guitar. In 2008, Carroll wrote a song called "United Breaks Guitars" that became a YouTube sensation. After one day, the song had already been viewed 150,000 times and after four days, United's stock price had dropped by 10 percent. Today, five years later, the video has accumulated more than 13 million views, and people are still watching it.
While this horror story made companies anxious to develop better strategies for dealing with their social media properties, what people don't often realize is that Carroll spent a substantial amount of time and energy trying to resolve the issue directly with United, through the company's customer service center and website.
In total, Carroll spent nine months trying to resolve the problem through the company's own channels, and it was only when he had reached the end of his tether that he decided to take his complaint to the public forum of YouTube.
Carroll's experience was particularly dramatic, but it represents the everyday experiences of many other consumers. In fact, I personally had a telling experience with social customer service just last week.
Like a Charm
On Saturday, my wife and I were looking forward to going to a concert, but hours before the event was about to start, we still had not received our e-tickets. I called the ticket office four times but was never directed to a human being. I sent several emails on the "contact us" form on the company's Web page but received no response. In a final act of frustration, I tweeted my complaint about the concert tickets, including the supplier's hashtag, and received a response within 30 minutes.
In both my case and Carroll's, companies appear to be rewarding customers when they take their complaints to social media by responding quickly to solve the issue. This is problematic for several reasons. It sends the message that companies do not care about individual customer needs, but only react to resolve an issue when their reputations are at stake.
It also spotlights the litany of customer complaints in a highly public arena, which magnifies the problem, unnecessarily eroding the brand. At its core, responding to complaints on social media only treats the symptom of the problem, not its cause.
Making Sense of Social
As a customer service channel, social media is an imperfect tool. The real value of social media to companies is that it allows them to forge stronger relationships with their customers. For customers to engage with brands on Facebook and Twitter, they must Like or Follow the company. This means that they are inviting the brand's content, news and deals into their news feeds.
When a customer spots a coupon on a company's Twitter feed, it is seen as a welcome bonus, rather than as an annoyance. By providing high quality and effective customer service via the first points of contact -- the website and call center -- customers will be more likely to bring their complaints and questions to these channels instead of social.
This will allow brands to focus on using social media as a tool for developing brand loyalty in new and creative ways such as Liking the brand after having their question answered.
We now live in the age of the customer. We need to respond to customers' wants and demands in the channel of their choice. In the case of customer service, we may have misunderstood what customers are looking for when they take to social media.
Customers find social media to be an effective way to vent and complain only because they didn't find adequate help when they first engaged the company through other means. The future of business belongs to companies that are able to find the right blend of multichannel customer service, and then use it to be proactive rather than reactive to customer needs.