Best practices in social media customer service

byMichele McGovern
If your business isn’t offering some kind of customer service via social media, you’re missing the boat. Research now proves the benefits are lasting and profitable — and who wouldn’t want in on that?
Some organizations are so savvy at social media customer service they’re using it to drive sales higher than they’ve ever been, engage customers in new ways and build brand recognition that might rival retail stalwarts.
Even better, we’ve uncovered some of the best practices in social media customer service from the people living and working it every day.
But first, you’ll want to fully understand the impact social media has had on customers, the face of customer service and future sales.
What do customers want from social media?
If you’re a marketing professional reading this, brace yourself. According to findings from J.D. Power and Associates research, only 34% of social media users go on a company site for marketing reasons. The rest are there for customer service reasons.
Meanwhile, this is news every marketer, customer service and sales pro can applaud: People who use social media to get help are likely to spend more money with a company than those who don’t use social media, said Jacqueline Anderson, director of product development for social media and text analytics at J.D. Power and Associates, while speaking at the ICSA Annual Conference.
One caveat: Social customers — like all the others — will buy more if their experience is good.
That means if you’re going to provide some kind of help via social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, you’ll want to make sure everything you do conforms to the same high standards that exist in your other channels. The biggest reason: “Social media users will talk,” said Anderson.
Forty-two percent of social media customers will tell others about a positive experience, while just 15% of the general population will tell others. Plus, 53% of social media users talk about bad experiences, while just 24% of the general population spread the negative word, J.D. Power researchers found.
With such a high probability that customers will share bad experiences, it might be tempting to avoid the whole social media scene and stick to the phones — especially since the majority of customer service inquiries still come in via phone (still about 70%, according to most studies).
But social media’s not much of a choice any more. Customers demand it — and companies are increasingly responding: 33% of contact centers support social media, a Deloitte Consulting survey found. So make the best of a social media customer service approach with these best practices:
1. Stick to the right channel
Only 44% of customers say they get a response to their customer service inquiries on the same channel in which they were made, Anderson said. That’s a big no-no.
You must respond to customers via the same channel they used to contact you. If it’s an angry social media contact, make the first response via social media and suggest you take it offline (to email or phone) to get the situation resolved.
Assuming all goes well throughout the resolution, go back to the social media channel as a follow-up with customers (and the public who might see it) to confirm that they’re happy with the results, suggests Jason Levesque, CEO and founder of Argo Marketing.
2. Respond faster
Today, customers expect almost immediate responses in social media. Yet, just 61% of customers said they got a response within 24 hours of a social media inquiry, J.D. Power researchers found.
For Levesque and his social media team at Argo, “immediate” means 15 minutes. “Really, you want to respond to every customer engagement request within 15 minutes. You’d never make a customer wait that amount of time on the phone. So why would you do it for an email or a social media request. Fifteen minutes is an acceptable, reasonable response time as long as you give customers that expectation.”
If you can’t do that, consider posting hours when someone is available for immediate response and what customers should do for fast answers when that option isn’t available.
3. Be consistent
You don’t want to script every social media response, but you certainly can create a template for your most common inquiries and issues. That helps create consistency from one response to the next, regardless of who responds to customers.
From there, personalize it, Levesque suggested. Reps can always add customers’ names to the correspondence or a personal message that pertains to the individual situation.
4. Maintain consistency
On equal footing with message consistency is consistency across channels. Social media is an extension of all other existing channels (and likely another step into the next era of service, whatever that may be).
So customers should experience the same level of professionalism, quality and accuracy in social media messages as they do in phone conversations and email exchanges, Levesque and Anderson agreed.
5. Connect and empathize
Social media can seem impersonal at first glance. After all, on the surface, it appears to be a couple of computers interacting. But employees who handle social media interactions can connect personally with customers through clear empathy, especially in potentially emotional situations.
“Always use ‘feel,’ ‘felt,’ found,’” suggested Levesque. It’s a proven model for conveying understanding and empathy to customers.
As an example, reps might respond like this: “I understand why you feel that way. I helped another customer who faced a similar situation and felt the same. When it happened, we found that this worked best …”
6. Repeat the right language
Social media is a fast, convenient, casual way to communicate. But it’s no excuse for forgetting manners.
Companies need to ensure that front-line pros who post and respond via social media use words that reflect concern and courtesy — just like you would if you were having a conversation.
Anderson suggested a policy that requires every interaction include formalities such as “please,” “thank you” and “I understand …”
7. Get time and content right
You know it’s important to respond to customers in social media at the right time. To increase interaction with customers, post pertinent information — not promotional info — that can help customers at the right time.
Facebook posts — which should be fun and interesting should go up at the end of the work day because people tend to look at the site after hours. Twitter posts should be more newsworthy — some company news, some links to other sites with relevant industry information — and put up two or three times a day during work hours when people look for that kind of information, Levesque suggested.
8. Make it easier
Give customers icons at the top of the company website and social sites to connect in any way they choose — Twitter, Facebook, phone, online chat, etc. Reason: While customers’ first instinct may be to connect via social media, many change their minds and want easy access to help on the phone or an FAQ page, said Anderson.
Even more helpful: Use your “contact us” page to clarify best times to reach out on each channel.
Another note: Maintain just one account in each of the social media outlets. Some organizations start a page, then build a different customer service page — which only garners confusion with customers and creates inconsistent experiences.
9. Bring reps to life
Let customers know they’re chatting with a real person by having reps use their real initials, or first names and last initials in conversations.
Even better, some companies include reps’ head shots or a personal photo — perhaps of a favorite animal or vacation spot — with their posts and responses.
10. Focus on resolution, too
As much as we focus on response time in social media, it’s equally important to focus on getting issues fixed.
Anderson shared this success: One bank has agents work through customer issues until the customer confirms it has been resolved.
There are no hand-offs or “Let me get back to you.” The focus of every social media contact at the bank is reaching a resolution.
11. Keep customer care the priority
Because customers increasingly go to social media for service reasons, Levesque suggested that social media efforts and support remain in the hands of customer care.
That team already knows how to professionally, consistently and accurately help customers — and is the best candidate to do it via social media.
12. Ensure brand cohesion
Marketing still needs to play a strong role, in the social media presence. They want to be sure that the content looks and feels the same across all channels.