Micah Solomon: The 5 Tenets of Social Customer Service Response Under FireJune 20, 2013 by Micah Solomon
For today’s guest post, professional keynote speaker, author and customer service expert Micah Solomon shares his advice for tackling one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today: social responsiveness.
As a professional keynote speaker, I tend to run into the same questions over and over from nervous audiences facing new on and offline realities. In recent years, this recurring query has gone a little something like this:
“Micah, isn’t my brand and company in danger out there in the social media universe? How can I be sure we’ll even survive, now that any teenager with a grudge can damage our online rep?”
I can sympathize with this anxiety. It is a dangerous world out there. Even the most customer-centric companies encounter angry critics on Yelp, TripAdvisor and the like. These detractors can harm your public image and more importantly your revenue. So yes, to be frank—there’s a lot on the line.
Fortunately, learning to respond effectively to such feedback can turn this negative into a positive for your company’s image. In fact, such pundits are actually handing you an opportunity to show the broader audience your best features—like the strength of your commitment and grace under pressure.
But to make use of these opportunities, you have to be ready. Here are five principles to arm your company against potential social fire.
1. Apply a Customer Service Point-of-View to Social Response
Social media responsiveness is a type of customer service. So give it the superb planning and staffing that customer service deserves. Sure, it’s more breakneck speed than typical interactions, and responders face unique hazards and quirks. But it’s still customer service.
As such, your team should engage and assist customers on social as energetically and effectively as through other more traditional channels.
To get this effort off on the right foot, be sure to staff social teams with your best support staff. This is critical. Many companies wrongly leave response up to technical experts.
While technical mastery is an crucial resource, don’t let that technical tail wag the customer service dog. Support representatives know how to listen and answer empathetically. This is almost more important in the social space because there’s a written record that can be distributed and go viral in an instant.
So let your people experts lead the way. If not, it’s bound to hurt your brand rather than help it.
2. Beware the Hazards of the Streisand Effect
When someone uses social media to attack your business, your natural urge might be to sic lawyers on the critic, or otherwise intimidate the attacker into removing the complaint. Think carefully before taking that course of action.
The rule online is that a defensive reaction tends to bring additional publicity—very negative publicity. This possibility even has a name: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s precariously sited mansion from the California Coastal Records Project.
Streisand’s aggressive response to free expression offended some netizens and titillated others. The result was far wider dissemination of the snapshot than she wanted to suppress. The image showed up on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. Worst of all, the event left a permanent blemish on her public image.
Over and over, I see brands and businesses discover the inviolability of the Streisand Effect the hard way. Threatening your online customers almost never solves the harm they cause you, and it often backfires dramatically.
Consider the following ‘‘retraction’’ on Yelp by a restaurant guest, after the company called their lawyers. (Only the identifying details have been changed.) Did coercing such a customer serve the business well?
“I earlier posted a review on this website and was threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney representing ‘Serenity Cafe.’ In response, I’m hereby posting my retraction: In retrospect I really should have said,
‘To me, the line-caught rainbow trout tasted like farmed fish because it was almost flavorless, and it looked like farmed fish because it was the wrong color and crumbly. Perhaps it was indeed wild trout that just spent too long in the freezer…’ and I should also have said pertaining to the chicken that… ‘this chicken seemed to me like frozen tenders because it was the size, shape and texture of large pieces of solid plastic."
Of course, this tongue-in-cheek retraction was forwarded to more people than ever would have seen the original complaint—and now you’re reading about it!
Any public, digital argument with a customer is an exponentially greater risk for your company than the old-fashioned kind of argument that didn’t involve social media.
Make sure everybody who represents your company online has taken the time to learn how to slow down, breathe, and bite their tongue—consistently. Train them to think of the big picture. The future of your company could depend on it.
3. Turn Detractors Into Advocates
So what do you do when you find yourself facing a negative post on Twitter, Facebook or another social media channel?
Reach out to them directly. Suppose that you’ve spotted the following outrageous tweet about your firm:
“Company X double-bills customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—#FAIL!”
This is insulting, and hard to handle. Not only will your staff need to hold back the urge to respond bitterly, they also will need to prepare a response that is thoughtful and positive. This often surprises the online critic so much they actually convert into an advocate. At the very least, it can stanch your losses.
You have a few options for responding directly. This should depend on your professional relationship with the critic. If the person behind this message follows you on Twitter, or if they are in your database, send a direct “backchannel” message. Include a real, monitored email address and phone number.
If the person is not a connection, reply publicly in the same forum they used. List offline ways to reach you including a specific, closely-monitored email address and/or phone number. And of course express sincere regret and concern.
Contacting a social media critic to request an offline conversation is the digital equivalent of ushering a loud and angry customer into your office for a discreet discussion.
You move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting your every move while failing to understand the whole story. After a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw the original ugly comment.
4. Avert the Fiasco Formula
The formula for fiasco in social media is simple:
Small Error + Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster
Put differently, the magnitude of a company’s social media embarrassment is proportional to how much they delay an online response. An event in the online world gathers social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident. Even an afternoon’s lag in responding can be catastrophic.
To avoid this fiasco, be sure to set standards for customer service social responders. Create processes for incidences where the correct reply isn’t immediately apparent. Come up with a placeholder response to respond to the message, while a more strategic response is devised.
5. Stop'em Before They Start
Unhappy customers are unlikely to complain through public methods if they know they can efficiently use email, phone, or a feedback form to reach you directly—and if they feel sure that their problem will be addressed immediately.
You can do a lot to ensure that the first impulse of such customers is to reach out to you directly, day or night. Offer “chime-in” forms everywhere. Provide direct chat links for when your FAQs fail to assist.
Put your customer service information front and center on your website. Provide an easy way to respond directly at the bottom of every corporate email you send out, instead of ending with that obnoxious “please do not reply to this email” footer.
Overall, become widely known for your rapid and satisfying responsiveness, and such customers will come to you, offer to help you improve, and will keep their complaints and misgivings “in the family.”
In addition to speaking on customer service, customer experience, leadership and marketing, Micah recently published his second book, “High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.” You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 484-343-5881.
Image created by Ben Watts.