How social media culture is transforming customer service

June 28, 2011
Posted by: Jenna Woodul

The social media efforts of large companies typically start somewhere in the marketing department. However, in short order, it becomes apparent that a large portion of what customers want from a company is customer service. Marketing then sets up an escalation process for providing answers from customer service. Eventually, as we’re starting to see with some of our clients, the customer service department may start to be more closely involved with the company’s social media channels, or even taking over running them. Even in the cases where customer service stays strictly separate, however, the culture of social media is having an effect.
In the traditional customer service model, departments are generally in reactive mode, waiting for customers to contact them, and then providing templated, business-language responses to the typical questions people ask. Plus, the customer service reps may reside deep in the organization in a large group, and their responses don’t get beyond the individual with the question or issue and the company representative responding to them. Customer satisfaction may or may not be the result, but in any event, the effect of the interaction rarely moves into the public eye.
In today’s environment, with customer problems and questions surfacing in highly public venues such as Twitter and Facebook, where people have vast connections, the stakes are much higher. Customer services responders are no longer dealing in a relatively low-risk interaction, but instead, a high-stakes public stage where a misstep can blow up into a major crisis for the company. We’ve all seen well-publicized cases where inexperienced people lose their cool with the public, and the company has to deal with the consequences for weeks or months.
Let’s face it: Consumer expectations are very different these days. People expect responses in a much shorter period of time, feel empowered to punish a company for unsatisfactory attention to their problems, and react with suspicion to any communication delivered in an impersonal corporate tone.
New requirements and skills needed
These new expectations brought forward by social media are causing customer service departments to perceive new requirements and make some changes like these:

  • Taking a look at the business-y style of writing they’ve been using, and moving to much more personal and  conversational styles. This may require a re-write of all templates currently in use, and a re-training of all personnel using them.
  • Re-evaluating the skills required for customer service. Instead of a sympathetic ear who can correctly respond to customers via mail or phone, customer service departments may look for more social or gregarious individuals who can think on their feet in an almost-real-time environment — still responding judiciously, but conveying real personality and human consideration, with a comfort level and keen awareness that they’re acting on a highly visible stage.
  • Changing daily processes to include proactive searching for people’s comments about the company, rather than a more passive demeanor of waiting for inquiries. This involves employees who read between the lines, interpret tone and pattern, and quickly surface brewing issues that customer service can address before they become problems.
  • And along those same lines, constantly monitoring brand-related conversations, with the purpose of creating relationships and good vibes in advance of problems arising — which is sure to happen somewhere along the way. This means paying close attention to people’s experiences, acknowledging their positive comments, and thanking them for helping other customers with product questions, as well as responding to negative comments or problems.

It’s an informal, conversational, and highly connected world out there. Customers are changing — no longer intimidated or even necessarily impressed with corporations. What’s needed is a perception that real people populate the corporation in real time, responding to customers in an ongoing give and take. Customer service is at the center, regardless of which employees are providing it, and companies need to change, too, in order to meet the challenge.
This post is part of an ongoing social media marketing series on “Building Relationships” from LiveWorld, a social media agency that offers moderation, insight, and community programming Facebook services for Fortune 1000 brands.