There has been much written about the notion of ‘real-time’ in social, and from what you read it appears to be one of the cornerstones of social customer care. That companies can identify within a few seconds anything that is written about them – positive, negative and noise – is hugely appealing. Furthermore, it provides genuine unadulterated verbatim for customer service, sales, marketing, product and PR departments to pore over and dissect in detail.

But what does real-time really mean for customers and companies alike? Is all real-time equal? Do customers really want it, can companies respond to it, and do vendors simply use it to support their sales pitches?

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If we take the example of someone complaining via Twitter and then writing the experience up in a blog, I’ve read countless examples that go something like this:

Two months of call centre misery have gone unheard, but tweeted my complaint at 8:00pm and by 8:07pm had a reply from [Insert company name], leaving me unconditionally blown away, and my complaint sorted out within a few days…

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And in no particular order, some of my observations that come out of this brief, but typical, example include:

Traditional call centres are broken (have gone unheard) vs effectiveness of social media (sorted out within a few days)

Complaint handling is a two-part process: Acknowledgement of tweet (by 8:07pm had a reply) vs resolution of complaint (sorted out within a few days)

Attachment of an emotional state to the channel experience: call centre = negative experience (misery) vs social channel = positive experience (unconditionally blown away)

Clarity of duration of negative experience (two months) and complaint acknowledgement via Twitter (by 8:07pm) vs vagueness of duration of positive resolution of the complaint (within a few days)

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So what does this all mean then?

Customers remember with great clarity those moments that impact them in a negative way, but less so the positive ones.

Customers start a customer service interaction already in a negative frame of mind. They carry their customer service baggage with them and apply it indiscriminately. Their expectations are low to begin with. The interaction has traditionally been process driven. What social does is allow a company to wrap a layer of empathy around the experience.

Complaint handling is split into at least two parts: acknowledgement and resolution. Customers want real-time acknowledgement. I want my complaint to be picked up and acknowledged as quickly as possible. The actual resolution of the complaint can take place subsequently.

Customers can recount what went wrong in great detail: who said what, the exact time they said it. Every step that resulted in the complaint is remembered. Ask them to recall every detail of the resolution, and they will struggle.

Social doesn’t sort out customers’ problems, the people we call ‘call agents’ do. Behind every company Twitter account is a person, behind every complaint is a person. The problem that exists is that between these two people, between the resolution and the complaint, are brick walls which need to be overcome.

Customers and companies confuse the channel for the resolution.

Customers and companies confuse the real-time acknowledgement of the problem with the resolution of the issue. The two are fundamentally different. Complaints for the most part do not need to be resolved immediately.

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Companies need to understand where they need to be real-time.

Just because a company can identify a complaint in real-time doesn’t mean that it is actually organised to respond or resolve the issue in real-time, quite apart from whether it actually needs to do so.

Real-time complaint-handling brings with it resource and operational requirements that run counter to how customer service has traditionally been set up. To actually respond or resolve in real-time would undoubtedly necessitate a fundamental shift in thinking towards customers, quite apart from the associated investment required to make such a change.

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Complaining is now a social act that takes place in public, on independent platforms. I expect companies to be present on these independent platforms.

The convergence of apps and smartphones makes the act of complaining more convenient, more impulsive, more accessible to each one of us. This may result in a need to redefine what a complaint is, in order to avoid responding to noise, to the mundane, to the trivial. But who decides?

The time between the cause of the complaint and the complaint itself being voiced is now condensed because of the emergence of the smartphone.

I use my smartphone to tweet my complaint, not to ring customer service and complain to a call agent.

Complaining is becoming a form of entertainment.

A complaint has the possibility to go viral, but that’s no reason not to use social.

Complaining is now a participatory, and at times, voyeuristic activity.

When a customer complains do companies actually understand what they are complaining about?

What is the difference between the same complaint on Twitter, Facebook or a blog? Does the channel inform a company about the nature, context or degree of a complaint? Is a complaint on Facebook more serious than one on a blog or on Twitter?

If I am complaining on Twitter am I actually saying I’m just letting off steam? If I’m blogging about my complaint, am I really saying this is serious, I want you to do something about my complaint?

What is the difference between ‘real-time’ and ‘now’. I need help ‘now’ vs I need help in ‘real-time. I complain ‘now’ vs I complain in ‘real-time’.

Mr Company, if people use social to complain about you, that’s not social’s fault, it’s because you got something wrong. United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar, not social media.

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