Following an interview I gave on Smart Insights (Dave Chaffey) about the use of social within customer care, I was asked the following question:

Question: Any thoughts on logistically how to manage customer complaints coming in via Twitter/Facebook/etc along with those coming into the more traditional channels? If the customer is truly escalating after a failed attempt at calling or emailing the contact centre, then I believe a direct response is appropriate. Otherwise, I think there’s an argument for directing the customer to contact the contact centre. Isn’t it unfair to allow Tweeters and Facebookers to take priority over those waiting in a phone queue or for an email response within service levels?

Answer: So here are my thoughts on the matter and some things for you to consider. In no particular order:

– your question focusses on the channel as opposed to the query or issue that you’ve received. In my mind, although social media as a channel has its own set of unique characteristics, they are of secondary concern to the complaint/query that you’ve received. Be aware of the channel that they come in on, but treat the complaint for what it is. A complaint that has come in via email and which you need to escalate, is no different to a complaint that comes in via Twitter and which you also need to escalate. The only thing that has changed is that via Twitter you pick the complaint/query up more quickly (potentially). Just because it has come in via Twitter or Facebook, don’t feel pressured to treat it differently. A complaint is a complaint, regardless of the delivery mechanism.

– if you do go down the social route, it is imperative to understand the channel and how they differ. With Facebook or blogs you get a much clearer indication of what the issue is, as people can write as much as they want about it. With Twitter you simply get an indication an overview that there is a problem, but you are not necessarily sure what it is is, and the seriousness of it. Furthermore, people do let off steam on all these channels. So sometimes a bit of restraint and experience is needed to understand whether someone is simply letting off steam or whether there is a genuine complaint to be resolved.

– it is also important to make a distinction between acknowledging the issue and resolving it. Often what people want is a company to simply acknowledge the issue as step one, and then resolve it as step two. The resolution is a separate issue to the acknowledgement, the two are often confused. We often read about the real-time nature of Twitter and that companies should resolve the issue just as quickly as they receive it. In my opinion, what customers want is a real-time (or as fast as you can) acknowledgement that their query/complaint has been received by you, the actual resolution of it, can take place in the usual manner. But what you should be doing throughout is keeping them informed of what is happening. All too often we forget to keep customers informed. They don’t necessarily know the process a company has put together around a particular issue, don’t really care about it anyway, but they do care about being kept informed. Something companies haven’t been terribly good at.

– if you do go down the social route, and queries/complaints come in, then make sure that if you need to escalate the issue to another channel, you close it off in the original channel that it came in once an outcome has been received.

Some further thoughts:

– It’s important for a company to not design a social response process in isolation. More and more the offline and online (including social and mobile) channels are coming together. A complaint or query may start in one channel and move through the others before the interaction has reached its conclusion.

– Try not to design a customer service process driven by the possibility of a firestrom or crisis. Design for the resolution of the underlying issue and the experience that goes with that. What I mean by this is that whilst there is a small possibility that a complaint or issue might turn into a firestorm via social, you shouldn’t design your workflow because of this. If you are going down the social route, you are far better spending your time focussing on creating the right company culture that embraces social. It’s far easier to deal with a firestrom if you’ve got the right culture in place. Otherwise if a firestrom breaks you’ll end up focussing on the symptoms of the firestrom, instead of the underlying issue.

– Set expectations by telling your customers what the process is, how it will be handled, when your social channels will be monitored. In short, keep your customers informed of how you manage your social channels. Don’t leave your customers guessing. If you only monitor your social channels 9 – 5pm, tell your customers that, but also tell them what happens if they tweet at 9pm.

Your approach to the provision of customer service via social should be no different to how you approach customer service. Social does have its own set of unique characteristics, but at the end of the day, customer service is a state of mind, an approach to your customers, your culture. It’s not the technology, the tools the process.

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