I was recently kindly asked by Marilyn Suttle (@MarilynSuttle) to appear in the January 2011 issue of their monthly newsletter for Who’s Your Gladys?. Marilyn has kindly let me reproduce the Q&A section below.

QUESTION ONE: What advice would you give a company that is just in the beginning phases of using social media as a means to offer better customer service?

My advice would be to put the toolset aside for a moment and make sure you understand your company’s culture. All too often companies get caught up in discussions about – should we be using Twitter or Facebook – and forget about the fundamental issues and challenges. For example, if you walked in to the office on a Monday morning and the first thing you saw was a very negative Tweet about your company, how would you handle it?

If you are a closed company, your use of social media will reflect that. Opening up a Twitter account won’t suddenly make you open, authentic, collaborative or empathetic.

If you are an open company that truly values customers, then your use of Twitter or Facebook will reflect that. You won’t be defensive when talking about complaint handling or crisis management. You’ll see these as positive opportunities to not only engage with your customers but to fix problems where you are getting things wrong.

There’s an excellent slidedeck from Charlene Li (The Altimeter Group) called “Being Open without Giving Away the Store: The Secret is a Sandbox Covenant.” If you have the time I really recommend everyone reading it, along with “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” Cluetrain was written in 1999, and it is as relevant now as ever. It presents ninety-five theses around how the traditional business paradigm is changing, and how companies will need to adapt to the changes taking place in order to remain relevant.

QUESTION TWO: What is the most common mistake you see companies make when using social media as a customer service channel?

Companies need to treat social media as a possible customer service channel in the same way they would make a decision about the introduction of any new channel. Social has its own unique characteristics, but all too often companies not only mistake the characteristics for the experience, but become slaves to those characteristics. There is no doubt you have to understand what each platform does, where it works best, how it fits in with traditional platforms and how it integrates into your overall customer service or more broadly your customer engagement proposition.

How often do you read about this new type of customer service 2.0 which is all about real-time? And yet, how many companies are truly geared up to do anything real-time? Just because you have the software and can identify a complaint in real-time, doesn’t mean that you are set up to actually resolve it. Furthermore, it’s about understanding where responding in real-time is necessary. If a customer complains, what I have found in my experience, is that they their complaint to be acknowledged in real-time, but the actual resolution of it can take place in the traditional way.

The other area companies need to think about is inadvertently creating a social silo. Companies set up their social customer care team, but as soon as the customer needs to move from a social channel to a traditional one, the experience starts to fall down. Companies haven’t thought through issues of escalation from a customer perspective. Social isn’t a bolt-on. Does a “social” complaint take precedence over one that comes in via a traditional channel? Should it?

Ultimately, social media isn’t a cure-all, so don’t be fooled. You might be receiving great plaudits for the work you’re doing, but if you haven’t fixed the underlying customer service problem, social is simply a daily reminder that the problem exists.

QUESTION THREE: What is one customer service trend you would suggest businesses be aware of right now?

The idea of customer service decentralisation – customer service is moving outwards into the hands of your customers. Think about it for a minute. If something goes wrong what is your first port of call? It’s probably going to be Google. That’s a huge shift. So for businesses, how do you remain relevant and meaningful to your customers? Where does your customer service start and stop? What is the role of your customers and more broadly people in your customer service proposition? The increasing ubiquity of the smartphone has simply exacerbated this.

The smartphone via apps allows someone, anyone, to complain or answer a query anytime, anywhere. It condenses the time between the cause and the complaint.

And remember, whether you believe social is a fad or not is a moot point. While Twitter of Facebook may not be here or be very different in 20 – 30 years’ time, our children are growing up with forms of communication and self-expression that are much more social, collaborative, powerful and ubiquitous than ever before. And they will be the future employers and employees. Social is not going away. Now is the time to prepare for that. Every company has a responsibility to itself to do so.

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