The stakes have never been higher when it comes to customer service; 46% of shoppers in the UK under 25 use social media to comment on their customer experience.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos describes a brand as "what other people say about you when you're not in the room". But today's customers are less discreet - in fact they are quite happy to shout about you on social media if you get it wrong. So how can you use social media to improve the customer service you provide?
According to a study by American Express, companies that respond to and resolve complaints via social media see 21% more sales than companies that handle complaints on the telephone or in written form.
Social media savvy consumers have higher expectations, but they'll spend more when they get good service and quickly ditch a company when they don't. So when you respond well, in real time, customers are impressed and become more loyal.
As a result, those taking a social approach to customer service are raising the stakes significantly in their favour. You'll now even see big brands signing off tweets with the first name of the person that wrote the tweet to add a personal face to the communications.
Digital is a great leveller. With so much choice for consumers, there's no room for average, mediocre or just okay. That means a smaller business offering the personal touch can really stand out.
Businesses built on products that truly deliver - with customer care that is personal and responsive - are creating genuine competitive advantage despite their limited budgets.
This is how King of Shaves - as a start-up with little budget - became a strong challenger brand in a market dominated by billion-dollar rival, Gillette. Up against their £40m UK advertising budget they used an incredibly personal service on social media to create genuinely happy customers who then went on to do their marketing for them.
Social is more than just a way to get your message out there; it's also fantastic for listening to your audience, responding to their needs and tracking your competition.
And it is great for getting feedback from your current customers and new prospects. Feedback can be given on your profile or it can be what people are saying about you in the feeds. So listen up; both positive and negative feedback will help make your business better and will make you more interactive on social.
At the heart of social customer service is transparency and honesty, but this isn't always easy when things go wrong. It is at this point that many brands try to stop anything negative going online but this can quickly backfire. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to be great - recognising that by responding to a criticism in a positive way you will often impress that customer, as well as all the others listening in on the conversation.
We all have those heart-in-the-mouth moments. Launching our social sharing tool Openr we've certainly had a few - including our entire domain not being available and users having to take to Twitter to tell us about the issues.
The trick is to treat customers as you would want to be treated yourself. Always respond to comments and when things do go wrong, make sorry the first word. Think about it from their perspective - they don't care if the issue wasn't actually your fault. It isn't their fault either, so sorry is the first step to making it up to them.
It seems strange that social media - a technology - is making businesses more human, honest and transparent, but it is undoubtedly raising the bar for customer service. Those that embrace it are standing out for all the right reasons.
Many small businesses I speak to are worried about using social media. It’s understandable; after all, social media puts you and your company in the public spotlight and there’s always the risk that you may get negative online reviews as well as positive comments.
Indeed, that’s usually the biggest concern – what if a customer complains and leaves a negative review? Their comments are out there in public, posted, shared, re-tweeted. Everyone can see them!
But think of this – you may well have had disgruntled customers in the past but you just weren’t aware of them. Now look at the role of social media from a different angle – if someone leaves a negative comment on Twitter or Facebook (and they will!), you have a valuable opportunity to address the issue.
This enables you to take a two-pronged attack – damage limitation by resolving the problem and turning the situation around by converting a complainer into a brand advocate.
Remember that social media also gives you a platform on which to publicly demonstrate that you care about your customers. Many people prefer to deal with complaints offline. The trouble with that is that your sincere apology and the way you resolve the issue won’t be in the public domain. However, if you do it online you are being completely transparent and you may just call a halt to droves of similar complaints being posted.
Make someone happy and there’s every chance that they will relay the good news to others, turning a complaint into positive PR and building some good brand awareness at the same time.
It's so much cheaper to keep a customer than to find a new one, that for a small business it's perhaps the most vital ingredient for a healthy future.
So how do you keep customers? Price is the most important factor for many shoppers and some businesses trade exclusively on that. But there are two problems with this as a long-term strategy: firstly, most customers don't decide where to buy on price alone; and secondly, those that do will eventually be worn down by an apparent lack of care by the seller.
Excellent customer service is the foundation stone on which to grow your online business. In this day and age, when so many companies give poor (or simply neglectful) service, it's also a fantastic way to stand out from the crowd.
It's not a short-term strategy; it should be a permanent, long-term mission statement. Being friendly, efficient and above all helpful may not immediately get you more sales, but it will help to persuade customers to return and it will encourage them to recommend your business to friends and family.
I'd like to re-emphasise the word helpful. Go out of your way to help your customers. Distinguish yourself from companies with robotic staff who parrot the usual line, not intending, or caring whether they really help. Actually solve problems, don't just sympathise; offer real solutions, not just a goodwill gesture.
Above all, contact your customers to check if they're happy. That’s what the restaurant trade calls the “two minute check-back”, and it works brilliantly when the waiting staff are properly trained – it allows them to check that everything is okay with the customer's meal and experience, but it's also a great opportunity to offer more drinks and get more sales.
Whatever you do, don't hide behind your website. You may not have that bricks and mortar store, but it's no excuse for zero interaction. Publish your phone number clearly; interact with customers through email and social media; contact them frequently for that “two minute check-back”.
The customer may not always be right, but they are always the king, and if you invest the time and effort to treat them like royalty then you'll be creating the conditions for a long-term, thriving businesses.
Copyright © 2014 Simon Michels is a director of Photo Productions.
There was a time when businesses could get away with hiding from their customers, particularly when they knew they had done something wrong. Those days are long gone.
Good customer service is more critical than ever and businesses that want to survive and thrive must value their customers and build good relationships with them.
In fact, there are simple ways that small businesses with tight budgets can improve their customer service. Here are some findings from Expert Market UK’s recent customer service study, which found that:
The biggest damage occurs when potential customers don’t get the information they need when they first enquire (57%). The other danger point is when a customer has made a complaint but is not satisfied the response (26%).
Phones and email are still the preferred channels in the UK and respondents polled said businesses should focus on increasing their customer service staff (36%), providing contact details (24%) and making sure staff are aware of current policies and promotions (20%).
In fact, complaints can often be turned into wins for small businesses. Always contact customers promptly, using their preferred method. At the same time, make it easy for customers to reach you by displaying contact information clearly.
Victoria Elizabeth is digital asset executive at Expert Market UK.
If you know what you’re doing, social media can be an easy and cost-effective way to improve your customer service, especially for small firms. As your company grows, you need to make sure that you are also developing a loyal customer base. The great thing about social media is that a satisfied customer will recommend your products and services to their family and friends.
If you are unsure how to approach social media, take a look at your competitors to get an idea of how other businesses do it. Then aim to do it better. Here are five tips to help you improve your social media customer service:
The best way to ensure your customer service remains consistent throughout your company and social media platforms is by developing clear company values and social media policies. Ensure your employees are properly trained and that they have the ability to deal with issues as they arise. This way you can guarantee your online presence is consistent.
By maintaining active social media profiles, you will have a platform on which to connect and interact with your customers. Be a person, not a faceless brand. Your customers want to talk to real people — and this is often where small businesses have the edge over bigger competitors. By really engaging with your customers you can get a better understanding of the people who use your products. Use this to provide a personalised service that will exceed your customers' expectations.
If you receive a complaint, make sure that it is dealt with quickly and professionally. When dealing with the customer, be polite. It is important that you genuinely and openly apologise for the error. After this is done, move the conversation to a private message or email. The best way to exceed expectations is to reach a mutual resolution, but provide more than what the customer was expecting. This is your opportunity to turn a customer’s negative experience into a positive one.
Complaints are not only a chance to showcase your customer service skills; they are also an opportunity to learn and develop your products and services. You should encourage your customers to give feedback and take on board any suggestions that they have to offer. You can use this feedback to provide your customers with a product or service that is tailored to their requirements.
Give advice and share your expertise and experience. Produce interesting and useful content that you can use for your company’s blog. If you do start a blog, make sure that you update it consistently and frequently. Your posts can then be promoted on your social media channels and used to kick-start meaningful conversations.
Sara Parker runs the social media for Face for Business.