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>As more companies adopt social media, especially Twitter, as a customer service tool, it’s more evident than ever that few have thought out exactly what they’d do when they hear a complaint in real time. Here are some examples.

Our readers who may have attended our “Social Media Sushi” workshop know the story of my trip last year to the Newport Hyatt, where they gave away my balcony room, then “couldn’t help me” until I eventually tweeted my frustration. Suddenly, a call from the Hyatt’s central concierge service (thousands of miles away) not only had me out of the basement room and into a lovely balcony suite, but had delivered an important lesson to Hyatt about customer service.

Today’s customers will simply not be ignored, in real life or virtual.

Such stories are already the norm, perhaps to the chagrin of those who say they’ll “miss the face-to-face” interaction of real people at the guest counter or on the telephone. As for me, give me a kiosk and a Twitter account, if you can’t give me a well-trained human being. Too many “in person” experiences of companies these days are simply unacceptable. It’s not as if modern consumers want more than they paid for (ok, perhaps some who fly the cheap seats don’t understand why they don’t get steak…). Modern consumers are simply fed up with the blank-stare, repeat-it-again helpless-act that “in real life” people pass off as acceptable service nowadays.

As a result, Twitter (more so than Facebook) has become a frustrated customer’s best friend. (Note, it’s also the favorite cheerleading tool for happy customers, too). Consider the the stories of customers who get their internet service back faster by tweeting @ComcastCares than waiting for someone in Zimbindostan to answer the phone. I’ve often been a delighted diner receiving a free desert after tweeting how much I enjoyed dinner. Whether it’s solving problems or going the extra mile for customers, smart companies are keeping an eye on  social media for mentions of their names.

And while they’re reacting fast, the best ones are also reacting well.

But not all of them. For some companies, their customer service remains in the “covered wagon” days, long after the car, train, plane and rocket ship has taken customers beyond the horizons. So monitoring your social mentions isn’t enough. Reacting well is still required. Yet it’s not rocket science: Avoid becoming defensive, ask questions, and invite the customer to suggest you how they’d like the situation resolved. Then do it, in an open, cheery fashion for everyone to see, because everyone is watching. It doesn’t mean giving away the store (more on that later) but it means paying attention first and addressing the issue in some fashion, even if a refund isn’t due. Sometimes, customers complain because they don’t understand why something happened.

With social media driving your customer service strategy, you can educate both the upset customer and the broader listening audience.

Of course, this only works if you actually have a customer service strategy that doesn’t stem from the 19th century. And not just any strategy, but one finely tuned to the kinds of interaction that each modern medium requires. There’s one method of engaging a customer wants to call you by phone to make a complaint; there’s another if it’s by Facebook, or Twitter. On the phone, you can listen, ask questions and make long-widned explanations. On Twitter, there’s little chance for such extensive chatter. Asking questions still matters, but you’ll need to practice offering pointed explanations and discrete actions that can be taken. Most of all, customers who post a complaint on Facebook or Twitter probably don’t want to call you on the phone, especially if they already had a face-to-face experience with someone at your company who couldn’t solve the problem.

Even if your company has tailored different approaches for different media, it still matters that your customer service is actually interested in solving the problems. Perhaps this matters most of all: It’s not nearly enough to say “We’re sorry to hear that!” or to cut and paste template responses. It’s also insufficient, even insulting, to throw money at customer complaints: many customers don’t want a refund so much as to know you’ll take action to resolve the problem. Previously we wrote how Delta Airlines thought offering me $25 or 1000 miles was the right answer to my tweet mentioning how their first-class seats reclined so far into the next person’s laps as to render their tray table useless. It wasn’t money or points I wanted from Delta: It was a very simple “We’ll alert our engineers to take a look at the problem and make sure it doesn’t affect future customers.” It was really that simple. Throwing money and points at me felt like Delta was trying to buy me off, silence me, and get the “bad” noise off the social stream as soon as possible. (Considering I’m blogging it now, I guess it didn’t work.)

Today a similar, but perhaps sillier incident occurred on Amtrak. I know, everybody beats up on Amtrak, but considering the experience isn’t far from what I imagine riding in a 19th century covered wagon would be like, they really deserve little leeway. Here’s the transcript, which started with a friend who noted my complaint about the super-slow wi-fi on the train.

Now, after the last message, this popped up in my @mentions.

So I replied…

Which was followed by…

Leaving me confused enough to finish with:

So, after giving Amtrak credit for listening for brand mentions on Twitter, I’m left to wonder why @Amtrak they bothered to contact me. Enjoy the trip? Wasn’t it abundantly clear that I wasn’t enjoying it? Were they simply taking a survey of whether I was traveling for business or leisure? Did they have any explanation for the quality of the ride, or the sluggish terrestrial internet service? And what was with that little “of course!” phrase? Were they somehow saying us business travelers are more whiney? Heck, they didn’t even try to buy me off with a free drink from the cafe car.

In other words: no strategy, and therefore, no customer service.

The good news is that companies recognize the reach of social listening to monitor their brand and address customer service issues. But monitoring keywords isn’t enough. You need people prepared to probe for feedback and offer to help. Otherwise, you might be better off simply ignore the medium entirely. Well, maybe not.

There’s little doubt, however, that simply having a social media presence won’t enhance your customer experience. Start listening, and react quickly, but most of all, make sure you intend to create an experience at least marginally better than asking me to travel to Zimbindostan in a covered wagon.

You can tweet me on that!