By Jo Causon, Chief Executive, Institute of Customer Service

The ways in which businesses interact with their customers has become increasingly complex as communications channels have evolved.

This rapid change has unnerved many as the power balance has shifted irrevocably in favour of the customer. Grievances can now be aired to an audience of millions before businesses have an opportunity to react and feedback is immediate and highly visible.

Yet, social media is not just about crisis management and complaints. It also opens a window into your customers’ opinions and offers a valuable view of what they think about you and your competitors. Social insight enables you to find customers who are unhappy with your competitors and could be ready to switch and can also inform changes to your products and services.

Taking the plunge

Despite its relative “newness” as a communications channel for businesses, organisations mustn’t think of social media as a passing fad.

According to a recent Fishburn Hedges report, 18 million customers are now using social media to speak directly to brands in the UK. Businesses must wake up to the reality that customers want, and increasingly expect, to be able to have public conversations with them online.

Research from this Institute shows that customers rank their satisfaction with web contact as being as important to them as face-to-face interactions. Yet, social customer service is still, for the majority of businesses, very much in its infancy.

The ultimate goal of a social customer service strategy is to achieve a single view of the customer through total integration with all existing channels, such as email and CRM systems. Practically, this would mean that when a customer tweets about you or mentions your company on Facebook, you can take an immediate and complete view of their previous interactions across all touch points and assess the type and level of response needed.

However, while total social integration is the long-term objective for social customer service, the technology isn’t always widely available to smaller companies.

But don’t despair, small businesses can dip their toes in the social customer service waters with processes as simple as an excel spreadsheet used to log complaints made via social networks, This ensures that consumer disquiet is prioritised and dealt with quickly while gathering a great deal of useful feedback. As the number of social customers grows however, so does the need for more complex systems.

For many, the idea of dealing with complaints via social media can be daunting. However, it’s crucial that businesses nip complaints in the bud quickly and efficiently. To do this, they need to keep pace with the volume of discussion taking place about them online. For slightly larger companies it may be the case of putting in place a dedicated social service manager or making it an element of someone’s role.

Embracing the challenge

In this increasingly social world, businesses need to make it easy for their customers to interact with them in the ways they choose and allow them the freedom to air their views. Of course, people won’t always be positive and judging when to intervene (and curb potential damage), and when to simply let your customers blow off steam can be a tough call.

Company owners and managers need to give their people the skills and confidence to make the right judgment calls when engaging with customers through social media or indeed any other form of contact. This will come from a solid training programme which instills responsible and empathetic practices.

Whatever the reason for the communication, interactions must also feel authentic and genuine as consumers not only expect social media profiles to accurately reflect an organisation's corporate values, they want to feel that there is a human being behind each interaction.

Creating the personal touch is crucial as social media is largely a public forum, and in the same way that a comment by a customer can be viewed by a wider audience, so can your response. The opportunity to be visible and proactive mustn’t be forgotten.

Sometimes, responding via a private, direct message may be more appropriate and has the benefit of creating a more personal response. However, the impact of the response will be lost if the subject applies to a wider audience.

Businesses shouldn’t be afraid of responding via social media as well as harnessing it for their own benefit. We often hear of companies performing social media ‘stunts’, such as randomly awarding a fan or follower with a prize. Whether using this tactic, or simply responding to customer comments, regular, reactive and proactive engagement with customers must be the key priority across social media.

Ultimately, delivering a consistent service across all your communications channels is crucial to retaining and growing a loyal customer base and small businesses simply cannot afford to let social customer service fall to the wayside.

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