By Dennis Fois, Sales Director, UK & Northern Europe, eGain

Customer service operations are bulky, cumbersome cost centres — hemorrhaging money and resource for what can often seem like little reward or RoI. However, no matter what industry you operate in, you can’t do without it, and you cannot afford to do it badly. Aggrieved, dissatisfied or unhappy customers cost money. Never has this been truer than with the advent of social media.

Customers have embraced the web and social media — blogs, forums, Facebook and Twitter — as their preferred source of product and satisfaction information. Furthermore, peer reviews and ratings are becoming trusted above all other sources.

It only takes one influential person to draft 140 characters on a negative experience with your company before 250,000 followers see it, and their decision to do business with you is influenced.

Without an efficient, proactive process to deal with negative sentiment in the social cloud, the damage to a business brand could be irreversible.

Protecting Brand Reputation

In a recent survey by IAB UK, it was found that 27% of consumers expect a response when complaining via a company website in days, but expected a response within the hour via Twitter and Facebook. Time is clearly of the essence, and there is a worrying trend emerging where customers are exploiting this, leveraging their social clout to solicit better deals from businesses — whether it’s free product replacement, upgrades, free shipping, unwarranted discounts, or rapid service levels.

There are two key reasons this is working so well:

1) It’s easier for customers to hide behind the anonymity of a social persona than complain on the phone; they are bolder in their statements, can be persistent in their objectives and more threatening in their demands.

2.) Few businesses have adequate policies in place for customer service on social media; the potential speed and scale of the medium cause knee-jerk reactions from business and personnel, enabling customers to break through the red-tape processes of contact centres and often get what they want, faster.

‘Buying off’ these bullying customers by succumbing to the freebie requests, may well stem the tide of negative brand sentiment in the short-term, but it doesn’t resolve the problem and will quickly become a cost-issue as others cotton on. If bullies sense that policies are more lenient or the quality of answers is better on social channels, it will set off a stampede — everyone will go social to get the best service, best terms, and best deals.

Instead, organisations must apply the same customer service ethics and policies from elsewhere in the business into the social media sphere. For example, you wouldn’t expect an employee from finance or HR that has never been customer facing to simply get to work in the contact centre, and respond to customer complaints without any training, why would that be okay on social media?

Dealing with Social Bullies

So how do organisations deal with these ‘social bullies’ without hurting the brand, relationship with other customers, and the business?

First, you have to know who is talking about you and what they are saying. Monitoring social networking sites and communities on an ongoing basis. You will also need to evaluate the validity and criticality of each mention. For example, some of the bully talk may be legitimate gripes from valuable customers that are frustrated.

Employing a group of specialists to constantly monitor and respond to conversations affecting your brand in the entire social ether 24/7/365, while perhaps feasible for the largest of multinational corporations, is a significant cost and a huge drain on human resource.

Instead, savvy organisations are investing in innovative technologies to automate elements of the process, standardise social media policies with other customer engagement channels in the company, and form there even utilise online communities and social networks to drive business revenue.

It’s important not to let one new communications channel bloat customer engagement operations and its cost. Despite scare stories, social media is simply another service channel, and one that can be tamed.

Answers to all customer queries, complaints or mentions should be provided from a common knowledge base, unified across traditional and social channels. By consolidating customer engagement operations through integrating all channels (phone, social, self service, email), the traditional cost centre, turns into a revenue generator by fostering more loyal customers at a reduced cost to serve.

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