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Five Tips for Social Media Success with Your Customers

Here are five secrets to succeeding on social media even in the face of the most irate customer postings (though read all the way to #5 for how to avoid most such postings in the first place).

1. Reach out directly to online complainers.
Suppose that you’ve spotted the following outrageous tweet about your firm:

Company X double-bills customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—#FAIL

This is insulting, and hard to handle. Not only will your staff need to suppress the urge to respond angrily, they also will need to prepare a response that is thoughtful and positive. A thoughtful and positive response in a situation like this is rare precisely because it’s so hard for somebody who has just been insulted to muster thoughtful positivity.

But that rarity makes it powerful: A thoughtful and positive response can come as such a surprise to an online critic that it can help to convert the critic into your advocate. At the least, it will stanch your losses.

First, however, in order to respond, you’ll first need to reach your critic. How can you do that online? That depends on your professional relationship with the critic. If the person behind this message follows you (or agrees temporarily to follow you) on Twitter, or if she’s in your database, send her a direct, “backchannel” message. Include a real, monitored email address and phone number. Otherwise, reply publicly in the same forum she chose. List offline ways to reach you (including a real, monitored email address and/or phone), and express your regret and concern.

Contacting a social media critic to request an offline conversation is the digital equivalent of ushering a loud and angry customer into your office for a discreet discussion. You move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting your every move while failing to understand the whole story. After a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw the original ugly comment.

2. A delayed response can create a social media fiasco. Can you spell F-I-A-S-C-O? The formula in social media is simple: Small Error +Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster. Put differently, the magnitude of a company’s social media embarrassment is proportional to how delayed its online response was. An event in the online world gathers social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident. Even an afternoon’s lag in responding can be catastrophic.

3. Whoever handles your social media responses needs as much customer service skill and training as your traditional customer service reps. Social media responses are customer service, plain and simple. Sure, it’s customer service at breakneck speed, with lots of hazards and quirks, but it’s still customer service. So if some of your customers expect that you will serve them via social media, meet their online expectations superbly. Engage and assist those customers online as energetically and effectively as you do through traditional service channels.

Get this effort off on the right foot by staffing your online presence with your company’s people. This is crucial. Companies often make the mistake of leaving social media teams instead in the hands of technical experts. Technical wizardry is a crucial resource, but don’t let that technical tail wag the customer service dog. Let your people experts lead the way — because your social media team needs to be every bit as customer-centric as your other support/response channels. If not, it’s bound to hurt your brand rather than help it.

4. Beware the Streisand effect. When someone uses social media to attack your business, your first urge, naturally, may be to sic lawyers on the critic, or otherwise try to intimidate the attacker into removing the complaint. Think carefully before taking that course of action. The rule online is that a defensive reaction tends to bring additional publicity—very negative publicity. This rule even has a name: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s precariously sited mansion from the California Coastal Records Project. Streisand’s aggressive reaction to free expression offended some netizens and titillated others. The result was far wider distribution of the photograph she wanted to suppress – on T-shirts, websites, coffee mugs – and a permanent blemish on her public image.

Over and over, brands and businesses discover the inviolability of the Streisand Effect the hard way. Threatening your online customers almost never solves the harm they are causing you, and it often backfires dramatically.

Any public, digital argument with a customer is an exponentially greater risk for your company than the old-fashioned kind of argument that didn’t involve social media. Without a doubt, arguing with customers has always been a losing proposition for time immemorial. But today, online, those same arguments are far costlier online, because of all the additional customers and prospects you risk losing who are watching from the sidelines. So make sure everybody who represents your company online has taken the time to learn how to slow down, breathe, and bite their tongue — consistently. Train them to think of the big picture. The future of your company likely depends on it.

5. Prevent most online complaints in the first place. Unhappy customers are unlikely to complain by public methods like Tripadvisor or on their blogs if they know they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form to reach you directly — and if they feel sure that their problem will be addressed immediately. You can do a lot to ensure that the first impulse of such customers is to reach out to you directly, day or night: Offer “chime-in” forms everywhere. Provide direct chat links for when your FAQ’s fail to assist. Provide an easy way to respond directly at the bottom of every corporate email you send out, instead of ending with that obnoxious “please do not reply to this email” footer.

Overall, become widely known for your rapid and satisfying responsiveness, and such customers will come to you, offer to help you improve — and will keep their complaints and misgivings “in the family.”

About the author

Customer service consultant, customer experience, culture change. Bestselling author, keynote speaker, trainer.