Customer service has become a spectator sport and every customer is a reporter, said Jay Baer, a digital market strategist and founder of Convince & Convert, in a keynote speech at this week's Interactive Intelligence 2014 conference in Indianapolis.
Baer outlined the perils of laggard companies that take a long time to respond to social media complaints and comments, and gave remedies that can be used to keep such situations from reaching a boiling point.
Companies Can Run But They Can't Hide
These days, companies need to remember that customer complaints are no longer just a conversation between a company and a consumer. Customers have no qualms about spreading their dissatisfaction on social media, which in turn could result in a blow-up seen by millions of consumers.
"The second a review is posted [online], everybody in the world can see it," Baer said. "You're immediately on the defensive."
Social media and lousy customer reviews have even attracted the attention of government entities. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene just wrapped up a pilot project that linked negative restaurant reviews with previously unreported food poisoning cases. The reasoning behind the idea was to prompt health inspectors to conduct investigations in the hopes of preventing outbreaks of food-associated illnesses.
Customers Want What They Want When They Want It
Here's another heads-up for companies: Customers are increasingly demanding speedy responses—sometimes as quickly as in real time—to their complaints on social media. A company that isn't paying attention can wreak havoc with its reputation.
Baer spoke about last year's infamous imbroglio between British Airways and a disgruntled man who complained on Twitter about lost luggage. When he didn't receive a timely response from the airline, the frustrated customer spent money out of his own pocket buying promoted Tweets. His tweets, such as,"Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous," and "British Airways is the worst airline ever. Lost my luggage & can't even track it down. Absolutely pathetic," went viral and also attracted the attention of global media outlets. The problem was that British Airways did not monitor customer social media posts 24/7 and took eight hours to respond to the complaint. By then the damage to British Airways' brand was done.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
If there are problems or issues, companies should proactively admit when things go wrong, a factor that Baer calls the "Hey, did you know?" phenomenon. He advises companies to beat customers to the punch by posting that they know about problems and are working to fix them.
"If you don't say, 'We're aware of it [the issue],' what you get are tons of people on Facebook or Twitter who say, 'Hey, did you know that this [isn't working],' for example, and then you have to deal with that."
Aligning Social Media Customer Practices with Expectations
The British Airways story offers multiple lessons for companies, Baer said. If for some reason your company can't offer around-the-clock social media customer support—maybe due to financial or personnel restraints—make sure customers are aware of that.
Baer advises posting social media customer service hours online, alerting customers that they might not receive an immediate response to their complaints or queries, but that they will be responded to. "Once you start doing social media, somebody in your organization has to be paying attention all the time, even if it's in a 'we're not open' capacity," Baer said.
"The big issue [with British Airways] is that these guys didn't know about this until the next day. They couldn't jump on it and say 'We're terribly sorry, please take down your [Twitter] ads if that's okay.' Eventually he [the customer] did and they smoothed it over, but meanwhile a million people had seen it because [British Airways was] asleep at the switch."
According to Baer, 83 percent of customers say that they like or love when a brand responds to them in social media. However, that can create an "expectation gap," in which customers think they should be responded to right away.
"When more and more companies routinely interact with customers on social media, you won't be able to surprise and delight them, but for now, you have an opportunity to exceed expectations," Baer said.
Companies Can Still Delight Customers
Baer related an instance involving Yahoo! and continuous email outages. One woman wrote a Facebook post complaining about getting the runaround from agents in the call center. The woman sent the post at 11:57 am, and Yahoo! responded to her at 12:13 pm and resolved her problem.
"Yahoo found this [post], realized it, answered it, and solved [the] problem within sixteen minutes," Baer said. "She was delighted because they were able to capitalize upon that expectation gap.
"Being fast allows you to win customers' hearts by exceeding expectations," Baer said. "This is not going to work forever, but it will damn sure work for now."