Customer Service via Social Media

Originally posted on Mashable
By Maria Ogneva

It’s no secret that customer experience is one of the cornerstones of an effective business strategy. In all honesty, it should have been all along, but many companies chose to hide behind corporate walls and only talk to customers when it was convenient for them instead of when the customer needed them.

There’s no need to belabor the point that social media has put customers in the driver’s seat. However, companies don’t need to live in fear of the next Kevin Smith or Nestle Fanpage episode. They just need to fix their customer experience to ensure that products and services actually do what they’re supposed to do and the company’s support and service are actually helpful.

Social CRM Connects Social Customer to Social Business
Today’s businesses must address more aspects of the customer experience than ever before. In addition to a stellar product or service, you now have many more channels to listen to and participate in, while keeping the experience consistently excellent. Where it gets complicated is wading through the noise, turning data into insights that the whole company can use, and sharing these insights.

Because there is so much data being hurled at you, solutions that help unify and share information in a usable format have become necessary. Analyst firm Gartner estimates that more than 80% of growth in enterprise use of social networking tools will be driven by customer engagement projects and estimates social customer relationship management to be a $1 billion submarket of CRM in 2011.

Recall that in my previous post about social CRM, we addressed some key tenets:

* Listen and engage;
* Have a 360-degree view of the customer;
* Adopt transparency and customer service as cultural foundations for your business;
* Share and align with your team; develop necessary workflow;
* Social engagement must be enterprise-wide.

In an effort to see these theories applied to real-life situations, let’s examine some examples of how my personal customer experience was affected by businesses correctly capturing, sharing and acting on relevant information.

Honeymoon and Teamwork
For my honeymoon, I stayed at a world-class resort called Tabacon in Costa Rica. Each day was full of thoughtful and personalized details that were carefully orchestrated among various employees of the hotel, as well as external parties. The best part of the experience was a private dinner in a cabana in the rainforest. Let’s dissect the collaboration and communication that had to occur for this experience to happen:

* Our travel planner contacted the hotel to make arrangements and communicate our honeymoon status.
* A reservation specialist received the reservation, captured client (mine) information in the internal record system, analyzed honeymoon suite inventory and booked it.
* The hotel referenced client preferences via my profile for that hotel group (“Leading Hotels of the World”) and discovered my preference for champagne.
* The hotel communicated this preference to housekeeping; housekeeping prepared the room for arrival with a champagne bottle and a personalized note of congratulations.
* The concierge greeted me at the door and offered the private dinner and established a channel in which I could book it.
* The hotel collected menu preferences and desired time; communicated time to chef and waiter.
* The waiter came to pick us up in the room and the chef prepared food to client specification.

At least five people and two systems (internal and external) were involved in making this an unforgettable experience. So why did I use this as an example, even though there was no social media involved? Because social or not, the underlying business principles haven’t and shouldn’t have changed. A finely tuned communication and collaboration system is key if you want to provide an excellent experience, whether it’s via the social web or in-person.

How Does Social Media Enhance Experience?
Only when you are confident in your ability to support the collaborative process should you invest in a full-scale social media effort. I recommend following these simple steps:

1. Listen and respond. You should be listening for signals from social media for needs of existing and potential clients. You want to engage proactively: listening at the point of need; as well as reactively: listening for indicators that someone may need help. To provide another personal example, Virgin America effectively and quickly responded to a need I had via social media. Unlike its competitor, Virgin got back to me very quickly, taking care to resolve the issue in the backchannel instead of sending me to an 800 number.

2. Cross-reference social and internal customer data. Is there anything that could have made the Virgin example even better? Certainly! It would have been even better if the company automatically knew my frequent flyer number without me having to message it. To successfully serve someone or give them an unforgettable experience, you need to know what your relationship is with the person who tweeted, your history of communication, as well as purchase history, if it’s a customer. For example, at my company, we help you cross-reference people from the social media stream (either your own or as a result of tracking keywords) to the internal record for a full 360-degree view.

3. Understand context of relationship. Quick caveat: this new level of customer intelligence should be used in context of the relationship. While the customer may want you to get the full scoop on him or her in a customer service scenario, a company should never appear like it is using the personal information of someone who has no relationship with the company.

I once had a sub-par experience with a major financial institution where I couldn’t get in touch with customer service. Exasperated and in a panic, I complained on Twitter (Twitter), after which the Twitter rep got back to me promptly. Before I could even write back with details about my situation, she proactively e-mailed me via the e-mail address on record. In this case, it wasn’t creepy and actually provided value, because we had a relationship, and I knew the company had my e-mail address.

Of course, if an existing customer is having a bad experience, your first priority should be fixing the experience, communicating it back to the user and asking this person to keep voicing feedback and opinions. This will increase brand affinity and create an experience worth sharing with others. Whether your customer is having a good experience or bad, it’s key to create a participatory channel in which ideas can be voiced and captured, and progress communicated back to the customer.

Share and Collaborate, Rinse and Repeat
As you do all of the above, make sure that your team, as well as key external parties, are on the same page with you. Cross-reference social data with internal data, retain and reference current and prior conversation threads and ensuing actions items. Just like how the Tabacon personnel immaculately shared information about me, delegated tasks to each other, and stayed on the same page, so should any business that wants to provide a superb customer experience.