Winning Hearts & Minds Through a Hybrid Social Media Strategy

This talk was originally presented by Samantha Anderson at SAGE Talks, put on by the Sage Executive Group in San Diego. 

The landscape of business is changing. Even local mom and pops are now competing on a global stage for customers. It's not enough anymore to simply "do" social media, using it like a megaphone to reach customers -- we need to take it one step further and go above and beyond. 

That's where a hybrid social media strategy comes into play. Companies big and small, B2B or B2C need to combine their social media, public relations and customer service efforts to provide a holistic customer experience online.  

 

A New Social Era

Back in the dark ages before the Internet, customers had a limited number of venues when they wanted to complain about a brand. Maybe they called a company’s 1-800 number, perhaps even wrote a letter. Today, however, with the advent of social media there are an endless number of options for customers to talk about your brand.

And boy, are they talking. Every second, 6,000 tweets are sent on Twitter. Every day, 157 million people log onto Facebook in North America. To date, more than 90 million reviews have been posted on Yelp. The odds are your customers are posting about an experience they’ve had with your company or product.

I ask you this: Are your teams really listening, or better yet, responding to every complaint? Do they realize and have a plan to cope with the fact that customers are taking control of your brand’s reputation?

Customer Experience Matters More Than Ever

Your customer service experience on social media has never been more important to your bottom line.

Last year, marketing research firm Gartner reported that by 2016, 89% of companies expect to compete almost solely on the basis of customer experience.

Brands that will be dominating their verticals in the next decade will be the ones that combine their public relations, social media and customer service efforts to offer a holistic service experience to their customers.

I developed this theory during my agency years as a social media strategist, creating social customer service plans for Fortune 500 companies. Today, I use this approach with my own clients at 41 Orange, ranging from small business to enterprise. I truly believe that brands will be successful if they pay close attention to how they interact with customers one-on-one in social media.

The Backlash of Poor Service

The brands that are not taking their customer service seriously are suffering the consequences already. Let’s talk about an example: Comcast.

In March, Comcast announced that it was bulking up its presence on Twitter and Facebook as it tried to repair the damage done by a string of very public customer service catastrophes. You may have heard of some of these stories:

  • In July 2014, Comcast first came under fire when an 18-minute recording, dubbed the “customer service call from hell” started making its rounds on the internet. Then there were reports of two separate occasions in which a frustrated customer service representative changed a customer’s name to “A--hole Brown” and “Super B---- Bauer,” who happened to be a 63-year-old woman who was having trouble with her cable.
  • Most recently, Comcast canceled service calls to Chicago’s South Side claiming a rise in violent crimes. A local priest called them out on Facebook and incited a storm of complaints. When you make a reverend say “Oh hell no,” you know you’ve got an issue on your hands. His post was shared thousands of times.


Don’t think this can only happen to Comcast.

A study by American Express found that 42% of customers will talk about a good customer experience on social media, while 53% will talk about a bad one. For B2B, those numbers are even higher. A different study conducted by support software company ZenDesk suggests:

98% of B2B customers say they’ve shared a negative customer experience with others, while 89% shared positive customer experiences.

So, what did Comcast do? In response to the public outcry for better service, Comcast hired 40 new "social care specialists" to respond to customers over social media, adding to its existing social staff of 20. These specialists will help with everything from scheduling appointments to troubleshooting Internet and setup problems. Now that sounds like a better experience already, doesn’t it?

Imagine how much money Comcast could have saved if they had gotten their public relations, social media and customer service departments together to talk about how they could best support customers before any issues happened.

Here is how that works: 

The Hybrid Social Strategy

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First, let’s start with some assumptions. In the customer experience ecosystem, Public Relations is responsible for handling communication with the media, possibly even the company blog, with the end goal of reaching customers with a specific message. Customer service is primarily concerned with handling support requests: troubleshooting, scheduling appointments, helping process refunds or returns. Their main responsibility is solving problems. Then there is social media, which (obviously) handles communication via social media channels. They are engaging customers with the end goal of building a relationship to inspire brand loyalty. 

All of these departments have one thing in common: They are all responsible for communicating with customers. That’s why these functions, PR, Customer Service and Social Media are crucial to the hybrid approach to social customer service – They must work together and find alignment to win over customers. This hybrid team, let’s call them, can take three main actions to provide an exceptional, unified customer service experience via social media. 

Step 1: Reduce Response Time

The first action is to work on reducing response time. This is the biggest issue in social customer service. Customers who reach out on social media expect a quick response from the brand. In fact, customers who ask a brand a question on Twitter expect a response within one hour. We as brands are failing at this.

A shocking 53% of questions asked on Twitter go completely unanswered. This failure to respond via social channels can lead to a 15% increase in the churn rate for existing customers.

If response time is a challenge, the hybrid team should work together to divvy up responsibilities. San Diego Gas & Electric, for example, has really mastered the art of social customer service. SDGE tackles social media by splitting up channel responsibilities. While its customer communication team handles Facebook primarily, the Customer Contact Center handles Twitter and supports the communication team on Facebook with any customer-specific questions.

This clearly works for them, as I myself have tweeted SDGE on several occasions, and have always received a response back within an hour (within normal business hours).

Another option is setting up a response protocol, basically compiling a list of frequently asked questions or anticipated questions and creating template answers for them. To do this, PR, Customer Service and Social should get in a room together and brainstorm responses. While customer service and social can compile questions, PR can help draft responses.

This is presumably what Comcast has done. They seem to have cleaned up their responses a bit after their PR crises this year, but they still have a long way to go. Most tweets in the last couple months seem to get a response between 9 – 24 hours later, which is still far from ideal.

Step 2: React Together

The hybrid team can also work on how they react to social media issues. This involves talking to one another in the event that a customer service complaint turns into a PR issue, such as the Comcast examples earlier.

Like most wildfires, situations tend to spread and get out of control quickly on social media. The social team needs to have eyes on the ground, watching for any sparks. As soon as a spark occurs, social brings customer service and PR into the situation. Together they figure out a way to put out the flame in a unified manner.

But being reactive can work in other directions as well. An issue can arise within customer service, perhaps as a frequently asked question, and they can bring it to PR and social to help communicate what is going on to cut down on the number of incoming inquiries. Likewise, PR can call up social and customer service to get aligned on messaging in a time of an outward crisis, such as a natural disaster, or an internal crisis, such as a scandal.

I’ll give you an example. One of my clients at 41 Orange is a restaurant chain in Southern California. Their customers, like the majority of restaurant customers, head to Yelp when they have a complaint. First, our social media team always responds to reviews with 3 stars and below to try to resolve the issue, many times offering them an incentive to return, such as a dessert voucher. We take it a step further and contact the store manager, in this case our “customer service” front, to share the feedback from the review. 

If an issue is popping up more than once, we know it's something that more people are noticing but perhaps not bringing to our attention. If we can deal with the issue at the store level, then we can provide better customer service right off the bat and prevent negative reviews from hitting online. Talking to one another ensures that all parties involved in the service experience are on the same page.

Step 3: Be Proactive

Lastly, the hybrid team can be proactive, working together to prevent social media fires, rather than putting them out.

This involves a high level of communication and collaboration between the three parts. When a controversial marketing campaign is about to launch, or some big service changes are being made, they can meet to discuss how to handle the potential backlash, or better yet, how to squash out the resistance all together. 

Here’s a good example for you. A good friend of mine heads up social media at an e-commerce corporation here in town. Their marketing team is under a lot of pressure to increase sales during the holidays, as most are. One of their recent tactics was to take out an ad on a very controversial radio talk show. They know this guy can move units for them like crazy, but they also know that his show is polarizing. Some customers are going to love it, while others are going to be extremely upset and may head to social media to make their opinions heard.

In preparation for the launch of this ad, she got together with PR and customer service to create a game plan. They not only came up with a unified message to present to upset customers, they also figured out a way to prevent the issue from getting out of hand. In conjunction with the ad run, she decided social media would be running a week of contests and giveaways on the brand’s social media channels to help pump up positivity, in an attempt to push down the negative responses to the ad.

By doing this, the three units can anticipate the potential onslaught of complaints and swiftly handle it before it blows up into a PR crisis. Being proactive with customer service, when you can, is always the best approach.

This Strategy Can Work For Any Brand

This hybrid strategy for social customer service can work for any organization whether you have dedicated departments or just a couple people.

The idea is getting multiple functions in one room to combine their skills and knowledge to offer a holistic customer service experience through social media. All parts have to talk to one another to do this. This hybrid team will be most effective when they reduce response times, react quickly to fires, and think proactively to prevent fires. If they can do that, they will help you win the hearts and minds of your customers. Consider this:

Customers who encounter positive social customer care experiences are nearly 3 times more likely to recommend a brand.

The better your customer service, the more customers will spread the word, and the better off your business will be for it.

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About the Author: Samantha Anderson

Samantha Anderson

Sam is a co-founder and inbound strategist at 41 Orange.