Three Tips to Optimize Your Social Media Success

Like us! Follow us! Click here to join! In less than a decade, social media channels have grown from exclusive virtual communities to expansive worldwide social and professional networks. That growth has brought innumerable opportunities for intrepid companies that hope to tap vast consumer communities to expand their brands—and their revenue.

More and more organizations are adopting social media channels to communicate with existing and prospective customers. Social channels are no longer just places consumers visit to interact with each other: Today's consumers actively choose the brands they want to follow, and they share their brand preferences with others in their networks. They may seek coupon codes or participate in contests, but increasingly, they also flock to social channels to interact directly with product and service providers.

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have evolved from mere "fan" sites to legitimate customer care channels. Leading companies use social channels for everything from product inquiries to technical troubleshooting, delivery issues to special requests—and with good reason. Recent Bain & Company research notes that when organizations respond to customer service requests using social media tools, their customers spend between 20 and 40 percent more than they would using traditional online or physical options.

Social media tools also boost the bottom line. By transforming social media sites into self-help destinations, organizations can provide resources to address a wide range of common inquiries. Resources may include blog posts, FAQs, comments or ratings from other customers, news items, or other content-driven solutions, none of which require the investments phone systems call for. Even organizations that offer live chat tools can save money, as chat resources can respond to multiple inquiries at once—something a telephone operator or IVR system simply can't do.

As a result, companies can reduce the amount of high-cost traffic that routes to their contact centers, and consumers can get the high-quality care they expect. In fact, consumer-generated content—whether in the form of a review or rating or as a response to a company's reply—ultimately helps other consumers as well, providing yet another avenue for increased brand reach and satisfaction and driving down costs by reducing the number of new inquiries and requests.

But beware: Social consumers are savvy and sensitive to even the merest hint of pandering. Additionally, the putative rules of social media are still under construction. Neither businesses nor consumers have weighed in definitively on the protocol and guidelines that should govern the social-care sphere. This trial-and-error approach has been a thorny path for some early adopters that sought to leverage social media for customer service. A recent report from NM Incite shows that just 36 percent of consumers who choose social media channels to make customer service inquiries feel that their concerns are addressed quickly and effectively. If the old adage that "a happy customer will tell one person about his or her experience but an unhappy customer will tell 100" is true, the stakes are high indeed for organizations that don't get it right.

To help organizations get it right straight out of the gate, here are three tips to transform social media channels into productive and profitable self-care centers:

Choose the right medium

There are so many social channels to choose from—Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn are the most popular, but by no means form a complete list. The diversity of channels and the different varieties of customer contact each is well suited to support means there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Successful companies should adopt hybrid models that continue to direct customers to preferred care channels while incorporating channels that provide the most constructive feedback. Facebook and Twitter provide good platforms for customer care because they support continual feedback and dialogue, but a company that relies on near-real-time communication with its customers might do best by concentrating more resources on Twitter. Organizations such as Nike and JetBlue have dedicated customer service handles on Twitter, allowing customers to know where to go when they have issues that need to be resolved quickly, rather than referring them to a forum that allows them to vent or complain without providing a quick resolution.

Set customer expectations

Setting expectations is just as important in the online world as it is offline. A Social Habit survey finds that 32 percent of social customers expect a response within 30 minutes and 42 percent expect one within an hour—which is as close to real time as it gets. Companies that staff social media channels to meet these aggressive timelines should communicate that promise to customers, and companies that require a longer response time should communicate their response commitments as well. The most important thing is to tell customers what they can expect and then deliver to that expectation. Period.

Don't confuse speed with quality

Frequently, a poor response does more damage than no response at all. Successful companies must consider both the timeliness and accuracy of their responses. Canned boilerplate messages fall flat in the social media environment, so be prepared to build personalized responses that make your customers feel heard. Comcast executes against the speed/quality challenge very well. The company provides a dedicated social media customer care team that is not only responsive but technically savvy and prepared to answer questions quickly with the tangible and action-oriented answers customers expect. The result is a faster resolution and a more satisfied customer.

There is no denying that social media has a key place in customer self-service, but not all social channels are created equally. Investing in the right channels, listening to your customers, and educating customers about what they can expect creates the smoothest path to success, regardless of company size or industry. Embracing social self-service opportunities can not only reduce support costs, but can deliver more profitable and loyal customers as well.

Matt Kearney is a product management executive at CSG International.

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