Supply LinesdadsVolume 25 - 2012  • Subscribe

 

 

There’s no denying that social media is a powerhouse when it comes to connecting with your customers—yet many companies still hesitate to use it, fearing the unpredictable nature of online comments. Of course you want people blogging and tweeting when they’re delighted with your product or service, but what if they say something less than flattering?

 

If you cringe at the prospect of a negative customer experience going viral, you’re certainly not alone. But online, even complaints can be turned to your advantage. It’s just a matter of handling them the right way, and it’s not as hard as you might think.

 

Grace Under Fire: The Importance of Getting Involved

A recent TechCrunch article reports that the number of people using social media has now surpassed one billion, and Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with over 900 million active users. With so many people expressing their likes and dislikes for all the world to see, a strong social media presence can mean both huge opportunity and potential catastrophe. “I cannot think of a brand that doesn’t live with some type of risk of a crisis erupting in social and digital media,” says John Bell, global managing director of Social@Ogilvy.

 

Even if your company isn’t yet leveraging social media, your fans and detractors certainly are—and they’ll express their opinions with you or without you. Your brand is actually better off becoming an active participant so you can steer conversations in a positive direction and swiftly address any issues that arise. Here are some tips to help.

 

  • Invite feedback of all types. Though it may seem counterintuitive to open your doors to critics, if someone needs to vent, it’s best if they do it on your brand’s Facebook page, LinkedIn group, or blog. The last thing you need is a disgruntled customer fuming behind privacy settings where you can’t see what he says, but all his friends can. Providing a public place for your customers to ask questions and discuss your company’s offerings is a smart strategy, because it lets you more easily see and respond to their concerns (these examples cited by mashable.com illustrate how well this can work). At the same time, you’ve rolled out the welcome mat for all your fans. Their words have far more impact than the most carefully crafted marketing message; by keeping the conversation open, you make it easier for them to come to your defense and speak for you.
  • Turn brand detractors into brand advocates. Intervening effectively when someone has a complaint can actually work to your advantage. If a person is criticizing you on a random blog or tweet, they generally don’t expect to be noticed by the target of their attack. But if you can detect that mention and respond with attention and care, the person is likely to be surprised and pleased that you heard them—and then tweet about the experience. If you handle the situation well, unhappy customers may reverse their opinion and start recommending your company to friends simply because of your great customer service. These customers can then become your best brand ambassadors.
  • Accept the bad with the good. Expect a wide mix of comments, and don’t be disappointed if you seem to attract customers with problems. Since people have a stronger drive to vocalize complaints than praise, that’s only natural. In fact, savvy surfers may be suspicious of a web page containing only kudos—it smacks of censorship. Acknowledging problems and complaints provides an opportunity to demonstrate how much your company cares about customer satisfaction, and that’s something you want people to see.
  • Be transparent and responsive. Whatever the mechanism, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and respond quickly. If someone posts a criticism or complaint the worst thing you can do is try to take it down, whether it happens at your online home or elsewhere. Instead, consider it an opportunity to connect with your customers at the time they need you most—when there’s a problem, you don’t want to sweep it under the rug, you want to fix it. You also want that process to be visible, so others can see how well your company cares for its customers. And that builds trust for your brand.
  • Take advantage of listening tools to nip problems in the bud. People tend to ping their social network when they’re peeved or need answers in a hurry. The sooner you catch a problem, the less time it has to fester. So keep your ear to the cyber-ground by utilizing online listening tools. Free tools like Google Alerts and HootSuite can effectively monitor new mentions in real time, so even if you’re a small seller, you can easily allocate the resources to manage your social presence. If you have budget available, paid tools offer additional tracking and listening options that can prove very helpful in certain situations.
  • Play nice, play often. Stay in touch with your visitors and remain courteous at all times, especially when a commenter is angry. The best approach is to calmly offer assistance in resolving their issue, without getting confrontational. The rules of social media are really no different than what you were taught as a child: if it’s inappropriate, don’t say it. And remember that once you do say something, you can’t take it back. So keep your cool, but don’t ignore problems. Nothing damages customer perception more than a neglected social media site full of complaints! Even if you can’t offer an immediate solution, at least post a response expressing concern about the issue and what you’re doing to solve it. And if you don’t know the answer, connect them to someone who does—then follow up to ensure the matter is resolved to their satisfaction.
  • Use privacy sparingly. Occasionally it may be wiser to discuss certain issues privately—e.g., if the complaint centers around a personal matter, mentions another company or customer, or might embarrass the customer—and in those cases you should respond publicly that you understand, you’re sorry, and you’ll contact the person with a private message. In those instances, once the matter is taken care of, go back and post a remark that you were glad you could help, or some other indication making it clear to future visitors that the issue was resolved.
  • Do your homework and follow up. Before you set up a social media platform of your own, consider the staff time needed to manage it and the various complaints you might encounter, then develop an action plan to handle them in a timely fashion. Scenario mapping and guidelines for creating a crisis-response team can be useful in this regard. For day-to-day tracking, though, most companies should be able to get through their social media comments in less than an hour, and it’s smart to do that at least twice a day: when you first get in, and last thing before you leave.
  • Stay involved in the conversation. Your customers go online for relationships and interaction. They need to feel you value not only their business, but them—and that means continually responding to the input and feedback they provide.

 

As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” With the right strategy and approach, you can turn everything people say into good news for your business.