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The proactive approach to social customer service

The proactive approach to social customer service Jeannie Walters

There is no denying the power of the customer. Customer service is no longer the happy receptionist answering one phone line. Customers expect not only speedy reaction and adequate resolution to complaints -- they now expect brands and organizations to actively engage them before the complaint.

It can be a challenge when faced with limited resources and conflicting priorities. There are ways, however, to introduce customer service as a proactive customer experience channel instead of spending your time and efforts constantly reacting to negativity. Proactive social service should focus on the positive, and those responsible should not be afraid of taking risks, but there are a few ways to increase your chances for success.

Brand, know thyself

Understanding your own voice as a brand is critical to being proactive. It's difficult to carry on a conversation if you are busy worrying about how to best phrase something in corporate speak. The best brands on social media are the ones who aren't afraid to have some personality. Moosejaw Mountaineering has an incredibly active Facebook page where many posts don't highlight products or promote sales. Instead, it uses its playful brand personality to direct the conversations online. Guessing games, photos, and fan recognition are all part of the fun. Your brand promise and voice will attract the right customers. Don't disappoint them once they get there.

Get to know your customers

Conduct a quick review of your social media channels. If all you're doing is pushing content out, then don't expect much love from your customers in return. Find out what makes them tick by asking for their input. Offer polls, invite feedback, and even ask them to vote on your next big ideas. While Starbucks is a true leader here with the MyStarbucksIdea.com site for active customer ideas, it also recognizes how to use social media as a proactive space to hear from customers. To gently suggest Starbucks gift cards as end-of-year teacher gifts, it recently posted on Google+ a simple poll:

Teachers love ________.

A) What they do.
B) A little recognition.
C) Starbucks.
D) All of the above.

This is a simple yet powerful way to engage with customers while promoting business goals at the same time.

Provide useful content for customers' actual lives

When customers seek out your social channels by "liking" your Facebook page or following your brand on Twitter or Google+, they are doing so because they expect something in return. Never offering rewards for this public loyalty is a little one-sided, don't you think? However, rewards don't have to be just coupons or discounts. Customers can feel rewarded by great content that applies to them -- especially for B2B -- and by having the spotlight on them.

Hootsuite, a social media management platform, produces a ton of content that is useful to anyone interested in social media. Each week, it shares how and why the trending topics began to trend, what best practices are changing, and more. The reward for engaged fans is rich and valuable content that applies to the work they do. Hootsuite often answers customer questions via social media, but more often than not the content is produced and published to help customers in their actual jobs.

Don't use generic scripting

In an effort to be more proactive, some companies are actively finding brand mentions on social channels and responding with something along the lines of "sorry you are feeling this way, here's a link," which leads the already-upset customer to a generic customer service page. This is the opposite of proactive. Forcing the customer to then find the proper way to get anyone to respond is not customer service -- it's customer herding. Nobody likes to feel like they are being herded into the proper pen. The best companies reach out personally and find ways to help the customers who are having issues immediately. Often, this means requesting a time and number to call. It's also important to honor those commitments. Nothing feels worse to a customer than waiting by the phone to solve an issue and then not receiving the call. Treat customers as individuals.

Creatively listen

Too often, brands set up careful monitoring via social channels of nothing more than their brand and product names. Proactive social customer service is about finding those customers -- and almost-customers -- that have problems to solve. If you are truly proactive, you set up searches for phrases your customers are likely to use. For example, when GoDaddy disappointed many female customers with its over-the-top Super Bowl commercials, smart competitors reached out via social media to appeal to the many women who canceled their accounts. Search for phrases your customers might use -- or what your target market might be discussing -- with or without your brand name, but be careful with how you engage. If someone on Twitter is talking to a friend about the experience without explicitly calling on the brand (via the @ reply), consider it a private conversation. If someone is publicly discussing an experience or asking questions that relate directly to how your brand could help, it's OK to reply with a non-threatening and non-sales like response.

Responding to customers via social media will always play an important role in outstanding customer experiences. But don't limit your attention to reaction and damage control. Instead, look for ways you can reach out to customers to enhance their experience before they have a complaint at all. Customers who are more engaged with your brand are more likely to give a little wiggle room when something does go wrong. If the brand has already been engaging, the customer will also feel more comfortable trying to find a solution to an issue. The investment in proactive social customer service will provide long-term benefits for those who get it right.

Jeannie Walters is the CEO and founder of 360Connext.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Proactive and reactive handwritten with white chalk" image via Shutterstock.

Jeannie Walters, CEO and Founder of Experience Investigators by 360Connext, has spent more than 20 years evaluating and improving customer experiences and teaching her trademarked methodology to enlightened leaders in many industries. She is a...

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