THE BLOG
10/31/2012 03:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2012

Brands, Social Media and Customer Service: Are You Ready?

I'm used to being the brand. I've put together social media strategies for customer service in the travel industry and I've also been the person on the front line of Facebook dealing with these issues. It was a steep learning curve; the whole industry is still trying to formulate what is best practise. But recently I became the customer and was both surprised and disappointed to find a major airline, who have built a substantial social media community, doing it all wrong.

What Not To Do

Firstly, if you provide a service or sell a product 24 hours you need to provide support or assistance for your customer's 24 hours of the day. I was trying to book a flight online at short notice and the system kept crashing. It was 9 p.m. and according to the website all phone lines were closed until the next day. So I sought help on Twitter and got no reply there either.

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I got no reply until after noon the next day at which point I was asked to repeat my problem. Radio silence ensued for another 30 minutes and then I was private messaged a phone number. An 0845 number which I was supposed to call from abroad.

Now generally if a customer reaches out to a brand on social media it is because they have exhausted other avenues or don't want to go down them. I could have called an 0845 number from my phone six hours ago, I didn't need them to tweet me that. I wanted someone to answer my question -- was I booked on the flight or not?

What to do

In my opinion brands like airlines that are likely to have customers with time sensitive and urgent issues need to monitor their social media accounts 24/7. If this is not the case then they need to at least set the expectation for the customer. Tell them what hours you man your channels and how soon they can expect a response. This can be a simple line in your twitter bio, in the image on your profile background and/or repeated as staff sign in and out via a first and last tweet of the day.

Respond in a timely manner. If each morning your staff have hundreds of mentions to get through -- hire more resources. No excuse. Use social media monitoring tools that enable staff to filter tweets according to urgency -- I am referring to time sensitivity issues here as opposed to dealing with 'online influencers' first (which makes no sense to me -- every customer is important regardless of their number of twitter followers).

Monitor all brand mentions. Employ a tool that sweeps social media for all mentions of your brand, many people will be having conversations about your brand without directly mentioning you. These customers need to be treated just as importantly as the ones who found your twitter handle.

Train the staff manning the channels to deal with customer complaints. If you build a community on social media and ask for engagement you will get complaints -- FACT. Have a strategy in place to deal with that. Give the staff on the channels the tools, knowledge and power they need to assist people efficiently. Handing out a number I could have found on the website is not good enough. Asking me to repeat my problem (which is all over my twitter timeline) is also not good enough. I expect my question to be answered, even if the answer is 'I'm looking into it.' I also expect communication in the manner most suitable for me. Ask the customer if they want to be contacted via twitter, email or phone and then do it. (In my situation I was called by customer service eventually and the problem then resolved swiftly. This should have been done in the first place, not because I demanded it.)

If the situation is being forwarded to someone other than the person I am dealing with on twitter, then send him or her a transcript of the twitter conversation. Don't make me repeat myself time and time again.

Be personable. If I am having a conversation back and forward on twitter I want to know who I am talking to. I was communicating with this brand via private message; those messages should be signed off by a person's name. I am more likely to respond kindly if I know the name of the human I am speaking to. I can also praise them if they do a good job.

Big brands, big communities, big issues will all need robust strategies and lots of resources to provide the services that customers are coming to expect on social media. Is your brand ready for it?