One fear is that dealing with complaints publicly online may tarnish the flawless public perception of a brand. I would suggest that the opposite is true: brands who are brave enough to deal with their customers openly online are actually giving tangible evidence of their commitment to their customers

The fact is that people are already discussing companies online. They’re complaining, explaining and sharing their thoughts and experiences. Brands on the other hand are often only engaged in push messaging online and not dealing with the more negative issues that customers have. This approach is fatally flawed: A 2011 Conversocial survey found that if ignored by brands on social media sites, 45 percent of respondents would be angry, and 27.1 percent said they would no longer deal with the company. In other words, you're losing by not responding.  

“He who is absent is always wrong” – French Idiom

On the other hand, the 2011 Retail Consumer Review  survey found that by listening and proactively responding on the social web, retailers have a chance to turn disgruntled customers into social advocates. Of those who received a reply in response to their negative review:

  • 33% turned around and posted a positive review;
  • 34% deleted their original negative review; and
  • 18% turned into loyal customers and bought more.

A large part of the success of South African online retailer Yuppie Chef is their exceptional customer service. Rather than begrudging customer complaints, they treat them as an opportunity to show their commitment to delighting their customers and delivering on their promises. If, for example, a customer mentions that a pan is delivered in less than perfect condition they immediately dispatch another one, rather than grilling the customer to shift the blame, as many other retailers do. This, ultimately, builds trust and loyalty even if some people do occasionally take advantage.

One of the questions that comes up is what online channel is best for customer support? My belief is that true customer centricity demands that you provide support where the customers are: Hello Peter, Facebook, Forums, Twitter and Blog Posts are all public channels and your social media support should extend to supporting them. I also think that it's a great idea to open up IM support on Mxit, or being available on BBM and Whatsapp. I personally resent being forced to call the call centre whenever I've got an issue with a big company, and also text is much more convenient for me as a customer. 

Customer expectations of online response times. 

Customer expectations of online response times. 

Responding to customer issues online is becoming a hygeine factor, and now leading brands should differente themselves by how quickly they respond online. Most customers (70%) expect a response between 8 - 24 hours of an online complaint. However, brands that respond within 10 minutes of a complaint are likely to impress everyone, including the 16% of customers who expect an immediate response. (Business Insider)

Doing Social Media Customer Service for large company properly requires commitment, investment, a dedicated team, and specialised training.  Discovery Health is one of a few brands that excels in Social Media customer support. They have a dedicated social media response team who are well versed in all the company policies, and are empowered to resolve customer complaints and escalate issues as high as they need to go in order to be resolved. Now, bear in mind that they're dealing with life and death issues along with all the complexities of medical insurance, and you realise that this is no small undertaking, and they've had to invest heavily in training a social media support team that not only resolves customer issues speedily, but also represents the brand well online.

Virgin Active South Africa tracks mentions of their brand on Twitter and often chimes in with answers, suggestions, as well as co-ordinating responses at gyms around the country. The tone of voice is energetic, positive and informal while also showing the appropriate urgency that indicates the importance of customer service to Virgin SA. 

FNB's RB Jacobs is an oft-cited example of an exemplary customer service by a South African company on Twitter. The account is backed by a dedicated team who are online throughout the day. In addition to this, CEO Michael Jordaan often gets involved in addressing large issues using his own Twitter account to engage with customers and the media. This has led to a lot of brand-love for FNB. A social-savvy leader can make a huge difference to a brand's online reputation. 

Dell was one of the first large companies to establish a dedicated social support centre, and provides the following guidelines for brands or brand representatives responding to issues on social media, including a note on the appropriate tone: 

Dell's online response check-list.

Dell's online response check-list.

Deal with issues before they become crises: McDonalds Canada recently shot a video that dealt with the fact that the pictures of food in their adverts look better than what they serve in branches. The result is a short video that has been viewed millions of times. 

By the time a customer mentions a complaint or issue on social media they have often exhausted the traditional complaint channels. This is why it's important to prioritise online complaints. For one thing, these customers are probably more irate than usual. For another, these customers are more influential than your average customer simply because they are publishing their views publicly. 

Despite all the benefits, it's still not the norm to deliver customer service on social media, and in fact 61% of consumers would be shocked if a retailer responded to their negative comment on the social web (MediaPost). While some brands may use this as justification not to respond, the most customer-centric brands will see it as an opportunity for delight

I'd love to hear your perspectives and experiences on Social Media Customer Service. Please share in the comments section below. 

AuthorDave Duarte
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"These are a few of my favourite things". Image by Conorwithonen on Flickr

"These are a few of my favourite things". Image by Conorwithonen on Flickr

The phenomenon of Social Media is revolutionary in the truest sense. Citizens, Consumers and Communities can now organize without “organizations”.  It is an issue, then, that Organizations need to take very seriously.

While Social Media may seem to some to be a bunch of online websites and mobile applications, it is in fact a cultural phenomenon that is coming to define our times.

These websites have all emerged as a result of the convergence between people’s fundamental social needs and a host of enabling technologies - the founders didn’t invent online social media, they responded to an emerging trend with well-designed database-backed websites that made it easier for people to do what they already wanted to do.

It’s useful to distinguish between the tools that we use, and the trends that enable their use. Making this distinction will ensure that we invest our effort in ways that are meaningful as opposed to simply ‘cool’. To make this clear, try consider Social Media in terms of Trifles, Trends and Truths:

Trifles are fashionable at a particular time, but aren’t likely to represent a major societal shift by themselves. In the product world this could be something like skinny jeans - it might seem like a great idea right now, but in time that feeling will pass. The technical world is filled with trifles - thousands of websites and applications that are launched every month, each one promising to be the next big thing. Trifles are here today gone tomorrow. Even giant companies like Facebook and Twitter could be seen as Trifles, because there are no guarantees that they’ll be around in a couple of years - we’ve certainly seen many other large companies come and go in recent years.

Trends are more sustainable shifts in commerce and culture than any particular company or product can represent. Whereas may be a Trifle, Social Media and people’s capability and desire to share their perspectives online is a Trend. The trend is large, millions of people and thousands of companies are behind it, and it’s likely to shape the way we all do things over the coming years.

Truths underpin and enable any trend. The closer a Trifle or Trend is aligned with a human Truth, the more likely it is to be sustainable. The human truth of Social Media is that people are fundamentally social. People’s need to connect with each other is almost as high up as the survival instinct. Combine this powerful natural driver with web-based tools to enable social connection with mobile devices that connect seamlessly to the web, and you have the makings of a major behavioral shift. People are responding compulsively to the opportunity to do social grooming whenever and wherever.

The idea is to align why you use technologies to the truths (and this is the most important work you can do), what you do to the trends, and how you do it to the trifles.

Digital Nomads

The use of mobile phones is a particularly interesting trend to pay attention to. Smart phones -  that enable web browsing and applications - grant us the wherever, whenever access to our social networks that we so compulsively desire.

The first mobile social-network was your phone’s contact list, and it was every bit as revolutionary as Facebook’s social graph - if not more so. The contact list in the phone in your pocket accompanies you to work, and the work-places of your “friends” (I use inverted commas because we all know how far the definition of “friend” is stretched in social media). The effect of which is to blur the boundaries between our social-lives and our work-lives. No need to deny you use your phone, however occasionally, for personal communication while at work - the research shows that we all do it.

The thing is that your work life is probably creeping into your social life too. Email is no-longer confined to your desktop. Thanks to mobile devices it now follows you around to dates, lines at the supermarket, and even holidays.

In this way we are digital nomads: mobility allows us to roam with our economic and social structure carried with us in tiny digital caravans. We’re seeing the enterprisation of our social lives, and the socialisation of our enterprises.

Companies around the world have blocked Social Media access at work, because it’s seen as an unproductive waste of time. However, as we all know - with the rise of smart-phones, people are accessing Social Media media at the office anyway.

The good news, though, is that research conducted at the University of Melbourne has shown that a certain amount of free web browsing is actually conducive to productivity, as long as it doesn’t take up more than 20% of our day.


This blurring of boundaries can have a host of unforeseen consequences. For one thing, there’s a general sense that we are all more busy and distracted than ever before.  There’s always something demanding our attention.

Multitasking has gone to another level. Tabbed browsing online, multiple applications running on your computer, and people contacting you on various devices and channels - everything urgent, everything “real-time”. While media multi-tasking may have seemed like a good idea some-time in the 90’s, it was clearly a trifle, because subsequent research has shown that it may have adverse affects on memory and brain function.

Do you ever get anxious when looking at your email? You could be suffering from “Email Apnea” - the tendency to hold your breath when dealing with an over-full inbox. This nasty little unconscious habit activates your sympathetic nervous system to kick-in the fight-or-flight response - so your poor body thinks it’s being chased by a mammoth animal while you’re just sitting at your desk. This is generally experienced as “stress”, which by the way can make you fat.

A simple way to deal with this overload is to just force yourself to single-task. Commit uninterrupted time to complete work tasks, enjoy short guilt-free social-media breaks between, and take regular “tech-free” sabbaticals on holidays and weekends.

Social Media and Reputation

Time-wasting is perhaps the least of company worries when it comes to social-media. With entire organizations connecting to the outside world publicly, the potential for PR blunders, Wikileak-type scandals, and general impropriety is greatly enhanced.

Qantas Airlines discovered this earlier this year when their share price was significantly affected by a false rumour that emerged on Twitter. The hard-earned lesson, in words of their CEO, Alan Joyce: "In this modern day and age with social media, you have to be responsive immediately. You have to be out there with the facts very fast, so it's changing the whole dynamic and speed to market that organisations like Qantas have to respond to."

It’s not just companies that need to be mindful of social media. It has become standard hiring practice to do a Google search on someone before hiring them. Have you Googled yourself? What comes up there is colloquially called your “Google CV” - the contemporary alternative to the paper version. If you want to take control of the impression you make online, the best advice I can give you is to ask yourself if you’d be happy for your boss or clients to see what you’re uploading. If not, don’t post it.

Clearly it’s not possible to stop people from using social media, so the most viable response seems to be simply to educate people on responsible online activity. Forward-thinking companies have drafted official Social Media guidelines for staff, along with ongoing training to help people use these powerful tools responsibly, professionally, and sustainably.

Radical Authenticity

One of the fears that people have with all this online use is that Big Brother is watching us, but with all our millions of tiny cell-phone cameras, tweets and wikis, the bigger story is that we are now watching Big Brother.

With the explosion of information available online - much of it unreliable - we have become far more skeptical consumers.The true currency of the web today is Trust. And Trust is built over time by aligning what is said with what is done.

Ultimately, social media is not just a communications channel that can be managed and controlled. It is a not a set of technologies to be mastered, it is a cultural reality to be engaged with. It promises to expose the corrupt and reveal the extraordinary, and if nothing else it is to guaranteed to keep us on our toes. It is chaotic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. So the best social media strategy, then, is not a strategy at all, it is to be purposeful, ethical, and transparent and let our communications and behaviours flow from that.


If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in a course I'm running in July for UCT Graduate School of Business: Nomadic Leadership

AuthorDave Duarte
3 CommentsPost a comment