The Benefits of Social Customer Service
Transparency: Yes, the mere mention of transparency in some brands causes accelerated breathing and sweaty palms. But this is exactly what consumers and buyers want in their partners and brands. They don't expect you to be perfect, but they expect you to tell it like it is. Accept your weaknesses, admit to your faults, say you're sorry when you do something wrong. Do that in real-time (have the courage to do so!) and not only will your current customers be more loyal to you, but you'll be surprised how quickly transparency will convert the cautious and skeptical to your side.
Credibility: By exposing yourself to the good, bad and ugly of the marketplace, you make everything else you do more sincere and credible. By enabling and embracing transparency, you by definition create credibility for yourself and your brand. Even those who still don't completely accept you, or prefer your competitors, can't help but admire your position and openness. And credibility (a close cousin of trust) is the foundation of any strong, long-term relationship.
Humanity: Guess what? Behind every strong company, every brand, every building - are people. Real people build the product, provide the service, and innovate what you see today into the products, services and solutions of tomorrow. Show the humanity of the people behind your brand through your social media outlets - directly in front of and in exchanges with your customers - and they'll be attracted to you all the more.
Community: Perhaps the best part of social media's opportunity for customer service is that we're no longer talking at our customers. Every interaction is an opportunity to not only facilitate a two-way conversation, but open that conversation to other customers to foster and enhance the feeling of community. Combine transparency and humanity with community, and the bonds get stronger.
How to Execute Social Customer Service
24-7 Monitoring: You have to watch, all the time. If something blows up on a Friday night, it's not OK to wait to respond until Monday morning. This mentality worked when communication was both interruptive and one-way, and when the call center shut down in the evening hours. But social media doesn't work that way. Your customers (and detractors) will talk whenever they feel like it. You (and your team, and your fans) need to pay closer and wider attention to what's going on and what's being said so you can address, correct and/or amplify messages as appropriate.
Fast Response Time: Even if you're just saying "let me check & I'll get back to you", respond quickly. Don't let open-ended questions and opinions hang out there without a response.
Customers Helping Customers: You (and your team) don't need to be the only respondent when someone asks a question. Your customers can help each other as well. Give customers access to your social media channels, and encourage them to self-support each other with answers, best practices, usage tips and more.
Empower Customers as Community Leaders: If you know who your most active, supportive customers are, why not "promote" them to community leaders? Give them a discount or special consideration with your product, service or brand in exchange for actively participating in forums on your behalf. Customers helping customers will always work more credibly than brands helping customers, plus it takes more of the load off of your shoulders (particularly important for resource-constricted companies).
Throw a Party for New Customers: Do your new customers feel welcome, or are they intimidated by their lack of experience and knowledge? Make them feel welcome in your social community. Invite them to introduce themselves, and share a story (or two) about what they're doing and how they're using what you're selling. This sharing alone will make them feel a part of the community, will immediately help you (and your community leaders) understand how they might be able to help, and will increase their likelihood to come back to you first if they have questions, concerns or complaints.
Allow the Community to Save Those Who Want To Leave: There will always be those who want to leave. For whatever their reason, they're ready to move to another product or service. Many companies have a "save team" of individuals focused on talking those customers into staying. But what if your loyal customers had that job? Wouldn't they more credibly be able to ascertain what the problem is, suggest alternative solutions, and convert a higher percentage of those potential defectors back into the fold?
Publicize Availability in All Channels: Do your customers know where your social communities are? Do they know how to find you at 1:00 in the morning? How are you helping brand new customers discover these channels & resources? The more customers discover and engage these social customer service opportunities, the more likely they'll engage with the community and accelerate their satisfaction and loyalty (not to mention decrease cost of your more traditional, resource-intensive customer service options).
It's Not Just About Twitter!: Know your customers, and know which social channels they're more likely to engage with. Twitter is valuable, sure, but so is Facebook, LinkedIn, discussion forums, wikis, blogs and more. Find out where your customers are more likely to engage, and put your focus there (at least initially).
Organizational Implementation Advice
Customer Service is the New Marketing: Let's face it, if you successfully implement social customer service, your customer service organization will be engaged with your customer more often and more frequently than traditional marketing channels. Doesn't that mean customer service is now as if not more important to shaping customer perceptions, brand preference and purchase activity? If you started your organization from scratch, I bet customer service and marketing would be the same thing, and in the same organization. Treat it that way now and things work better, more smoothly and more successfully.
Keep Legal Out Of It: Tell them what you're doing, but keep them out of the day-to-day. Don't let them edit your Facebook account, your Tweets, or your back-and-forth. They don't review every conversation and email from your customer service organization today, so why would social media channels be any different?
Executive Support is Key: They don't need to be involved every day (although their active presence in your social channels can accelerate credibility & humanity), but your executive team needs to strongly and publicly endorse what you're doing. Many others are likely to want to slow down or limit how transparent and pervasive social channels are executed in your customer service plan. Active executive sponsorship can nip that in the bud, quickly.
Choose & Train Participants: Don't assume everyone in your customer service organization will know how to best engage customers in these open channels. Don't go overboard with rules and brand restrictions, but give participants some training, guidelines and even some role-playing to show what's expected and what's possible.
Reward Engagement & Behavior: This applies both to your internal staff as well as your loyal customers. Encourage, recognize and reward positive interactions, speedy responses to issues, and success stories where your newly-leverage social customer service channels have won over a skeptic, saved a fading customer, or created a new brand loyalist for life.