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Expert's Angle: 4 Steps to Create a Social Media Strategy with a Customer Service Focus

Stating that social media has changed the landscape of business and how we communicate with our customers would be too obvious. I don’t believe much will change in the social-sphere in 2013; the popular organizations and brands will continue to engage their customers even when the conversation is unpleasant. What will come to surface in 2013? I predict that we will grow to distrust organizations whose only motivation is to convert their audience into customers, rather than nurture those relationships.

The brands with the most admired social media personalities - like Zappos - all have customer service at the core of their social customer service efforts. What these companies have mastered is that they are online to serve the customer, not to drive sales and promote their own agenda. By having customer service embedded into the ‘DNA’ of their social outreach program, these brands have built up customer trust that will, in time, increase their sales. Customer trust is the ROI of social customer service. By focusing your social media strategy to support your customer service, it will ensure a valuable experience for your customers.

Here are four steps to help you build a social media strategy focused on social customer service.

1. Understand why you need to have a social media strategy, and then spread the message across your organization.

Ask five business people why they are using social media and you might get five different answers. Some are doing it because it’s the most adopted business practice in recent history, while others are doing it to increase brand awareness. The number of reasons can almost be endless, however your number one priority is to serve your customer. Consider this as you build out your social customer service strategy. If your strategy has already been built, you can still audit your current program. Take a look at how it operates and speak with the team who manages it. If your social media strategy has not been built to be a customer service channel before anything else, then you have an opportunity to make some improvements. The most respected organizations using social media understand at all levels exactly why they are using these tools for customer service.

2. Understand that an online complaint is just as important as one in the real world.

If a customer complains in the real world and no one is around to hear it, does it still hurt the brand? A customer complaint in the real world can travel from person to person but can quickly lose momentum. However, we’ve learned that a complaint in the virtual world can receive millions of impressions. Take, for example, the United Breaks Guitars video by Dave Carroll, the United Airlines passenger who had his guitar broken by the airline. In fact, a complaint online can be much more damaging to an organization or brand than any situation in the real world. Too often, organizations see a complaint as a threat to their business and try to simply put out the fire. An organization with a social media strategy focused around customer service understands that complaints can be your allies rather than enemy. Respected organizations will embrace customer complaints, regardless of channel, and often make a relationship with that customer even stronger.

3. Set service level agreements (SLAs) to respond to your customers.

It’s very likely that you have reached out to an organization through their social media channels, but didn’t hear back. In the real world, that’s the equivalent to going to a brick and mortar store, knocking on the door and having no one answer. Too many organizations have a social media presence for customer service but don’t mandate when they will respond to their customers. Some organizations have been known to respond within 15 or 30 minutes, which is very impressive. I understand that some organizations can’t afford to have a full-time team dedicated to social media, but its important to make sure to set an SLA for a social response time that’s as quick as possible and view it as one of the most important things you will do. After all, your customer is trying to have a conversation with you, isn’t that why we are in this business? To service our customers and build relationships?

4. Be genuine.

The other day I tweeted at a company I had just made a purchased from and received an automated response. It lacked personality and just wasn’t sincere. If you are going to use social media as a customer service tool make you sure are being genuine. One organization I admire for doing this is Westjet, a Canadian-based airline, because they have fun with their social media and ensure that customer service is at the forefront of their efforts. Don’t offer customer service through social media if you aren’t going to be genuine and sincerely care about the quality of service you provide.

When social media first began to gain traction as a customer service tool a few years ago, many organizations jumped at the opportunity. As a result, this caused a lot of confusion internally, because many organizations didn’t know which foot to put forward first. Many asked questions such as, "How can we increase sales?" "Can we use this to promote our latest product?" "Should we use it to advertise our sales?"

Now, most of us have had some experience with social media and social service. We are also looking to the example of the most admired and popular organizations and how they are putting customer service first through social media. By following their example, you will position yourself as an organization that cares for its customers, and caring builds trust. People will buy off the trust of others, so go out and use social media as your customer service channel before you try and convert customers you have not yet built trust with.