It's been said that the playing field on which brands and consumers face off has never been more level thanks to the rise of social platforms such as Facebook, and Twitter and that in-turn is changing the nature of customer service. There may be truth to that, but social networks haven't given consumers a voice -- they've always had one. What the likes of Facebook and Twitter have done is give consumers a stage and an audience.
That's what Kemp Edmonds believes. A sales engineer for Vancouver-based HootSuite Inc. and digital media strategist, he says companies have to act more transparently and quickly. Thinking fast reminds him of fast food.
He cites two recent examples from McDonald's and Burger King starting with the plight of University of Toronto professor Steve Mann who wears a computer device to enhance his sight. Mann wrote a blog post detailing how he was "physically assaulted" in a McDonald's in France in recent weeks. The story spread on social networks like an Alberta wildfire raging out of control.
"The post spread and so did the story but their PR response was nothing short of masterful," Edmonds says. "About 12 to 24 hours after (Mann's blog) was posted, McDonald's issued a one sentence response indicating that they're taking it very seriously and are conducting a thorough investigation."
About 48 hours later, McDonald's confirmed there was an incident between its' staff and Mann but they also confirmed that there was absolutely no physical assault and each franchise operates under different rules regarding photography. "The story died on the vine. Transparent."
Edmonds also points to Burger King's usage of social media when a photo of one of its' employees was posted online with their feet in a lettuce bin. The restaurant chain turned to the online community at 4Chan for help identifying the employee.
"The 4Chan community was able to pull the underlying data from the image including location and that was used to track it to the restaurant. Management was contacted and by the time the news reporters came knocking at Burger King's door, they had already fired the offending employee," he recounts. "Companies don't have to rethink their strategies, they just have to make them more customer-centric, responsive and innovative."
It would help them to make exceptional stories and experiences especially in customer service and social media is a great way to do that, he adds.
The growth of social media and its use by consumers to interact with brands, or share their opinion on brands, has caused a monumental shift in the power dynamic between consumers and brands, opines Monika Rola, account director, Argyle Communications in Toronto.
"In the Canadian market, there are undoubtedly companies who understand the role social media has to play in their customer service strategy, but there are far too many organizations which still view social media as a small add-on to the traditional customer service tools they've always used," she says. "There is still a need to understand that customer interaction via social media has to be thought of not at the execution end of customer service, but at the very high level strategic thinking and vision stage."
There's something to be said for that. A recent study by American Express found that customers who receive good service on social networks are significantly more likely to buy from that brand again.
Which begs the question: are traditional customer service roles and the usage of outsourced customer call centres at big companies shifting to become more home-based and social?
"Social media isn't going to replace traditional call centres outright, but we want to make sure we're helping our customers where they want to be helped," remarks Keith McArthur, vice-president of social media at Rogers Communications in Toronto. "For some this will be Twitter. Others will want to use self-serve tools or our peer-to-peer support communities. Others will continue to pick up the phone."
A company needs to listen to its customers whether the feedback is coming in to sales reps in a store, into a call centre, or through conversations in social media, McArthur says. "When that happens, and a company is in tune with the pulse of its customers, potential nightmare scenarios can usually be anticipated and managed or avoided altogether."
A speedy reply to a customer complaint or inquiry is essential but there's more to it than a rapid-fire response, he adds. Getting into a social firefight with customers isn't a winning proposition.
"Both are important. We've found that customers want to know we're listening and responsive, so getting back to them quickly is important," McArthur says. "But our first response to an inquiry may simply be to seek out more information or to let them know we're looking into their concerns. Once we've responded with our first contact, they are usually patient and willing to let us take the time to get it right."
Although top research consultancies like Gartner Inc. have been predicting that social media customer service will soon replace or supplement Tier 1 contact centre support in a large percentage of top 1,000 companies with a call centre, Argyle's Rola believes we'll see more of a supplementation rather than replacement model for most brands.
"Though there is a huge benefit for community managers having an active customer service role, there are still some real limitations that social media platforms present, which make it very beneficial to maintain a customer service representative pool," she says. "For example, while Twitter is an excellent tool for customers and brands to connect quickly, it's difficult to have a meaningful conversation within a 140 character limit."
And she rightly points out Internet access is still a challenge for some rural and remote communities in this country.
"Customers in those areas may not have the option to utilize social media and need additional tools at their disposal," she continues. "There are also population demographics complexities that many companies have to deal with on a daily basis. Aging populations for example; although quickly growing in their acceptance of social media, they may still very much prefer to have a phone conversation rather than one on a social network."