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Integrating Customer Support into Social Media

Obviously, social customers have a voice. And since the birth of channels such as Twitter, they also have an audience, some big and some small. Regardless of the audience size, these consumers have no problem slamming companies that offer substandard customer service or products. Even worse is that many of these critical conversations on Twitter, blogs, and review sites appear in search results for others to read—and they live on the Internet forever. This new, disruptive behavior from the social customer is causing chaos to companies big and small, and forcing them to adapt their business models.

There's perhaps no better native and out-of-the-box use for social media in business than for customer support. The social customer is online and increasingly bound to social media networks of all types. A 2009 study by Cone Research revealed that 43 percent of consumers expect companies to use social networks to solve consumers' problems. It's no surprise, then, that these same customers also assign enormous convenience value to resolving the inevitable customer support problem via their favorite social network.

Companies can integrate customer support initiatives with social media in two ways. The first is to assign social media practitioners to data-mine the Internet looking for customer support-related inquiries that they can respond to. This can be achieved easily by investing in social media listening software and monitoring brand- or product-related terms (see Chapter 2, "Surveying Technology Supermarket," for more information on social media listening software). The social media practitioners can then either fix the issues themselves or create processes and workflows to filter and assign the identified conversations to the appropriate support channel. Second, and probably a better long-term solution, is for organizations to operationalize the support department to include social media as a viable support and outreach channel, just as they would a contact form on the corporate website or a toll-free number. Many companies today are doing both.

Due to Twitter's real-time conversation, it's natural for social media practitioners to use this channel to address customer issues. However, some companies are also monitoring comments on their YouTube channel and Facebook Wall, and within the corporate blog. They're also watching for comments posted on third-party sites, such as their competitors' pages and Amazon.com's review pages.

Companies have taken a variety of approaches to integrating their customer service efforts with social media. Many of these companies are being proactive and thinking long term about addressing the social customer, but others have been thrown directly into the fire.

Comcast

In spring 2008, Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, a blog covering the Silicon Valley technology start-up community, wrote a blog post about his discontent with Comcast, a local cable service provider. After a cable outage, Arrington contacted customer support and had a horrible experience. Not only did Arrington write a blog post about his experience, but he also expressed his unhappiness multiple times on Twitter, which was retweeted several times.

This incident got a lot of press, and the conversation surrounding Comcast's poor customer service began to appear more often in multiple social channels.

Comcast responded quickly and set up the Comcast customer support Twitter profile and business initiative known as @ComcastCares, now used to solve customer problems on Twitter.

What's important to note here is that this one incident caused a significant culture change at Comcast and forced it to operationalize customer support around a new channel—in this case, Twitter.

Today Comcast is considered one of the leaders in customer support online and is often cited in case studies, blog posts, and whitepapers as a company that's using social media the right way. And, while Comcast still isn't perfect and still criticized, it is surely one company that takes social customers seriously.

Best Buy Twelpforce

In 2009, consumer electronics giant Best Buy empowered hundreds of retail employees to manage online customer support inquiries and company promotions using Twitter. Best Buy even used online media and television commercials to promote this initiative and educate its customer base. The way it works is pretty simple. Employees register their personal Twitter accounts on a Best Buy site called Best Connect. When registered, employees from across the company can send tweets from the @Twelpforce profile; they add the hash-tag #twelpforce to make their messages automatically show up under the twelpforce Twitter profile, with a credit to their proper Twitter account (as in "via @ mytwitterhandle").

The following pledge from Best Buy management to its employees sums up the company's intentions with this initiative:

  • Why would customers want to talk to you on Twitter? The promise we're making starting in July is that you'll know all that we know as fast as we know it. That's an enormous promise. That means that customers will be able to ask us about the decisions they're trying to make, the products they're using, and look for the customer support that only we can give. And with Twitter, we can do that fast, with lots of opinions so they can make a decision after weighing all the input. It also lets others learn from it as they see our conversations unfold.

Best Buy is one of the first companies to publicly communicate that it is using Twitter to engage with customers. While some may consider this to be a bold move and hard to scale, this initiative certainly positions Best Buy as a company that trusts its employees and understand the importance of personal communication.

Of course, no company can guarantee that it will solve every support issue that arises online. But Best Buy's Twelpforce has taken the steps necessary to make an impact in solving customer problems.

Zappos

Tony Hsieh is the CEO and founder of Zappos.com, an online shoe and retailer store that Amazon acquired in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Today nearly one-third of all Zappos employees are using Twitter to solve customer problems. What's important to note here is that this shift in culture dynamics started at the top, with Hsieh himself engaging with customers in social media. What was once chaos trying to manage customer support online is now standard operating procedure. The social customer is top-of-mind for Hsieh, Zappos, and several hundred employees who use Twitter. The reputation of Zappos customer service has been amplified through normal conversations on Twitter. These conversations aren't meant to drive up sales or even offer promotions. They're simply meant to please and educate the social customer, either new or existing. Such external engagement has also resulted in cost-savings. According to tech blog ZDNet, Zappos estimates the cost of reaching out to past, present, or potential customers on Twitter at $300,000 a year.

Additionally, one of the company's core values is to deliver "WOW" through service. All new employees are required to undergo a four-week customer loyalty training course, which includes at least two weeks of talking on the phone with live customers in the call center. After the training is complete, employees are offered $3,000 to leave the company immediately, no strings attached. This ensures that employees are there for the love of the job and passion for customers; not the money.

Zappos has created a culture of service and empowers each employee to join Twitter and delight customers. The company's culture focuses on making sure every possible interaction with customers results in them saying, "WOW, that was the best customer service I've ever had." And the initiative seems to be working: Zappos has seen triple-digit revenue growth over the last three years.

These examples have shown the evolution of companies using Twitter to solve customer support issues. They also have tremendous opportunity to use the collective intellect of the community to innovate their products.

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