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How to respond when customers get sour on social media

Contributor Jay Baer offers a five-point solution for dealing with customer complaints in social media.

In today’s “always on” digital landscape, responsiveness is the name of the game for customer service. People are flocking to the platforms where they know they’ll be heard and, more importantly, where they know they’ll get a response. That’s why we see that Twitter has become a prime avenue for customer interaction with companies.

For example, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was in the giving spirit this holiday season, sending out a Christmastime tweet that thanked customers and asked them how the company could improve. It wasn’t simple lip service, though.

Musk took the time to respond to each reply, acknowledging each user’s needs and pledging to take action to address concerns. With a series of refreshingly personal tweets, he gave other business leaders a master class in social media customer service. Unfortunately, it’s not always such a positive interaction that puts a company in the spotlight.

More often than not, customers are taking to social media with complaints. Because people are reaching out directly — and publicly — on social media, it’s imperative to have a plan to respond to complaints in the right way and via the right channel.

How customers choose a channel

Customers airing grievances on social media naturally leads businesses to ask how those customers choose their contact channel. They certainly don’t decide at random. I’ve found that most customers consider three things: where the brand is active, where the customer thinks he will get the best response and how important response time is.

When companies provide better responses on Facebook vs. email, for example, it trains customers to use Facebook. If the company posts on Instagram several times a day but only posts on Facebook a few times a week, that trains customers to use Instagram.

Fortunately, it’s less expensive to answer a customer on social media than over the phone or email. But it can be tricky to navigate.

A game plan for responding to irate customers

First things first: Not responding is not an option.

Edison Research and I conducted a study about the responsiveness consumers expect from businesses for my book, “Hug Your Haters.” During our research, we discovered that customers get a response on social platforms about 50 percent of the time, which means companies are doing themselves — and their customers — a disservice.

Unlike other channels, if a customer doesn’t get a reply on Twitter or Facebook, not only does it disappoint that customer, but others also see that you didn’t respond, which looks like apathy for customer concerns. In fact, according to our findings, failing to respond on social media can trigger a 43 percent decrease in customer advocacy; a reply, however, can give you a 20 percent bump.

If you’re looking to cash in on the potential of handling social complaints well, follow these five steps:

1. Find all mentions

To fully address customer dissatisfaction, you must find all instances of it — and customers talk about brands in ways you might not expect. Many companies believe that Twitter has become the primary sounding board, but, according to our study, 71 percent of all complaints on social media are actually posted on Facebook.

Also, if you look exclusively at your branded channels and your mentions, you will skip over a lot of customer feedback. Only 3 percent of tweets about customer service issues call out the company’s username with the @ symbol. To find all your mentions, employ a social media listening software, and always set up Google Alerts for your company.

2. Display empathy

You can’t change what happened to upset your customer in the first place, but you do have complete control over what happens next. Adopt the BEET strategy: Be Empathetic Every Time.

Take the example set by Wink Frozen Desserts. The company’s stance is to always respond in a kind, empathetic way. When a customer bashed Wink’s vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free frozen desserts on Facebook, CMO Jordan Pierson replied with a sincere apology and offered a refund.

Pierson closed his reply by saying: “While we hope that everyone will love and enjoy Wink as much as we do, we realize that not everyone will. If we can help, please send us an email to Thanks for giving Wink a try!” This response put a positive spin on the product, and Wink’s empathy makes you feel great about the brand.

3. Answer publicly

With social media, customer service is a spectator sport. When you interact with a customer, you’re really addressing a group of current and potential customers. Your initial response should always be public, demonstrating to everyone who’s watching that you listen, respond and care.

4. Only reply twice

My rule is to never reply to a customer more than twice in a public forum. It’s OK — and often required — to have more than two interactions with a customer, but after you’ve replied twice, further conversation should take place behind the scenes.

Apologize and show empathy to the first complaint. If the customer complains again, apologize again and offer to discuss via a private forum. A third complaint on social media gets ignored. Your goal isn’t just to satisfy the unhappy customer; it’s to go on record for your whole audience about your values. It only takes two replies to do that.

5. Switch channels

Social media doesn’t allow for complete customer service. To adequately resolve complaints, our research determined that 60 percent of businesses have to go beyond one contact on social media. Your response may be constrained by a character limit, or you may need to obtain sensitive customer information in order to nail down the problem and determine a cause or solution. That’s when you should switch channels.

Surprisingly, taking things offline can boost your reputation. When a concerned customer tweeted at JetBlue about an unusual noise on his flight, the company responded with a call. This effective channel switch led the customer to spread the story of excellent service. The airline avoided a potential social media disaster and garnered props by choosing the right way to respond.

Addressing customer concerns on social media can work in your company’s favor when you respond correctly. With a strategy in place to be consistent, positive and public (up to a point) on social, you’ll bolster your credibility with current and prospective customers.

by Jay Baer
source: Marketing Land