Seizing Opportunities: Riding the Storm When Customers Go Social

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This article was originally published on LinkedIn.  Read the original copy here.

Photo credit: Andy Mitchell

This is a long one, but it’s a complex topic that so many brands get wrong.  Stick with me and I might just change your mind about how you handle online scrutiny.

As the face of your company, the idea of handling customer feedback in a very public way can be a frightening prospect for any communications professional.  We love to hear positive feedback when it can be easily shared, but when a negative comment comes across and, even worse, begins to take off in the social sphere, is your first impulse to shut it down?

Can I make a recommendation?  Roll with it.

Time and again, we’ve seen even the most common household name companies get trapped in social media controversy because of one thoughtless tweet or post.

Whether it’s going political in a very bad way like Kitchenaid’s Obama’s dead grandma “joke”, a hijacked hashtag campaign-gone-wrong like McDonald’s infamous #McDStories, or sensitive contextual fumbles like American Apparel’s Challenger explosion promotional tweet, nothing tells your customers that you’re out of touch like a social media debacle.  These examples are cringe-worthy, but your customer care program is even more sensitive to mistakes on social media than regular marketing efforts.

Let’s start with what not to do when you receive a negative comment via social media:

Become an Ostrich
Like sticking your head in the sand with fingers in both your ears, social ostriches commit behaviors like:

  • Argumentative or defensive responses – Remember, this isn’t about winning an argument or proving your customer wrong.  You should be working together with your customers towards a solution, not focusing on who is right or wrong.
  • Lacking empathy – Whether you agree with the feedback or not, the customer has experienced something they feel negatively about – and those feelings need to be acknowledged and addressed.
  • Censorship – There is hardly a worse response to public customer feedback than deleting negative posts or comments.  This will inevitably lead to customer outrage and inflation of a situation that could have been diffused, or even better, turned into a customer win!  Take a look at this example fromSmuckers.  (Regardless of your take on GMOs, if you’ve ever taken a debate class, you know it’s better to anticipate and address objections, rather than try to hide from them.)
  • Abandonment – A social communication program is designed to be a fluid, on-going conversation between you and your customers.  You can’t have a conversation with your customers when you’ve left the room.  If you have a social media presence, ensure that you have resources dedicated to nurturing that program and being there when your customers need you.

Each of these activities sends the message to your customers that you are just not that interested in their happiness.

So, what can you do to turn these challenges into opportunities?

Be Prepared
Understand your customers’ needs and wants.  Anticipate their objections. Understand your weaknesses and be prepared to address them.

Be Sincere
Today’s web-savvy customer has a great bullshit detector.  Excuse the language, but you won’t get any filter or mercy from an upset customer (or the internet at large) either.  It’s best to be authentic, genuine, and, above all, human.

Focus on Solutions
More than anything, customers want solutions – not excuses, not platitudes, not arguments. Your role in their life is to make things easier, better, faster, more efficient, more profitable, etc.  If their relationship with you becomes difficult, you must find a way to resolve it or they will find someone easier to work with.  Remember, your customers are generally reasonable people, with legitimate wants and needs.  Your relationship with them requires work, compassion, and compromise. It may help to ask yourself some questions:

  • What is the real problem and do I fully understand the customer’s perspective?  Sometimes you may need to dig deeper and ask more questions to get a full understanding of what led to this issue and what the core problem is (instead of just the symptoms).
  • How can I make this person feel better about the situation?  Sometimes, a little kindness and empathy goes a long way.  Again, understanding the full cause and scope of the problem can help to refocus the conversation on solutions instead of finger-pointing.  However, sometimes a more concrete solution is required.
  • What do I have the power to do to resolve this situation?  Understanding both your limitations and your opportunities can help you determine your next steps and what you can offer the customer.
  • How can I turn this into a referenceable conversation?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to settle for satisfied customers.  I want raving customers, who can’t wait to share how happy I’ve made them.
  • How can I show other customers who are watching or participating in this discusssion that I and my company do care and will commit to doing everything we can to understand and fix the problem?  Remember, you can’t give away the house to make one customer happy and your chief responsibility is to find a solution that works for your customer and your company.

Of course, it’s much easier to diffuse tense customer situations on a one-on-one basis, but as more and more customers are turning to social media to voice their complaints, companies without a solid feedback process and strategy may end up getting caught with their proverbial pants down when a customer issue arises.

Is your team prepared to handle the complexities of customer care in the social world?

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