Customer Service Out in the World: Social Media and Your Online Reputation

Subscription companies who want to deliver great customer service cannot ignore the people who want to interact on social media.

What happens when the owner of a small firm, who also happens to run the social channels, replies to a complaint on social media with a curt reply? And what if the conversation descends into an argument about the CEO’s tone? Hint: nothing good. That’s what writer Liz Greene of the Digital Marketing Institute watched in real time as it unfolded. The story ends with a social post from an industry organization: “We advise our 15,000 members to not purchase from this company #poorservice”

In the first part of this three-part series, I discussed why subscription-model companies need to excel at customer service. In the second part, I discussed how to measure effective service. In this column, I want to discuss a newer trend — delivering customer service out in the open byways of the World Wide Web, through social media. As the story I mention above reveals, although social media customer support is a necessity these days, it also poses public relations dangers.

While a phone call or an email exchange are relatively private channels of communication, customer service on social media — though it uses the conventions of personal exchange — is in fact service taking place in the public square. That means all customer service interactions on social media are fundamentally acts of public relations as well. In this way, the customer relations staffer or social media maven may well end up as the loudest spokesperson for the company.

The data back this up. If it needed proving, customers are online now in these social channels.

(Source: Statista)

Think about it: 80% of your customers are on Facebook, and huge numbers are on other platforms. That’s the majority of customers — but it is not all. And not all of them even want to use their social networks for customer service. In fact, only 39% of consumers even think it’s a good idea.

(Source: Microsoft, via Statista)

Even fewer have actually gone so far as to complain about a company on social media:

(Source: Microsoft, via Statista)

And fewer still have used social media for customer service:

(Source: Microsoft, via Statista)

Here’s a different source, breaking out data for a range of communication channels by age, showing that social media is popular as a way to access online retailer customer service for about a quarter of customers. Specifically, that’s 12% for Baby Boomers, 23% for Gen Xers, and 31% for Millenials.

(Source: Salesforce Research, Harris Poll, via Statista)

So while a large majority of your customers are on social media, only about a quarter to a third are interested in engaging with you there. Still, that many customers cannot be ignored, so although companies definitely need to be serving customers through social channels, that needs to be just one prong of a wide strategy for keeping all subscribers happy.

Still, perhaps you are thinking that you can ignore the whole social “mess” and let customers contact you through other, traditional means. If you do, you are losing an opportunity to the competition. Odds are, other firms on your market are already pursuing customers through social media.

(Source: Microsoft, via Statista)

That is, when 85% of companies are willing to interact with customers on social media, the 15% who miss the opportunity are going to lose out on service opportunities.


Case Study One: Consider the example of wireless company T-Mobile, whose customer service reps sign their posts for better accountability and to communicate to customers that they are talking with a human being. See this blurb by the company for more. In general, a survey of the wireless industry by JD Power finds that customers were most satisfied when using social media for service (“overall satisfaction is highest in the social media channel”), and that social response times were much faster than on email. All three top wireless carriers (T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T) all got high marks.

  • “Personalized feedback, rapid-fire response time and interaction with live humans are some of the primary factors driving the highest levels of customer satisfaction with wireless carrier customer service and, increasingly, customers appear to be finding that formula through alternative channels such as social media,” said Peter Cunningham, Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Practice Lead at J.D. Power.

Case Study Two: When engaging a recurring customer, you may need personal information, like a phone number or a member number — but that’s not information you want your customer to reveal on the public Net. Instead, follow the example of GoDaddy, as featured here, and direct the customer to a private channel. In the case of GoDaddy, the customer service rep on Twitter, identifying themself as “G,” embeds a private message link in the response:

(Source: FreshSparks)

Writing at Groove, Len Markidan puts the correct twist with a warning and excellent advice on how to take it private the right way:

  • Sometimes, you need sensitive customer information that you (or they) wouldn’t be comfortable exchanging online. In these cases, it’s okay to transfer the issue to another channel like email or phone. But it’s important to do this right. Simply telling your customer that they need to call or email for help isn’t going to cut it; it comes off as rude, abrasive and completely lacking empathy (the most important customer service skill). Instead, use the same friendly, helpful tone you normally would, and start the process of making the customer feel cared for by emphasizing that you’re not just handing them off, but that you’re going to make things right.

For more excellent advice in this vein, check out Sarah Blackstock at Shopify.

Case Study Three: At Forbes, Christopher Elliott tells the story of a college professor who lucked into several instances of super-fast customer support on social media. In one case, It seems he had trouble with his virtual private network company, NordVPN. After sending a tweet, the company fixed it “within minutes.”

Adweek puts it bluntly: A rapid response is now standard. How rapid? From a recent poll, 40% of Americans expect a response on social media within an hour, and another 50% expect it within a day:

(Source: Drift; SurveyMonkey, via Statista)

That research is a little funny, however. Do 16% of respondents really expect to get an instantaneous response to a physical letter? How would that even work? I looked back at the original research (see this slide deck, pp35-37), but that was not revealing.

Other research from last year suggests that 18% of Americans expect a response time to social inquiries of an hour or less, and another 41% expect a response within 24 hours.

Source: Bigstock

0)] (Source: Microsoft, via Statista)

And on the third hand, research from Convince & Convert founder Jay Baer says that 42% of social media complainers expect a response within one hour. And 57% expect the same response time 24/7.


So what happens when you ignore complaints and requests on social media? Or even worse, when you handle the interaction badly?

Source: Bigstock

(Source: Sprout Social, via Statista)

Half of users will boycott your brand after bad social media service — and how will all the other people watching the interchange react? When Comcast’s bad customer service went viral, the company had to go into damage control mode, which included tripling the size of its social media response team, per this report in Fortune.

Contrast Comcast with a subscription-based company that gets social media: Spotify. The music streaming service responds to kudos and other positive comments as well as to complaints, and in response to one such post, a customer service rep actually created a custom personalized playlist for the subscriber, reports Adweek, complete with a “hidden” message of appreciation, That subscriber turned out to be a community manager for Yahoo’s Contributor Network, and the publicity has made the gesture into a huge win for Spotify.

According to Spotify (as reported at, the key is training. Reps start on email, are coached on tone, and graduate to social platforms.

At Forbes, Kalev Leetaru has a related conclusion: Some companies ignore complaints that arrive by phone and email, but respond quickly to social feedback because they fear bad viral publicity. The consequence is that customers are being trained to start with social, or at least, to escalate to social for satisfaction.

  • It is remarkable how many stories about companies behaving badly these days begin with a wronged customer trying to solve the situation directly with the company and only after the company refuses to make things right, airing their grievances on social media, wherein the story goes viral and the company immediately apologizes and fixes things.

With that in mind, it pays to make sure your social media presence helps support customers, not ignores them. And it doesn’t hurt to do a good job on the phone and on email as well, lest you become part of the problem!

Insider Take

When a third of your subscribers expect to get good — and PROMPT — customer service on social media, it pays to be available there, and to exceed their expectations. The penalty for ignoring them, or worse, treating them poorly in the public eye, is too high.

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