One good thing about working in online retail is that nobody will catch you yawning behind the counter or drinking a cup of tea on the shop floor.

One bad thing about working in online retail is that customers expect the same quality of service from you as they would a face-to-face interaction, especially if things go wrong.

And what is an increasingly popular, frontline method of contact for customers with a query or complaint? Your brand’s Twitter account. The most public of all channels, where only the agile, personal and responsive brands will survive.

Let’s look at some some things you should avoid doing if you want to excel at social customer service.

Not providing social customer service at all

Obvious I know, but I might as well start with the basics. If you’re not providing customer service on your social networks then you’re not giving your customers what they want, where they want it.

If your brand is on Twitter (and I’m sure it is), enquiring consumers will see this as an opportunity to communicate with you directly, especially if other customer service channels are harder to find. 

All social media users expect engagement from the people they connect with on the network, that’s how it works best, and your brand is no different.

Again, I say this should be obvious but you’ll be surprised how many UK retailers don’t bother. I’m still waiting on replies from these tweets sent four months ago...

Responding slowly

Earlier in the year we reported that 72% of customers expect complaints answered in one hour. If companies don’t respond within the one hour time frame, 38% of people feel more negatively towards the brand, and an impressively galvanised 60% will take action against the brand using social media.

After 10 hours I had all but given up on Eddie Bauer...

Ideally you want to be responding within 15 minutes. However if you really want to impress, replying in three or four minutes will surprise and delight any follower.

Offering robotic, human free replies

If you’re using an automated system, a tweet can easily come across as cold and emotionless, even if you’ve automatically entered the user’s name in the tweet.

It’s the responses that appear mere seconds after an enquiry that make people the most suspicious.

Nothing can substitute the human voice behind a social account, and how often does marketing automation go awry when it comes to delivering personalisation anyway?

Not being personal

Use the real name behind the Twitter handle to address the customer, and sign off your tweet with your real name.

This makes people feel more comfortable, adding a much needed human touch. It also means that customers have a recorded point of contact if they need to follow something up later. Personalisation may also dissuade customers from lashing out at what they assume is a faceless customer service agent. 

Keeping an ‘innocent’ distance away from the problem

Phrases that start “I’m sorry you if feel that way” or “I’m sorry it appears that something has gone wrong” sound like you’re removing culpability from your part in the interaction. They're also deeply patronising and just pisses people off more.

Not answering questions properly

There is no need to fob someone off with a link to a terms and condition page. Answer questions precisely and accurately. If you don’t have enough information from the customer, ask for more. If your reply will take longer than 140 characters, it doesn’t matter, send multiple tweets.

Not monitoring Twitter for indirect mentions

Only 9% of tweets mentioning companies start with an @. Which basically means that 91% of people are talking about you, not to you. Similarly 31% of tweets containing company names don’t include their Twitter handle.

If you’re not monitoring all mentions of your brand name, regardless of whether a user has forgotten to use your Twitter handle or not, you’re potentially missing out on 31% of negative and positive feedback. It’s also important to track all variations and likely misspellings of your brand name too.

By doing this you can calm any negative sentiment that might be building-up whilst you’d otherwise be blissfully unaware.

Moving customers to a different channel unnecessarily

The best brands on Twitter react quickly and helpfully to all enquiries, even if there’s a separate social customer service channel set up elsewhere. 

They don’t do this…

Yes it’s a quick reply, full of personalisation, but you might as well not bother running a Twitter channel if that’s your response. 

This is even worse...

It is of course necessary to move customers to a more secure channel private channel if the customer service agent requires sensitive information. This applies to most retail banks with a Twitter account for instance. The key thing to do here is ensuring the customer is dealt with by the same agent across all channels.

Moving customers to a different Twitter account from the same brand unnecessarily

Without realising it, I had used a specific Tesco Bank 'news' Twitter handle when I tweeted them my enquiry. I was told that somebody from the main account would come to my aid. I gave up waiting a few days later.

Other brands happily answer customer service queries from a main account, even if it runs a separate channel for help enquiries. Check out Next...

Not operating a 24-hour service

24/7 customer care is obviously much easier for global brands with social teams in multiple territories able to pick up the baton when another team goes offline. This is much harder for national retailers, and probably more difficult to justify for budgetary reasons.

However running a 24-hour operation means that retailers wouldn’t be spending the next day dealing with overnight enquiries and letting a backlog of recent enquiries build up.

Being unclear about operating hours

State the time your channel’s customer service team operates in the description of your account. This will provide followers with a realistic idea of when an enquiry will be dealt with, and will hopefully ease the enquiry backlog.

Not linking to your specific Twitter help channel from the main account

If your customer service channel is separate from the main channel, this should also be clearly stated in the description. Again, if a customer contacts you on your non-customer service channel you shouldn’t just ignore them or fob them off with the right Twitter handle. Help them anyway.

Not apologising

Even the most furious and sweary of customers can be placated with a heartfelt, genuine and immediate apology.

Further reading

For more on social customer service from the blog check out…

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 4 December, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (2)

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Lauren Barham, CET at Brand Recruitment

Hi Christopher, thanks for this post it is really interesting! I completely agree that brands who have social media accounts should respond to customer queries as it is an easy way for customers to get in touch with companies, and responding quickly reassures customers that the brand is providing good customer service and is there to help. From personal past experience, it is also nice to have that personal touch from the respondent on the other end, simply putting initials or a name shows that someone has taken the time to reply quickly to you individually on behalf of the brand, again providing good customer service. All in all, social media is generally a great way to interact easily with customers and brands should want their customers to feel they have received the best customer service not only from visiting their store but also online if they need their help or advice. Kind regards, Lauren

about 3 years ago

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Angeleen Rohda, Marketing Support Specialist at Alarm.com

I agree with all of this except for moving them to another channel. Social Media support is notoriously ineffective in helping customers. Especially when there is a character limit. My position might be unique because we're offering technical assistance, but it's very hard to answer a seemingly easy question via 140 characters. Most often what a customer thinks should be a very simple reply will be complicated. Our technology is made to be simple to use, but there's lots of work being done behind the scenes. Email and phone are the best ways to assist.

about 3 years ago

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