Customer Experience, customer service social mediaInteracting with customers on social media carries risks and benefits for companies, but the opportunities can outweigh the risks when you understand your customer's needs, wants and habits and use this knowledge to shape your customer service.

Social media usage is increasing at a frenetic pace, with more than 67% of all Internet users now participating on social networking sites. This is up from 59% just one year ago. The use of social media is becoming so entrenched that it’s now far from the original limited use of just sharing photos or activity updates. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yelp now represent a viable component of the customer service experience and are becoming significant channels for customers to communicate and interact with businesses.

It’s imperative that businesses understand how consumers want to use social media to interact with them, and then construct unique customer service experiences based on those individual social media preferences and behaviors.

Simply put, in today’s world, social -- along with voice, chat, mobile and email -- must be consolidated into a unified approach that spans all channels while maintaining context and providing consumers with a seamless, intuitive experience.

How Consumers Use Social Media Today

If you've had a bad customer experience, your first thought might have been to vent your frustrations on social media. A colleague of mine was put on hold when he called an airline to try to utilize a credit voucher. After about five minutes of listening to their commercials over and over again, he started tweeting. After another five minutes, my friend started posting to Facebook then added some increasingly “colorful” tweets. At about 20 minutes, he started working on his blog post for Tumblr.

But customer service on social media isn’t limited to complaining anymore. For example, if you’re about to make a purchase, you might first consult your friends on Facebook about their experiences with a specific brand or product. In addition, you might tweet about it or check it out on Yelp.

We call the role of social in customer service “E.S.P.” First, you’ll use these tools or channels to Explore your options and find out what your friends are buying and recommending. Then, you’ll Share your experiences and information to get validation and feedback. Lastly, you can now go beyond sharing and Promote by encouraging others to make similar purchases.

Many websites offer discounts, points and special deals when you promote your purchase or make recommendations to others via social media. The most social media savvy companies are even going a step further by taking note of each individual’s activities to deliver highly-customized offers tailored to the individual’s interests. This leads to an overall improved experience and further cultivates social as a viable customer service channel.

Social Media as Part of the Omni-channel Experience

The real value of social media lies as part of a new concept called the omni-channel customer experience. An omni-channel experience is where consumers interact across channels without losing the context of their situation. This occurs when consumers seamlessly move their conversation and engagement with a business from one channel such as the mobile web, to a phone conversation, to social media all while maintaining the full context, history and consistency of their interactions. It means that the company is able to respond to the customer on the customer’s terms, thereby increasing customer satisfaction.

Social media is one of many channels in the customer service ecosystem that leading companies are now viewing in this new omni-channel world. So when you are laying out your social strategy for customer service, think about how the consumer interacts.

  1. What do consumers expect companies to know about what they want to do?
  2. What is the consumer journey and what channels do they use to interact?
  3. What is the order of channels that consumers use? For example, when making a purchase, many consumers start on the web, move to social media to further explore, go to web chat with specific questions, to the mobile web to make the purchase, then back to social media to share their purchase experience.

Companies can pull together and analyze the huge amounts of data obtained from a consumer’s social interactions, along with details of past customer engagements made over the phone, online or via chat. By aggregating this data and applying predictive analytics in real time, companies can accurately anticipate the consumer’s intent and provide faster, smarter, better and more highly customized service.

Companies now have the ability to maintain the context of interactions across channels, allowing customers to research a product in one channel, ask questions about the product in a new channel, and move to yet another channel to finish the purchase. The result is a happier customer who appreciates being able to deal with the business on his or her terms. The integration of social media with customer service and sales is a critical piece to delivering on the vision of a customer-centric customer experience.

Title image courtesy of iQoncept (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more about social customer service, see Jim Belosic's Providing Exceptional Customer Service Through Social Media