When Brie Weiler Reynolds noticed that her customers were discussing their service concerns on social media networks, she realized her company had better start responding to them there as well.
"We started getting comments and questions from people on LinkedIn and Facebook," says Reynolds, director of content and social media for FlexJobs, a Boulder, Colo.-based online job-search firm. "They were using social media for things you'd traditionally contact customer service for, so we figured if that's how they want it, that's how we'll give it to them." Today FlexJobs uses Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and YouTube to publicly inform, serve and connect with customers on a daily basis.
The transparency of communication on social platforms lets companies showcase their devotion to helping customers, fostering brand loyalty and authenticity among a widespread audience. Still, research suggests there's room for improvement. In a recent study by PR and marketing firm Cone Communications, 46 percent of respondents said they'd like to be able to solve problems and receive product or service information via new media, but only 14 percent said they're "very satisfied" with their experiences with companies or brands online.
"Social customer service presents a great opportunity for active listening and reacting to your customers," says Andy Smith, co-author of The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. "When you listen to and create discussions about the problems they're having, you can progress toward becoming the person or having the product that addresses that problem."
Patton Gleason, president of Richmond, Va.-based NaturalRunningStore.com, says social media helps him build relationships with existing customers; they in turn promote his online store to new audiences when they share the information they've received on their own networks.
Gleason doesn't just respond to customer questions with a quick tweet. Several times each week, he creates and posts personalized videos to help customers solve specific problems. For example, he assisted in diagnosing and addressing the source of a runner's calf pain by requesting and examining an uploaded photo of the bottoms of the runner's shoes, then responding with video suggestions.
"If they have questions about shinsplints or the difference between two shoes, I can actually show people what's happening or [give] a comparison of those shoes," he says. "Not only can they see the products, they can also see the person behind them, which is a powerful way to connect."
Shared content--positive and negative--fosters brand authenticity, according to Reynolds. She embraces negative posts as an opportunity for FlexJobs' 17,000-plus social media followers to see that the company cares about resolving problems. "It helps people [who are] on the fence about signing up see that we respond quickly to people and don't shy away from problems," she says. "They see firsthand that if they were to join and have a problem, we'd treat them the same way."
Reynolds adds that social customer service has the unique ability to turn negatives into positives in a very public way. "If someone posts a negative comment on [our Facebook] Timeline--they don't like the site or understand why they should pay for membership--oftentimes our fans swoop in and support us by explaining why they use the site and why those posters should give it another shot," she says. "What could be better than our customers solving our customer-service dilemmas with us?"