The results are in: Social media is officially too huge to ignore or put off any longer where customer service is concerned.
According to MediaBistro's "All Twitter" blog, as of mid-March 2012, 44 percent of adults go online when there's a problem with a product they've purchased, and 4 percent of them immediately take to Twitter with their issue -- and the number only grows as the age bracket skews younger. More than 70 percent of that up-and-coming demographic of 16- to 24-year-olds head online immediately, and 7 percent of them skip closed communication channels entirely and go public with their complaints on Facebook and Twitter.
On the other side of that coin are the companies those people are online talking about: Sixty percent of businesses don't respond to their customers via social media, even when a customer asks a direct question.
That's quite the disconnect, and a worrisome one at that. Like it or not, social media is changing the way our customers interact with us. The question is, is this changing the way we interact with our customers?
It's not up to you
There was a time when technology limited the ways customers could communicate with us: They could visit us in person, mail a letter or use the phone. Once the technology developed, customers eventually adapted to e-mail, and so did we. What business doesn't have an e-mail address now? (Or a website, for that matter.)
Now, the options for customers to contact businesses have expanded tenfold. They can chat in person or use the phone, but there's also texting, online message boards and Q&As, and services like Twitter and Facebook.
The thing about services like Twitter and Facebook, though, is they have the potential to be very one-sided unless the responding party is proactive. You may not want customers to contact you via Facebook posts and tweets…but these days, it's not your choice. It's time to accept that customers will contact us in whatever way is most comfortable and convenient for them.
And if we don't agree to it, it's our loss.
The online world moves quickly. For better or worse, things can happen almost instantaneously. And we're not necessarily used to that; we're used to a level of removal and distance that allows us the time to plan, think and react with a level head. Facebook and Twitter demand immediacy that we haven't experienced as businesses before -- without the benefit of direct, in-person interaction.
Think of it this way: If a customer called your company with a question or complaint, would you be comfortable putting them on hold for three hours? Six hours? An entire day? Longer? (You get the idea.) Well, when you ignore or put off responding to a customer's tweet or Facebook post, that's what it can feel like to them.
It's time to start thinking in real time when it comes to interacting with customers online. Because the longer you wait, the more opportunities there are for a situation to snowball.
Listen and be gracious
Take some time to understand what's being said about your business before jumping in to interact with customers online.
Then, practice responding to your customers as though you were speaking through a megaphone at all times. Many big companies have already learned the hard way that everything they say online can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion…and possibly live forever. The customer may not always be right, but they'll have you in a customer-service headlock if you make the wrong move in your online interactions with them.
Conversely, social media can be a fantastic opportunity to make a gallant move -- for all to see. If you treat your customers like gold on Facebook and Twitter, whether it's responding quickly, making a dramatic save or offering great specials and discounts, your online karma will start to grow.
It's up to you whether you look like a zero or a hero on social media. It all depends on when and how you respond.