For all of its enormous, game-changing ubiquity, businesses continue to be challenged on how to best leverage the power of social media. For the most part, social media has been used largely as a marketing tool, but as it matures as a tool, process and policy, it is becoming a major force in sales, customer service and customer retention.

Social customer relationship management is truly the future and organizations need be embrace this channel as quickly as possible for a number of compelling reasons. For one, it responds to the rise of the “social customer.” The social customer is the person who turns to Twitter and Facebook to learn about new products and brands and trusts the feedback their peer-to-peer community provides about these brands and products.
 
Meanwhile, because almost everything today happens in real-time – leaving companies little time to analyze, measure, and react to customers – the agility that social CRM offers is more important than ever before. Even customers who might not define themselves as a “social customer” often expect a company will respond to the feedback they leave via social media channels. Rare is the day a negative tweet goes without a response from a company rep.
 
Meanwhile, it is becoming more apparent that companies desire a more accurate and individual view of each customer and the only way to achieve this so far is with social CRM tools. And if used correctly, these are the tools that can better communicate with the customer community and garner a new intimacy that until now has eluded marketing experts.
 
Companies that prosper in the future will be those that best know what their customers want and need. The combination of CRM and social media is how companies will sense change even before their customers do. Possibly the most compelling reasons for companies to begin embracing social CRM, however, are the abilities to share vital information and to pool customer knowledge across job and department silos. The frontrunner for tackling this social CRM task so far would have to be Twitter.

Given the fact that Twitter is closing in on 200 million members, the chances are very good that more than a few tweeters have mentioned your brand or talked about your product or service already. And anytime a lot of people are vocalizing their opinions and experiences with your organization on a daily basis, they are generating the kind of marketing moxie organizations pay big bucks to get. That’s the good news.

The bad news is too many companies do not nurture or cultivate their Twitter following.  Failure to listen and engage with your company’s Twitter following and the Twitter community at large means missing out on myriad fantastic opportunities, including the chance to offer innovative customer support.

Great customer service on Twitter is not just about answering questions and defusing or recovering from complaints. You have the opportunity to add value to your customer experience by sharing knowledge and resources that help your customers learn more about your products or services. It’s the most proactive form of customer support out there: answering questions that customers might not have asked yet (see figure 1 below).

What’s more, the public has expressed a keen desire to use Twitter for its support needs.  Almost 20 percent of people using Twitter are seeking customer support from a business each month. When you include people wanting to learn about products or services you’re getting up to 61 percent of Twitter users.

Meeting customer demand, however, isn’t the only thing to be gained from integrating Twitter into your customer support. There is also the potential for significant cost savings. Phone support is the second most expensive support channel an organization can offer (with face-to-face being the first), according to research by Benchmark Portal. That same research shows that the average customer service call time is 5.97 minutes, which adds up to a lot of money if your organization fields a high-volume of calls. Benchmark estimates that hundreds of thousands of dollars can be saved by simply reducing average call times by 10 percent. Imagine the savings to be had by using Twitter, where customer service issues can be identified immediately and resolved at limited personnel cost in a fraction of the time.

Where to Begin

Before implementing anything, it’s crucial that everyone in your company understands what Twitter is, and why you’re offering customer service through it. As ubiquitous as Twitter has become, there will inevitably be someone in your organization that has no idea what using Twitter entails. And even if everyone on your staff is a tweeting maven, it’s not guaranteed they have all been paying diligent attention to your company’s Twitter activity. In building a Twitter strategy for customer support, do not overlook building an efficient and elegant way of when it’s time to take a conversation off Twitter and transfer it to email or phone.

Next, start to build a picture of what your organization’s Twitter activity looks like. Run a Twitter search on http://search.twitter.com for your brand and product names to see if people are talking about you already, and if so how many mentions you are receiving. Mentions may be your @TwitterName or just you brand name without the @ sign, so look for both.

If you want to widen the search to other social networks, there are hundreds of social media tools out there, both free and paid, that you can use to locate and analyze conversations and mentions of your brand, such as Social Mention (http://socialmention.com) and oneforty (http://oneforty.com). These tools and others can help you identify what percentage of tweets mentioning your brands are questions seeking support, general comments or conversations that may not need to involve you.

 

 

Spruce up Your Twitter profile

A company starting from scratch will first want to think about the @Name it wants to use. Different companies have approached this in several ways.

Comcast has @Comcast, but most of its support action happens on @Comcastcares. Dell also has a separate Twitter account for support with @DellTechCenter, as does Hewlett-Packard with @HPSupport. Meanwhile, the company 37 Signals uses its corporate account, @37Signals, for all of its Twitter needs, including support.

Things to consider are how busy your corporate account will be and whether separating your content will add value to the customer and make your response times more efficient.

Another important step is updating your Twitter bio and background image to promote your customer service on Twitter. Make sure it’s clear to your followers that they can @mention you and ask a question or make a suggestion.

If you have one individual or even a small team looking after all the tweeting on your account, adding their avatar to your background design can help create a more personal experience as people can match the face to the tweets.

If you don’t have round-the-clock coverage, then you might like to include your office hours in your background and/or bio so customers know they probably won’t get a reply if it’s late at night.

Make sure you include your other customer service contact details and any related hashtags you use or want your customers to follow.

The Art of the Reply

With Twitter, you have 140 characters to convey your message, so questions and answers must be very short and to the point. Add to that a certain expectation that Twitter is real-time and customers also expect a timely reply from you.

And while timely replies aren’t always possible, consider the fact that the number of people using Twitter from mobile devices is increasing. Recently, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo revealed that 40 percent of all tweets come from mobile devices. This means people are far more likely to tweet you a question while they are in a store, in their car or on the train. Replying two hours later might mean you missed the boat. But every company’s customer profile will be different, so get to know your audience to further understand what their expectations are.

And don’t forget to watch your DM’s (direct messages) for questions, too.

How to Handle Complaints on Twitter

Something is bound to go wrong at some point. A customer will be upset, angry or frustrated with your product or staff. How you handle customer complaints on Twitter is crucial.

Frank Eliason, who reinvented the customer service wheel at Comcast with @Comcastcares (and is now at Citigroup), has some wise words on this topic.

  • Say sorry and acknowledge that there is a problem.
  • Speed is imperative. Respond within a few minutes if you can, especially for complaints.
  • Be open and transparent, explain what happened the best you can and resolve the matter quickly.

When customers see and hear you’re taking action they will start to relax and work with you to resolve the issue. If the problem requires a fast resolution and they don’t hear back from you the situation can escalate very quickly into negative blog posts, more tweets and your competition might even wade in to offer their solution.

Keep an Eye on Your Analytics

From your Twitter monitoring tool or tools such as Tweetcounter.com, which is free, you can gather data such as:

  • How many tweets posted each day,
  • How many times people @mentioned you,
  • How many retweets you received.

These are just good general stats for you to start gauging activity on your Twitter account.
You might also like to see:

  • How many link clicks you receive and which articles/posts received the most attention,
  • How many times people replied to your tweets,
  • What time of day is most active for you,
  • The increase in general traffic to your website through Google Analytics,
  • How many people are following you and how quickly that’s increasing.

Improving the Bottom Line

Having a dialogue in public view does present its own set of unique challenges. But when well integrated, Twitter can streamline your whole customer service experience, bolster your entire team’s effectiveness and improve your bottom line.

Internal support and collaboration is important to delivering the right information as quickly as possible. While most people expect a response within a few hours, complaints should be at least acknowledged as fast as possible. That means a clear internal process and workflow is critical to moving tweets into your help desk and into a private email-based dialogue.

Don’t rush. It’s important to start slowly, listen, learn and evaluate with the support of your marketing, communications, public relations and customer service personnel.

Everything you say on Twitter is public and promotional. Every message is attached to your brand so while support is often a one-on-one exchange, handling that publicly shows everyone else that you care, are friendly and willing to help and be transparent.