Duncan Parry, COO of STEAK, began his career in search in 1999 at Lycos, during the early days of the industry.
Admit it. Sometimes you like to complain. It's OK - we all do; it's part of human nature. Bad service is one of the most annoying things to encounter. We've all suffered variations of the same experience; it's a busy day, you need a company to just deliver what they've promised and what you've paid for. But they don't - they fail, annoy you, and you complain to friends, family, colleagues, the woman next to you on the train - or your followers on Twitter.
I'm not advocating you don't complain - companies should be called to account if they take your money and fail to deliver. Bad service isn't acceptable. But spare a thought for the person the other side of the screen - they're human, too, and just trying to do their job.
Dealing with complaints and customer services issues isn't easy, and is far from stress-free. Some people can remain calm and deal with angry customers shouting in their faces without ever reacting - but most of us cannot. Anybody entering a career in digital won't expect to have to deal with that sort of direct confrontation and outright anger - we all associate it with working in shops or, in extremes, the Police.
Web forums have offered a place to complain since the early days of the web - but those complaining were often shouting into the darkness; shouting into a crowd of people who were also shouting. All but the most switched-on brands weren't listening when web forums were at their most popular. I used to answer forum questions for a former employer - it was no fun. It was the "secret" bit of my job, with no glamour and all the stress the word secret implies.
Sometimes the most tightly written, well-crafted post would be shredded before your eyes publicly within minutes. Yes, sometimes with genuine criticism, but often by somebody whose anger at a company had blinded them to anything other than being an attack dog, even if, rationally, their cause for anger was comparatively minor, even to them. Nobody likes to talk about that shameful feeling that maybe you went too far - or admit it with a "Sorry" post. Some people are just having a bad day, and are happy to transmit that down their keyboard to you, with a few four letter words chucked in.
Social media has ended the era of shouting into the darkness on forums. Usernames, profiles, tagging and hashtags (or "bashtags") mean consumers can complain directly at brands. Many cite this as a great development for consumers. I'm not going to debate that here, but it does seem to give some individuals cart-blanche to go too far.
The other side of the screen there's somebody who is trying to do a good job - even if their colleagues elsewhere at the brand didn't do so well. They are there to be brand guardian, spokesman, customer services representative and social media expert rolled-up into one. They also need to be politically and organisationally savvy about their employer. They need to know how to get things done quickly to deal with the complaint, who to take issues to, who to suggest improvements to, who isn't open to suggestions, who is prickly and to be avoided…Being the bearer of bad news doesn't make you popular. Try knocking on a 50-something grizzled executive's door to tell them one customer has complained justifiably on this thing called "Twitter" and you won't be on their Christmas card list. Bad news is never welcome news.
Away from the individual, there are lessons here for brands and agencies. Social media guidelines need to be in place to avoid a crisis of the brands own making - like a thoughtless use of hastags by an intern. These need to detail how to deal with complaints and crises - right up to the sort of all-consuming event a brand dreads like a leak of customer details or legal action.
Search and content teams need to contribute to these, too - will PPC be used to advertise on brand and related terms to drive consumers to content telling the brands side of the story? What SEO might be necessary to push information up the listings? Are there video or image assets to create - should the CEO record an apology on video? Very quickly social media guidelines - indeed a digital crisis plan - need to become part of an overall response, directed by Senior PR/Marketing and Management personnel if the "perfect storm" should break.
Training needs to accompany these, of course - on how to use Twitter etc. technically, or how to word responses and escalate issues internally. How to deal with the pressures and stress of being the virtual punch bag (if not by name) for a brand needs considering too. The social media/complaints handling teams might not be showing obvious signs of stress, but if things never seem to improve, if the reasons so many complaints occur is never resolved, then over time their enthusiasm will tail off - and the team's retention rate might be a topic at the next HR review.
So spare a thought for the person the other side of the social media profile. Make your complaint and ask for their help to resolve it. It should be resolved - you're the customer, after all. But remember there's a human the other side of the screen, too.
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