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Why brands can't afford to turn the other cheek when they see customers in distress on social media

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

All too often brands only want to play on social channels on their terms. They want to focus on the fun stuff not get bogged down in all the issues and customer service stuff. But you only have the right to be proactive on social channels if you have ensured you are actively listening to your customers, identifying those in distress, and working hard to resolve their issues as and when they arise.

Once you're in, you're in. And the result of choosing to engage is ultimately a positive one.

According to Brandwatch over 60 per cent of people are likely to recommend a brand if they receive a quick and effective response to their query online. Taking data from Twitter, Brandwatch analysed how social customer service affects recommendations.

The report makes the point that speed and efficiency are the only way forward when it comes to managing customer care on social channels.

It struck a chord with me because it's staggering to see how many companies, even pure play ecommerce retailers, are yet to face into the basic requirements of operating in the modern digital world. Gone are the days when you got the young intern to manage social for you. At least I hope that's the case.

The common mistake is to assume listening online and engaging with customers online, means you then also have to resolve their issues online. At Asda we had a policy of deliberately taking issues offline as quickly as possible to enable us to handle the customer properly, and to enter into a more meaningful dialogue with the intention of sorting out whatever had gone wrong.

If your home shopping driver is late, having a ding dong on Twitter isn't solving anything. Getting a call from an informed customer service representative who can tell you what's going on, can manage your expectations, and can make amends is ultimately what you want to happen. We used social media to spot issues, taking advantage of the fact it was a massive, free, focus group, happening in front of your eyes in real time.

If you accept your reputation is what people say about you when you leave the room, then social media gives you a unique insight into what customers really think. What they think about your stores, your products, your adverts, your competitors and the other customers who shop with you. In spite of the explosion of social media in recent years, the principles of customer care have not changed, even if the method of communication has.

When I left school, like everyone else in my home town of Reading, I got a temp job at Prudential. Back then customer service departments were still employing pools of secretarial staff to type letters to customers. Email was non-existent then, and telephones were answered in rotation by people like me, whilst performing admin duties like opening letters. On fairly basic databases we then made amendments such as changes of address or bank details. All of which required a follow up, typed letter.

"Good morning Prudential life service enquiries Dominic speaking how may I help you?" What a bloody mouthful.

The point is the Pru was visionary and realised there was a better way. In 1994/5 it opened a fully-fledged customer contact centre, one of the first of its kind in the world. Banks of hundreds of call centre operatives with Madonna-style headsets. Large monitors showed in real time the numbers of calls waiting, average response times, calls dropped, number of operatives on standby, average call time.

They industrialised customer service, making it quicker and easier to handle thousands of its customers who frankly didn't want to send a letter any more for a simple change of address. It also created huge amounts of management data. Helping refine the process, and spot issues and ultimately serve customers better. Roll on 21 years and the contact centre of today, the equivalent of Prudential's life servicing department of before, is social media monitoring.

Whether brands liked it or not, millions of people no longer want to call them up and sit waiting for someone to answer. Dial one for this or two for that... Bog off. I tweeted you five minutes ago. Hurry up and tweet me back.

The smart brands are prepared to invest in this transition, in spite of it meaning they have to radically adapt telephone based contact centres. They've trained up their staff to know how to engage online, and how to do so in public. They've empowered people in their service teams to resolve issues quickly and effectively in the moment wherever possible. And the results are plain to see.

Anecdotally, we used to regularly observe angry customers on Twitter shouting at us in capital letters, quickly jump back online as soon as they had been listened to, and their problem solved. They were as quick to sing our praises as they had been to lose their rag.

Brandwatch adds that at least 80 per cent of customers that submit a query to a brand via social media expect a response on the same day. Around half expect a brand response within two hours, with 30 per cent of Twitter users and 25 per cent of Facebook users expecting one in under 30 minutes. Quite right too.

Interestingly the likelihood of whether a customer will recommend a product or service to friends (and as Brandwatch say recommendation is the most trusted form of advertising) is almost entirely based on the response time. It adds: "More interestingly, perhaps, is that it appears that it’s most important for the brand to respond at all, even more so than the response being seen as helpful or not."

No one likes feeling like they are being ignored. Not least a paying customer. You wouldn't expect them to stand in line all day at a customer service desk, or hold on the phone for hours and hours. In which case why do brands still choose to ignore them on social media?

If nothing else brands must acknowledge they exist. Point them to a phone line if you must. But don't simply turn your cheek and look the other way, whilst pumping out some stupid GIF of a dancing monkey.

Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch