What do we know about social media as we hurtle towards the close of 2014? We know that it has changed the way we communicate with each other, perhaps permanently. We also know that social media provides us with a platform with which we can easily interact with one another in real-time, and share everyday experiences.
We know that news no longer means the morning paper or waiting for the evening's TV bulletin – we learn of the world's happenings as they occur, and often not from journalists, but regular people. In fact, many of us now document a significant proportion of our lives on digital platforms. According to the Pew Research Centre, 74% of online adults use social networking sites regularly in 2014.
Look to the past
As is the trend, whatever consumers use in their life often bleeds into industry. Surely social media presents an ideal fit for companies wanting to engage with their customers? In order to fully understand the impact of social media in modern customer service strategies, as any great historian would do next, we now need to examine the past.
Customer service has traditionally been heavily vendor-driven, with companies dictating what communication methods their customers could or could not use. Contacting a company for any type of problem – simple or more complex – was a lengthy and often fruitless process. Unlike today, using an alternative vendor was easier said than done, placing the customers at the mercy of the company.
Indeed, the world was a very different place. Companies were firmly in the driving seat, mainly because of the pace of development. Being very slow to change, the contact landscape was stuck in the traditional methods of phone, followed by email, and then the introduction of web chat that made a subtle addition to the sparse horizon. With the pace of change in this time being so sedate, small adjustments had little impact on the customer.
Just as the industrial revolution transformed the British landscape in the blink of an eye, so did the digital explosion of early 2000s; it drastically altered the face and pace of the consumer world. Most notable, however, was the shift in power away from the aristocratic vendor and into the hands – and indeed the pockets – of the everyday consumer.
Vendors recognised that customer expectations were rising in correlation with the development of technology at their fingertips, which forced companies to consider how they should handle this new doubled-edged sword. They needed to successfully manage its potential negative impacts, and harness its positive capabilities.
Certainly, more and more vendors have recognised that traditional and outdated approaches to customer contact are increasingly incompatible with the modern consumer environment. With 24/7 access to the internet, customer communication has surged and, with the advent of customer experience, no one is prepared to wait in lengthy phone queues anymore.
Customer journey must be quick and easy, which is why, according to Lithium Technologies Research, 60% of customers would take action against a company through social channels. As 72% of customers who complain on Twitter expect a response within an hour, implementing a Twitter strategy helps retain customers and improve their experience.
Some companies have been dragging their feet into the digital era by remaining adamant that a Twitter strategy does not add any value to customer experience. According to a Boardroom Bellweather Survey, in the past 12 months, almost half of the UK's largest public companies have not even discussed their social media strategy.
With the very public meltdown of British Gas still strong in our minds, when the energy giant was promoting customer service via Twitter (only to be confronted by angry customers ridiculing its decision to raise prices ahead of winter), misjudging the potential impact of a negative reception on Twitter – something which is highly visible – could certainly contaminate a brand's squeaky-clean image.
In order to protect a brand's image, more and more companies are incorporating Twitter into their customer service strategy. As time has become a precious commodity with the hustle and bustle of modern daily life, the speed of Twitter makes it an attractive alternative when contacting organisations.
Customers have become more reluctant to call companies as it takes a lot of effort – it can sometimes take 10 minutes just to find the right number – or some people simply may not be able to make personal calls during work hours. As most will have access to Twitter at any given time, and as shown in the research by Lithium Technologies, the majority feel that social media is a faster alternative to get a response to a problem.
Fend off rivals
Communicating with customers on Twitter also helps fight off competitors. As numerous industry sectors have seen a rise in competition, along with new Ofcom laws enabling customers to switch providers at the drop of a hat (for example, bank accounts now must be switched within seven days), implementing engaging customer experience could make the different between a market leader and a market player.
A strong customer contact strategy would place Twitter ownership in the customer service department to ensure it is flexible enough to be both reactive and also proactive. Using it as a two-way dialogue is much more effective as opposed to a one-way outbound channel, which is still a common view with many organisations.