customer relations of the social media kind

howardlichtman    May 13, 2012

One of the many areas that social media has the ability to enhance is customer relations and/or customer engagement. As in other areas of social media, this can manifest itself in a number of ways. Social media can facilitate the interaction among fellow customers, as well as direct interaction between the company and its consumers. In both cases, this can be either a blessing or a curse.

There are numerous examples of corporations that utilize social media to allow customers to solve problems for other fellow customers. Customer solutions are often quicker and resolved in a language that fellow customers can understand. If you have a large amount of resources dedicated to customer service in answering questions, this can be a cost savings. One example of a company doing this includes Craigslist. Craigslist uses a forum which exists in addition to its normal FAQs, where Craigslist users answer questions from other users. See the following link: forums.craigslist.org/?forumID=9

Another great example is MyFantasyLeague, which actually calls the area “Customers Helping Customers”. See the following link: forums.myfantasyleague.com/forums

Customers helping customers is particularly useful when you have a complex or technical problem. One example of this is ASUS, which features a technical support forum that has an amazing record of a very small period of lag-time between posting the problem and receiving a solution. Some customers claim that they purchase ASUS products over others because of the exceptional level of support that they know is available from the customer forum. See the following link: vip.asus.com/forum

Allowing customers to interact with each other to share opinions and views can also be a curse. When a problem arises, the issue gets magnified one thousand fold as the word is spread. Sometimes it’s not the company — sometimes it’s an outside source that is facilitating the interaction. This past Christmas our family vacation was to Panama at a new, all-inclusive five-star Westin resort. Unfortunately, the opening of the hotel was delayed and when we got there we were literally the first customers to arrive. The hotel was certainly not-ready-for-prime-time … at the end of the day, the Westin stepped up to the plate and provided its guests with complimentary return vacations. Transat Holidays chipped in and provided a partial flight credit. They did the best that they could to mitigate the problem at the end of the trip and post-trip, but they would have been better off dealing with their customers on-site during the crisis. As a result, vacationers posted some pretty negative and damaging reviews online. Would you go to a resort that had comments like “We left after 3 nights we wanted a restful vacation and this was a nightmare”, “Food absolutely terrible, inedible”, and “Stay away from this place until they fix just about everything”? See some of the other comments in the link below:

http://www.tripadvisor.ca/ShowUserReviews-g294480-d2420667-r129183487
The_Westin_Playa_Bonita_Panama-Panama_City_Panama_Province
.

The reality is that it is a beautiful hotel, but they allowed a problem to get out of hand, and in the world of social media, negative reviews get magnified one thousand fold.

Of course, this was a third-party website and not a Westin or Transat Holidays site. If you were Westin or Transat Holidays and you allowed customers to post their reviews on your website, what would you do in this circumstance? Many corporations that I meet with are being talked about on the Internet and don’t even know that these conversations that are going on. In travel, people are aware of travel forums and blogs, but it is surprising how many other companies are talked about in additional forums or blogs. Reacting quickly to a crisis or a consumer complaint can actually turn complainers into raving fans.

A heavy social media user was trying to upgrade to a business class seat on a Delta Airlines flight. The counter clerk refused to even check if seats were available. The upset customer tweeted his disappointment and immediately received support from a large number of his followers. The difference here is that Delta was listening and responding. Delta entered the conversation and within ten minutes offered him both an apology and a free upgrade. The client was surprised and delighted. The next thing he did was tweet his happiness to thousands of his followers.

With social media being so pervasive, you can’t stick your head in the sand like an ostrich. When the Costa Allegra was disabled by a fire in the engine room, the company issued formal press releases but did not engage with the public directly. There’s always going to be a social media guru that will step into the void. Chris Owens, who has more than 11,000 followers and is known as a cruise expert, took on the task of updating the public. The public turned to him, rather than the cruise line, for information. See the following link: www.chriscruises.net/2012/02/costa-ship-on-fire-adrift-near-seychelles-islands

The secondary area of customer engagement is companies dealing with consumers directly. For most manufacturers, all relationships with their consumers are through the retailers. The Internet and social media have allowed consumers to speak directly to the manufacturers they are buying products from and vice versa. This is incredible, as consumers can be utilized as a brain trust for suggestions as to how to improve products. There are many examples, one being Starbucks’ concept called MyStarbucksIdea. It’s a website created specifically for gathering a wide range of ideas from Starbucks customers. MyStarbucksIdea allows customers to interact with each other and make suggestions. There are almost 30,000 ideas in the coffee and espresso drinks category alone. Two Starbucks representatives monitor the website, as the company encourages postings by acknowledging the top participants, and communicating which ideas the company is planning to implement. See the following link: www.mystarbucksidea.force.com

In other instances, consumers have been asked to become more proactive and come to the aid of a particular cause. One form of this is crowd sourcing. Hot Docs recently participated in a crowd sourcing initiative by asking consumers to invest in an upcoming documentary in progress. The initiative is called “Doc Ignite”. Every two months they feature a documentary, and ask consumers to financially support the creation of the documentary and to help spread the word. They leave the donation amount to the customer’s discretion. Recently, they were raising money for the documentary “How to Build a Time Machine”. The filmmakers were looking for $25,000 to make their recreations of time-traveller John Titor’s tales a little more convincing. See www.hotdocs.ca/docignite. For other crowd sourcing examples, see www.kickstarter.com

The flip side is also true — consumers can ask questions directly to corporations and expect quick, meaningful, and timely responses. Consumers can also complain directly to the corporations and once again expect timely and meaningful responses. An example of a corporation that has effectively rallied their troops to do this is Best Buy and its Twelpforce. Check out twitter.com/#!/twelpforce. Best Buy encourages all 180,000 of their employees to utilize social media. Many have gone through training programs as well as content creation initiatives. If a customer has a problem, the employees can jump on board and provide a quick response.

As we’ve seen from the examples noted above, and there are hundreds more, social media can be both a blessing and a curse. Is your company taking advantage of customer relations of the social media kind?