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January 04 2014

7 Ways to Deal With A-Hole Facebook Fans
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Social media managers know what’s up — with thousands of fans on a Facebook Page, there’s bound to be at least one who ruins the fun for everyone. He shoots down every post, is the first to call out a typo, and loves incorporating profanities into even his most positive comments.

Add your textbook spammers, angry customers and historically unhappy people to the mix and it’s no wonder someone has to keep an eye on your company’s Facebook Page at all times. It’s easy to consider banning every user who ruffles your feathers, but you should weigh multiple options before planning your attack strategy. Here are seven ways to deal with your least favorite Facebook fans: the a-holes. Read more...

More about Facebook, Marketing, Social Media, Features, and Customer Service

December 19 2013

Which Industry Inspires the Most Swearing?
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What kinds of companies illicit profanity from their customers? The answer, according to a Seattle mobile-advertising company, is satellite television providers. Housing contractors and cable-TV companies filled out the top three, according to the analysis of 1.2 million U.S. consumer calls from March 2012 to November 2013 by Marchex, a company that makes software connecting customers’ clicks on websites to call centers for 100,000 businesses.

Standard disclosures that permit recording of those calls also let Marchex dig deeply into them. One out 82 calls to satellite TV providers — the largest of which in the U.S. are DirecTV and Dish Network — led to customers swearing, the company says. At the opposite end: veterinarians’ offices. Vets generated just one instance of cursing for every 2,634 calls. Read more...

More about Business, Customer Service, Customer Satisfaction, Advertising, and Marketing

November 25 2013

6 Ways to Cultivate Better Customer Relationships
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It’s a mantra hammered into the heads of anyone who has ever owned a business, worked in a service industry or stepped foot in the world of sales: “The customer is always right.”

Beyond simply placating customers, however, the modern take on this tried-and-true saying has evolved into what some refer to as "relationship marketing," or the art of building connections, rapport and personal relationships with customers. Today, customer relationship management (CRM) is an increasingly important aspect of running a business — and a successful strategy is an extremely useful and revenue-building tool for almost any business model. Read more...

More about Small Business, Crm, Customer Service, Business, and Marketing

September 14 2013

Apple Customer Service Slows During Launch Times — But Not by Much
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If you're thinking of bypassing the long lines at Apple stores next week to get an iPhone 5S or iPhone 5C, you may want to consider ordering over the phone.

According to new research, Apple does a better job of fielding customer questions and placing phone orders during product-launch times than the industry average

StellaService, which looks at online and telephone-based customer service at nationwide retailers, released data surrounding Apple's last two major launches (the iPad mini and the iPhone 5 in 2012), and looked at how they compared to wait times during the rest of the year. The findings showed customer-service wait times and shipping took longer than usual during product-launch periods — but not by much Read more...

More about Iphone, Apple, Customer Service, Ipad, and Iphone 5

August 07 2013

Apple to Significantly Improve AppleCare
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Apple is set to update its AppleCare services in the coming weeks, according to a new report from 9to5Mac.

First, the publication claims that as soon as Monday, Aug. 12, the Cupertino, Calif. company will make its online-based AppleCare chat service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While Aug. 12 is a "target date" that might be pushed back, Apple is nevertheless planning on launching the revamped service in the immediate future, the website explains.

9to5Mac continues:

The 24/7 chat support will likely be applicable for both Mac and iOS Device users. As Apples iPad and iPhone hardware competition increases from companies such as Samsung, Apple will need to utilize its unique customer support prowess as a differentiating factor in the marketplace. 24/7 chat support via an easy-to-understand medium could assist in this. Read more...

More about Chat, Apple, Customer Service, Update, and Tech Support

February 27 2012

How to Turn Social Feedback into Valuable Business Data


Joshua March is co-founder and CEO of Conversocial, a provider of integrated social CRM and marketing software for Facebook and Twitter. He resides in London.

You’ve set up your company’s Facebook Page and Twitter account, pulled together a social media team to start generating engagement, and now you’ve got a decent audience involved in conversations about your brand. Great, but where’s the real value?

It seems most companies understand that they need to take advantage of social feedback; however, many aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, 85% of marketers think that customer insight is the best potential advantage of using social media, but only 6% of businesses are actually using social media to collect customer feedback, according to a late 2010 survey.

Why is social insight so valuable? For starters, it’s real and organic; marketers can escape the barriers posed by contrived feedback methods, and get direct access to their customers’ real opinions. The more conversations you have, the greater potential you have to learn something, but the data can be difficult to extract.

My company looked at the different messages retailers receive on Facebook and Twitter.

Between 50 and 75% of messages that companies receive on Facebook and Twitter don’t need to be actioned in any way — they’re just noise. Isolating relevant messages from general chatter is time-consuming, especially while you’re trying to stimulate conversation and engage with your fans and followers by the thousands.

The real challenge is to identify and learn from different, valuable lessons based on just one message. You’ve found it, it looks interesting, but what can it do for you?


1. Shed Light on Perceptions of Your Brand


Over a third of messages posted on social networks tell you something about how customers perceive your brand. Your fans and followers will say what they think of you without being prompted. Got any preconceptions you’re trying to shake? Trying to establish a certain brand personality? Social media tells you if it’s working — directly. Your social conversations can help determine whether not just your social strategy, but your entire brand strategy is working out as intended.


2. Peek into Your Customers’ Heads


Want to really understand your customers? What are they talking about, and what does that say about them? Conversations that form around your brand can give insight that you may never have considered. Chatter around a product announcement could reveal feedback that, next time around, you can tap into. Community managers’ conversation starters can provide more than just engagement for engagement’s sake. Have you considered directly asking things about your customers? For instance, what new trends are they loving right now?


3. Understand Which Products Resonate the Best


When you promote a new product on your Facebook Page, do you listen to what your fans have to say about it? Do they love it, or have you gotten an underwhelming reaction? Are your customers calling out for changes or other things they’d love to have? This is valuable feedback for your product team, and can be achieved within minutes of posting a new product. And if you receive complaints of disappointing purchases, respond and make necessary changes. Crowdsourcing doesn’t have to be a sophisticated process; it’s just making the most of what your Facebook Page or Twitter account already knows.


4. Learn from Major Customer Issues


Complaints and questions on your Facebook Page or retweeted across the web are social media managers’ nightmares. But the only way to really stem the flow is to track the complaints that surface time and time again — and to do something about it. Be prepared to deal with these issues (pre-emptive action may help in the future), and let the rest of the business know the most serious service problems it faces.


5. Construct a Social Media Customer Conversation Plan


How do you join the ranks of those leading companies that effectively learn from their social media communities?

Here are a few starting steps to get on top of diverse and jumbled social conversations, and to make the move toward effective research and analysis.

  1. It sounds simple, but work out what it is you’d actually like to know. Categorize messages that would benefit your company (complaints, product feedback, categories related to certain product lines), then create a checklist. When you’re next working your way through conversations and find something interesting, record it.
  2. Have a conversation with every team member involved in your social channels, and establish who needs to know what. If your product team has nothing to do with social media just yet, you may have some lobbying to do. Start collecting your own data, and show them all the insight you’ve discovered. They’ll soon sit up and listen.
  3. Mark customer sentiment on your Facebook and Twitter messages so you understand customers’ satisfaction levels around specific products or marketing messages you’ve sent out. It’s a really simple way to understand opinions.
  4. Group all relevant messages by the categories you’ve defined. This will make it easy for you to look through and analyze customer sentiment by product or service. Keep in mind that uncovering real insight relies upon representative data. If you’re working at any scale, you’ll need a tool to help you extract and categorize information.
  5. Put it all into a weekly report to share with your colleagues.

Social media insight is something worth capitalizing on. If you have a social media presence, you’re already generating valuable, organic data. The next step is to prevent it slipping through the cracks.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, TommL

More About: contributor, customer service, features, How-To, Marketing, social data


February 06 2012

How to Fix Best Buy


Mashable OP-ED: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Mashable as a publication.

Alex Goldfayn’s new book is called Evangelist Marketing: What Apple Amazon and Netflix Understand About Their Customers (That Your Company Probably Doesn’t). He is CEO of the Evangelist Marketing Institute, a marketing consultancy with clients that include T-Mobile, TiVo and Logitech.

Some people insist that Best Buy is dying a slow death.

Meanwhile, its CEO, Brian Dunn, maintains that 80% of consumer electronics sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. But in its most recent earnings statement (for the three months ending Nov. 26), Best Buy’s net income was down nearly 30%, compared to the year prior. The company says that’s because they had to lower prices to increase sales.

Here is what I believe to be the core cause of Best Buy’s problems: There is almost nothing you can buy at Best Buy stores that isn’t cheaper and more convenient to buy online. And when you think about buying online, you think about Amazon first, and a number of other retailers second (Buy.com, Walmart.com, etc.). BestBuy.com usually doesn’t top that list.

The problems — including Best Buy’s recent inability to fill holiday season purchases — are already well-documented. Let’s focus, instead, on how to fix Best Buy.


1. Focus on the Stores


CEO Dunn stated earlier this month that Best Buy has expanded the products available on BestBuy.com and has launched a new online marketplace. This is the wrong approach. You don’t out-Amazon Amazon. I’m constantly telling my clients that they must build on their strengths, not try to overcome their weaknesses.

For example, Research In Motion spent a year of resources developing and marketing a tablet device instead of focusing on its major competitive strength, the Blackberry smartphone. Best Buy needs to focus on the asset that separates it from the competition — its physical stores.

This is urgent. For the next year, the majority of Best Buy’s investment, attention and marketing budget should go towards improving the customer experience in its retail stores.

What should it improve? That’s easy.


2. Fewer SKUs


One of the major ways retailers measure success is the sales-per-square-foot metric. This figure eliminates any differences in number of stores and size of stores; it simply measures how well a retailer performs.

According to a report from August, Apple dominated the field with a whopping $5,626 per square foot of retail space. In second place, the jeweler Tiffany’s came in at $2,974; that’s how much Apple trumps everybody else. Costco wholesale makes $998 per square foot.

Best Buy? It comes in at $831 per square foot, behind retailers like Whole Foods, Polo Ralph Lauren, Signet Jewelers and GameStop.

What do Costco and Apple stores have in common? A relatively small selection of products to buy. Best Buy should focus on the best products, not on as many products as can be crammed onto shelves.


3. Better Blue Shirts


One of Best Buy’s major advantages over Amazon is that it employs people in blue shirts who are expected to help customers. These folks are young (because they cost less this way), but insufficiently trained. Of course, Apple Stores employ young people too, but Apple’s people are empowered, no, mandated, to help people. Best Buy’s store staffers read the back of the box with you.

The sooner Best Buy can roll out a comprehensive and aggressive training program for its blue shirts, the sooner it can make people feel better about coming to its stores. Then, every newspaper with a Best Buy in its city would positively cover the store’s efforts to improve its floor staff. So, in addition to improving the customer experience and sales, this is a powerful marketing and PR strategy.


4. Better Store Layouts


Wider aisles. Cleaner spaces. Get the product packages off the shelves, because these horrendous boxes aren’t doing anybody any favors. Simply give people more space to physically try as many products as possible. After all, that’s why people go to retail. Basically, study what Apple is doing in its stores and try to apply.


5. Better Marketing


It’s time for Best Buy to go beyond its weekly blue flyer. The company needs to launch a powerful marketing and PR campaign. Find out what’s important and compelling to consumers.

I don’t know this for fact, but given the current state of its marketing activities, I can all but guarantee that Best Buy isn’t having enough qualitative conversations with its customers to uncover the language and emotion that resonates with them. My best clients have learned that deeply understanding your customers is the fastest and most direct path to effective marketing. It’s time for Best Buy to start understanding its customers.


6. Better Customer Service, Better Feelings


The 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index Report found Best Buy in the middle of the pack in terms of customer satisfaction, behind retailers such as Publix, Staples, Kohl’s and JCPenney.

If you say you’ll price match, then price match. Don’t make people stand in line to beg cranky 24-year-olds, who are trained how to best decline the price match. Similarly, if you want to compete with Amazon and Costco, then you better accept returns without question, and without an annoying restocking fee.

Instead of anticipating a frustrating experience, people need to foresee satisfaction when they think about Best Buy, as they do with Apple and Costco.

Many of Best Buy’s problems result from the negative feelings their actions and inactions have built in consumers, who have plenty of other options, as Best Buy painfully knows: “I can shop at Costco and return something three months later if it breaks, or I can go Best Buy and be out of luck.”

Best Buy literally can’t afford any more bad feelings. Over the next year, Best Buy must do everything possible for people to feel good in its stores. In fact, the majority of Best Buy’s innovation efforts — from product selection to layout, from customer service to marketing — should focus on its most powerful remaining competitive advantage: its physical stores.

Image courtesy of Flickr, staticjana, Ron Dauphin

More About: amazon, apple, best buy, contributor, customer service, ecommerce, features, Opinion, retail

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January 04 2012

10 Easy Customer Engagement Ideas for Small Business


Scott Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment and underemployment. The YEC provides young entrepreneurs with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of a business’s development and growth.

Business and technology writer Efraim Turban defines customer service as “a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction — that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation.”

While customer experience means different things to different people, it is generally about the sum of all the interaction a customer has with a brand or company. That’s a significant difference from customer service, which generally focuses on a single transaction.

All of which begs the question, how do you create a customer experience that sets you apart from the competition and keeps customers coming back? Luckily for you, I recently asked a group of successful young entrepreneurs those very questions.


1. Our Customers Are Our Models


At Sweat EquiTees, we make sure to feature our customers as best we can. After all, they are our life and soul. Since we sell clothing to entrepreneurs, we have our customers send us photos of themselves in their shirts, and then we feature them as “model entrepreneurs” on our website. It’s a fun and engaging way of promoting our customers and showing off our products.

- Benjamin Leis, Sweat EquiTees.


2. Hold a Virtual Party


Everyone loves to attend parties, even more so if they don’t need to dress up and drive somewhere. I’ve held virtual parties where I’m on camera interacting with people via chat, giving away fun tips, making jokes and answering customer questions. Why not make learning fun? I should mention it was Halloween and I was a wearing a witch’s hat!

- Nathalie Lussier, Nathalie Lussier Media.


3. Put the Spotlight on Customers


We like to write about the attendees to our events and their companies on our blog. This makes them happy because we’re spreading the word about their activities. They also feel more engaged and involved with our company in between events, and feel part of a larger community.

- Tim Jahn, Entrepreneurs Unpluggd.


4. Put Money In Your Clients’ Pockets


Once you know who your clients are and what they do for a living, connect them to people who need their services. You can make virtual introductions, but this also works offline. There is no greater compliment you can give a customer than referring someone to their business. If you put money in your clients’ pockets, they’ll keep putting money in yours.

- Robert Sofia, Platinum Advisor Marketing Strategies, LLC.


5. Call Your Customers


Call me old-fashioned, but what could be more engaging than a one-on-one phone call? Try calling some of your customers, even if it wasn’t part of your agreement or the package you sold them. If you spend 10 minutes getting to know a customer, you’ll learn some incredible things about why people buy your stuff. You can also win a fan for life. If you just have to keep things online, use Skype!

- Corbett Barr, Insanely Useful Media.


6. Geocache Scavenger Hunt


I’ve set up a geocaching scavenger hunt for some of my clients to work together as teams and integrate my product while on the hunt. Geocaching uses GPS coordinates to find destinations or hidden objects. This generates a lot of buzz and is a great way to shake-up traditional marketing methods. If you have a product or service, introduce it as a geocache to make some curiosity.

- Vanessa Van Petten, Science of People.


7. Use YouTube


YouTube videos are some of the easiest, least expensive ways to create a fun, engaging experience. Use a Flip video camera, which has easy editing software, to record testimonials from your employees and clients. Upload videos of your team doing unique or entertaining things. Be sure it’s tasteful and your clients will like it.

- Nick Friedman, College Hunks Hauling Junk.


8. Solicit Participation With Contests


Engage your customers with trivia, contests or promotions which require a public response to participate. For example, I ask musicians to share their stories on social media. The best stories shared win free digital distribution to get their music on iTunes, Amazon, etc. The goal is to get the conversation going to reach friends of friends. Costs are minimal and ROI is great.

- Lucas Sommer, Audimated.


9. Make Yourself Accessible


People love feeling like they have access to you whenever they want. If I’m emailing my mailing list, I always try to add a line that says “Anything I can do to personally help you out? Just hit reply.” I always get a lot of responses, and build a much deeper bond with my audience and customers.

- Sean Ogle, Location 180, LLC.


10. Show Your Fans Some Facebook Love


We really love the relationship that we have with our fans and potential customers, so we like to show the world. Every week on our Facebook page, we highlight one of our fans as “Fan of the Week.” This is fun because their love for our company is displayed to our fans, and that person will then share it with their own network.

- Andrew Saladino, Just Bath Vanities.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Kaptain Kobold

More About: community, contributor, customer engagement, customer service, features, gamification, Small Business, YouTube

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December 03 2011

9 Ways to Improve Customer Communication on Your Website


Daniel Alves is the design director for the small business web design division at the digital marketing and web design company, 352 Media Group.

If you’re like most business owners, getting leads online is the main reason you created a website in the first place. Sure, you may have a stellar SEO campaign, a beautiful design and an über low bounce rate, but without a well-planned contact strategy, you can’t turn those pageviews into conversions.

Online conversions aren’t just for ecommerce websites. In fact, most businesses use their websites to initiate one-on-one conversations. By personally engaging a contact, you are more likely to turn that contact into a customer. So, what’s the trick?

First, you need to understand that most people don’t want to give their phone numbers or email addresses to yet another website — the thought of spam is horrifying. And it’s not just privacy hawks who shy away from contact forms; most websites only achieve a 2-3% conversion rate. Furthermore, people don’t want to have to worry about waiting for a return phone call to address their problems or questions. They want to get the answers they need with as little effort as possible.

Follow these nine tips to make your website design and customer service more approachable, and thus, gain the trust of more customers.


Go with the Flow


Website usability is built on convention. Follow tried and true design strategies to ensure that your users can move through your site as easily as possible. Remember, the less effort, the better.

  • Use the words “Contact Us.” It may sound boring or generic, but the phrase works. (There’s a reason exit signs don’t use the words “leave” or “depart.”) People don’t read your site — they scan — and they’ve been trained over time to instantly recognize those two words.
  • Place contact info and phone number at the top, right corner of the page, where it’s expected. Also, make sure to include your phone number as an HTML, not an image. That way, a mobile user can tap the phone number link and launch into a call immediately. When mobile browsing eclipses desktop browsing in two years, nearly everyone will need that instant access. While you open yourself up to potential spamming, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.

Make It Easy


A user must already overcome an internal battle in order to share her personal contact information. Your job is to remove as many obstacles as possible so that she makes the leap.

  • Keep contact forms simple. While it may help to get a full profile of your visitor by asking pre-qualifying questions, it can be very intimidating for that user. Ask for as little information as possible and require only that person’s name and email address. If you seek other information, such as phone number and address, make it optional.
  • Create one-column form fields for quick contact. It helps to put form labels directly above form fields. Usability studies show that users who filled out these types of forms saved time by only having to move their eyes vertically, not laterally.
  • Don’t be afraid of large input boxes. While considered a design trend, large input boxes are not only more fun to fill out, but also force you to limit the number of fields on a contact form.
  • Give visitors a clear action button. Because people read from left to right and top to bottom, place the final action button in the lower-right of the form. Give the button plenty of weight with a standout color.

Be Reassuring


Trust goes a long way with online clients. People fear that their contact information will get dumped into a huge database that marketers can access at will. By making your contact form unique, fun and reassuring, your user will know there’s a human on the receiving end and, therefore, be more likely to share.

  • Have some fun. Nothing eases people’s worries better than good humor. Why not spice up your contact form with some personality? Not only will it give your users a laugh, but it will also make your contact page more human. Consider a witty introduction or quirky photo.
  • Make a promise. Tell your users that their information is safe, that you won’t share it with any third party. Place this promise right next to the submit button; that way they’ll experience a nice aftertaste upon opting in.

Offer Instant Chat


Instant chat has been around for quite some time, but has traditionally only been used by the customer service departments of large Internet companies. Now, many low-cost services enable your users to reach you instantly wherever you are.

  • The future is instant. Perhaps the lowest website threshold is instant chat. It requires the user to supply little, if any, personal information and allows you to provide quick and personal customer service. Consider giving one of these services a chance.
  • LiveChat: Unlike other services, LiveChat offers a range of innovative features and third-party integration modules. You can use Facebook to gain access to your users’ social media profiles, Skype to elevate the chat into a phone call and Join.Me to perform a screen share. LiveChat also offers a free trial that makes trying this service a no-brainer.
    Olark: Another promising contender, Olark features a beautiful and seamless user experience, great reporting tools, CRM and Helpdesk integration, and it works with just about any IM client. Plus, you can live chat with a customer straight from your mobile phone. While not as feature-rich as some of its competitors, Olark is an efficient and inexpensive solution that fills the needs of most businesses.

How has your company improved its contact forms and its customer service? Has it strengthened your business? Please share in the comments below.

More About: Business, contributor, customer service, design, features, website design

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May 05 2011

HOW TO: Build a Mobile App for Better Customer Support


Roberto Pieraccini is chief technology officer at SpeechCycle, a global leader in customer experience management solutions. He has been at the leading edge of spoken dialogue technology for more than 25 years, both in research as well as in the development of commercial applications. Follow SpeechCycle on Twitter @speechcycle.

The widespread adoption of smartphones has already revolutionized our everyday behavior and, in particular the way we communicate. We read on smartphones, play on smartphones, reserve our dinner or movie tickets on smartphones and, sometimes, we even use them to call people. In fact, it was recently reported that the use of smartphone applications is exceeding that of text messaging, voice calling and web browsing.

What does all this mean for customer care channels? Invoking a branded icon on the touch screen of a smartphone — which already knows who we are and can provide the best personalized solution to our service problems — is no doubt a more pleasant experience than interacting with an automated call menu or waiting for the next available representative. However, building a smartphone application that’s able to deliver a superior customer care experience is more complicated than just porting a mobile version of your FAQ.

Here are a few points that every company should consider when deciding to develop a mobile customer care solution.


Create a Platform-Agnostic App


One of the main issues with the development and maintenance of smartphone applications lies in the fragmentation of the device base. Fortunately, most, if not all, smartphones can be grouped according to the four most common mobile operating systems: iOS (iPhone), BlackBerry, Android and Windows Phone 7. Even so, maintaining four versions of the same application can be prohibitively expensive for some brands.

In that case, you might want to consider using cross-platform mobile frameworks in the construction of your app. They’re not perfect, but they can be cost-effective. Additionally, advances in modern web standards like HTML5 and CSS3 mean that mobile web apps are functioning more and more like native mobile apps. If you can build a great mobile site, it would function well on most modern mobile devices.


Ensure the App Integrates Into the Overall Customer Care Strategy


In moving toward mobile customer care strategies, service providers have to consider that while the adoption of smartphone applications will continue to increase, the need for traditional care — agents, automated phone applications, the web — will still exist, even if at a reduced level. Thus the integration of smartphone self-service applications with traditional channels is essential.

For instance, as the result of a transaction on a smartphone, the application can decide to transfer the user to the right agent for the requested task or schedule a callback, while providing the target agent with information about the subscriber’s issue and interaction history. Or, if the user decides to access support on the desktop website, the interface there should be able to get the same historic information about the user as the smartphone app does.

In a nutshell, you need to make sure one hand of your customer care strategy knows what the other hand is doing to ensure a cohesive, effective system.


Develop Intelligent Notification Capability


The “always available, always connected” property of smartphones is a uniquely new channel for pushing notifications in a non-intrusive and highly personalized manner. Targeted notification, such as information concerning a local outage, new features or promotions, will not only improve the customer experience but will be instrumental in avoiding further issues and calls to agents and will increase the loyalty of valuable customers. The notification feature can also be used for outbound survey campaigns and the solicitation of customer feedback.


Create Personalized Experiences


Leveraging the highly personalized smartphone environment is another powerful way to ensure great user experiences. With the precise identification of each device, and thus the subscriber who owns it, companies can now decide not only to present highly personalized information but also keep track of the history and usage patterns of each individual. This behavior can also be enriched by leveraging capabilities such as location services and near-field communication (NFC).


Take Advantage of New User Interface Capabilities


Finally, it is important to realize that smartphones offer the ability to reach customers in a variety of ways. They can interact with a mobile application either by touch, type or talk. Touch has always been critical, but the growing implementation of voice search (most notably by Google on the Android platform) has opened new frontiers for app developers. Free-form text and voice input, when complemented by powerful natural language processing systems, can provide superior search and help users bypass long and often counter-intuitive hierarchical menus.


While the adoption of smartphones continues to grow exponentially and the emergence of new and personalized customer care mobile applications comes into the mainstream, vendors need to make sure they design and build applications that are at least as smart as the phones that host them and leverage all properties and features of this new medium. If vendors keep this in mind, smartphones can truly become the next frontier for customer care.


Interested in more Mobile resources? Check out Mashable Explore, a new way to discover information on your favorite Mashable topics.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, franckreporter

More About: android, blackberry, branded apps, business, customer service, development, how to, iphone, Mobile 2.0, mobile apps, mobile development, tips

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April 17 2011

How Small Businesses Can Use Social Media for Customer Service [INTERVIEW]

This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.


Customer relationship management isn’t just the domain of big brands, and these days, more and more companies are offering free online tools to make it easier for SMBs to keep track of and reach out to their customers.

For some SMBs — whether they’re brick-and-mortar shops or online businesses — being able to monitor customer feedback, respond to complaints and help answer questions across a wide variety of websites is incredibly valuable, and it establishes a rapport with customers, who are likely to spread the word and praise the SMB for its outreach.

To get a better understanding of what the CRM tasks are and the best tools to accomplish them, Mashable spoke with Marsha Collier, who wrote the book on online customer service.

Collier says that when it comes to reaching out to customers on the web, small businesses actually have an advantage over their corporate counterparts.

“There is the opportunity for more communication within the company, more chance to build a customer-centric culture. They don’t have the issues of having to pass new ideas through meetings and legal department. If the owner/president is involved and the lines of communication are fairly open, they can turn on a dime and beat the competition,” she says.

Given the agility of a smaller company, Collier says that while there are lessons to be learned from larger corporations’ social media campaigns, the most important part of bringing your business online for customer interaction is that you’re creating a personality for your company and giving your business a face. “When you engage the community, you personalize your business. Your business is no longer a store or a website: It’s a person.” And at that point, Collier says, it’s vital to communicate promptly and personally, which can be time-consuming.

“I know of small business owners who continually monitor social media platforms for mention of their businesses. They get text messages and try to direct the issues immediately. I even heard of a brick-and-mortar restaurateur who got a text about cold French fries at his location. He texted the manager, who then showed up at the table within minutes to diffuse the situation.”


Best Tools to Use


When it comes to specific tools that SMBs should be using, Collier says, “Of course, the very basics would be Tweetdeck or Seesmic. You’d be surprised how many small businesses don’t know about the basic tools.” She says HootSuite is a great choice for a slightly larger business.

Anyone who runs an online business will tell you that customers are shopping 24/7. Collier says they can “smartly install a web-based help desk from Zendesk or chat products like Meebo Me or Skype on their websites to immediately answer customer service issues.”

Collier says those who wish to monitor mentions of their brands or verticals can use sites such as Socialmention or Tweetbeep. “Small business again can jump the gun here,” she notes. “Using their knowledge of their own industry, they can comment topically on blogs. They can even help their competitors’ customers in public on Facebook, on blogs or boards. By helping people with good service they can turn those people into prospective customers.”


Best Practices & Streams to Study


Collier says she’s spoken at length with scores of SMB owners while writing her book, The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide. She says some of the most diligent practitioners of online CRM are the tens of thousands of business owners who make their living selling only on eBay or Amazon. Collier says these people have to “stay on top of customer transactions” in a way that other SMB owners and managers don’t.

For offline businesses, Collier says, “Keep in mind we are on the cusp of this new form of online customer service, and the tools and procedures are just now being perfected. The few businesses that actually ‘get it’ right now are doing it right.”

A fine example that Collier recommends for further study is @UnitedLinen, a company that uses social media to connect with customers in its local area. “The company has a personalized stream where it engages customers,” she says, “yet it’s also used for product announcements and crowdsourcing” and promotion of its YouTube series on the art of folding napkins.

Collier also points out that quite a few food trucks have mastered the art of social media CRM. She recommends checking out the efforts of street food companies such as Streetza Pizza and Kogi BBQ.

At the end of the day, Collier says, “Good customer service in any form has a positive effect on ROI. The White House Office of Consumer Affairs is quoted as saying, ‘A dissatisfied customer will tell between 9 and 15 people about their experience.’ If that is a real world statistic, the online world must be ten times that.”

She adds that people don’t do business with those who have a reputation for mistreating their customers. And since more companies are shifting to social media as the platform for all customer service, “small businesses should grab the opportunity and begin to make their mark.”

In other words, practice will make perfect, and Collier advises getting as much social media practice as you can.


Damage Control


Unfortunately, not all customer interactions online are going to be positive, and there is little SMB owners can do to control that. “Negative feedback can appear anywhere,” Collier says. “New media has drawn an end to controlling the situation.”

Rather than trying to shut down conversations that might cast your business or product in an unflattering light, Collier recommends approaching all such conversations with honesty and a willingness to make amends if needed.

“The object is to be there, to monitor the various sites,” she says. “Claim your business’ Facebook Page, sign up with Yelp, Angie’s List, Trip Advisor and any review site you can find on a Google search for your industry. Be transparent. Own up to mistakes and let the audience know about how you made things right for the customer.”

Being proactive with social media makes it easy to nip a negative situation in the bud — and everyone knows how quickly you responded, which can help you win even more customers.

image courtesy of iStockphoto, caracterdesign

More About: crm, customer service, small business, smb, social media

For more Business & Marketing coverage:


March 25 2011

How AI Advances Are Making Virtual Service Reps Smarter


Steve Adams is the CEO of VirtuOz, a provider of intelligent virtual agents.

Just last month, IBM’s Watson, a “question-answer computer,” defeated two humans on the game show Jeopardy. The computer played against the top two Jeopardy mega champions: Ken Jennings (who consecutively won games for almost six months) and Brad Rutter (who won the largest sum of money in the game’s history). Watson’s ability to decipher complex clues and respond both quickly and accurately, as a human would, is a testament to the viability of natural language processing for commercial applications. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail because it allows machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords.

At the same time that natural language processing has been coming of age, a consumer led revolution has been occurring. A generation of users, including but not limited to digital natives, are living in an online world where blogs, texts, tweets, ecommerce and social networks are the way of life. This web-savvy consumer prefers both their personal and business engagements to be conducted online, with minimal human contact.

The confluence of these two events has given rise to the commercial use of intelligent virtual agents in the customer service arena with impressive benefits for both the consumer and the business. Progressive companies such as eBay, L’Oreal, H&R Block and SFR are already successfully using virtual agent solutions not only to keep operational costs in control but also to improve service accessibility and to provide the best possible customer experience to today’s web-savvy customer.

These aren’t the virtual agents of old. Today’s contemporary, intelligent virtual agents are represented by sophisticated, animated avatars that are available 24/7 and emulate the knowledge and performance of a company’s best support agent. Whether accessed via a public or password protected online help page, a mobile device or Facebook, intelligent virtual agents serve as the first point of contact for the online consumer. Leveraging advanced natural language processing and predictive intent analysis, they are able to immediately engage the user, respond quickly and consistently to users’ online requests and interactively guide them to the right outcome through a personalized, conversational channel.

Beyond serving as a simple information resource, virtual agents can now address sophisticated online service needs such as troubleshooting a technical support issue, canceling orders or upgrading services. The success rate for intelligent virtual agents is high, in that they often provide the answers and services customers are looking for, and when they don’t, they can intelligently direct the user to the right human representative. Virtual agents can eliminate the frustration of multiple service hand-offs that require a consumer to re-state their problem over and over to each department.

Recent data within my company’s customer base show that 50% of its customers prefer virtual agents as the first line of service. For “digital natives” or “Generation C” customers, this can be as high as 70%. Intelligent virtual agents offer an equally compelling ROI for businesses that deploy them. Not only do they earn higher customer satisfaction ratings, but the cost of a virtual agent channel can be one-tenth the cost of traditional human service channels. They often result in a more efficient service center by deflecting a number of call center issues that no longer require human intervention, and improve live customer service by freeing up representatives for more complex or urgent issues. And customers that have used a virtual agent prior to being routed to live chat generally have higher satisfaction with the overall service experience.

The virtual agent value proposition is so compelling for both the online consumer and the business provider that leading analyst firm Gartner Research predicts that virtual agents will be the standard technology for customer interactions in three to five years. Intelligent virtual agents that are easily and cost-effectively deployed — unlike the experimental Watson — are clearly ushering in the age of digital customer relationships.


Interested in more Tech resources? Check out Mashable Explore, a new way to discover information on your favorite Mashable topics.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, kemie

More About: artificial intelligence, customer service, virtual agents

For more Tech & Gadgets coverage:


January 07 2011

Twitter for Brands: 6 Winning Strategies to Learn From

Megan Berry is marketing manager for Klout, the standard for online influence. She also blogs at The Huffington Post and Brazen Careerist. You can follow her on Twitter at @meganberry.

Twitter can sometimes create a dilemma for brands. It’s a medium that focuses on people, so how should brand accounts work? Should you let your users know who is the voice behind your brand? Should key employees represent your brand instead of a brand account? There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but you can learn from how these companies are handling it.


1. People Like a Person, Not Just a Logo — @ford


ford image

Scott Monty is head of social media for Ford Motor Company and, for many, the face and personality of Ford on Twitter. His account, @ScottMonty, has more followers and a higher Klout Score than the @ford official account. Immediately upon talking to Monty, you realize why he’s had such success in his role: He’s not only personable but very much believes in the company. He says: “One of the reasons that it works so well is that I don’t do it simply because it’s a job. I truly believe in the things Ford Motor Company is doing — from the products to the great leadership. The reason I took the job is that it was something that resonated with me personally. I think you can tell when people are doing something just because it’s a job or because they truly believe in it.”

Monty points out that one of the biggest challenges to this approach is finding a representative that will be the right fit. As for the benefits, Monty adds: “People appreciate looking at a face as an avatar instead of a logo. That personal touch brings along a degree of humanity to the brand. I talk about 360 degrees of my life and people like that.”

Best for: Companies that have a strong social media lead who is committed to the company and who fits well with the brand image


2. Announce Who’s Tweeting — @Zappos_Service


zappos image

The Twitter handle for Zappos support has a rather unusual, but practical approach to having multiple people run its account: They simply tweet when they change shifts (which happens fairly often) and let people know who’s helping at any given time. It’s a very brick-and-mortar approach similar to how you can check the name tag of who’s helping you at the store, but you still view them as a company representative.

“We want Twitter to be more personalized,” says Corina Craig, one of Zappos’s tweeters. “We want people doing Twitter who like to do it. A lot of our customers have their favorite tweeters. People reach out and say, ‘Hey Corina — how’s everything going?’ ” This method was chosen to promote the best customer experience. You can get 24/7 service from Zappos and you can still correspond with someone who has a name and personality.

Best for: Companies that need to provide service 24/7.


3. Carefully Craft the Brand Voice — @VirginAmerica


virgin image

Virgin America does a remarkable job of being responsive on Twitter despite the fact that there are only two people behind the handle. Jill Fletcher is the social media and communications manager and one of those two people. She explains that they work very hard to develop a consistent company voice for the account that fits with the overall brand.

“The ‘Virgin Voice’ is casual, cheeky and irreverent, and so are we,” she says. “Nick [her colleague] and I work very closely together to inject as much of the ‘Virgin Voice’ into our tweets as possible, but we aren’t afraid to let our personalities shine through either. I think it’s a mistake to over-think every message that goes out on social media. Our aim is to simply be true to Virgin’s values in our social media posts by going out of our way to create ‘wow’ for our guests and having fun along the way.”

Best for: A brand with a strong voice.


4. Avoid a “Cult of Personality” — @WholeFoods


wholefoods image

The Whole Foods Twitter handle definitely has a social media savvy team behind it (even if you can’t easily tell who its members are). They have a very active presence and even post the hours that they are available to answer tweets, making expectations clear for their customers. Due to Whole Foods’ international nature, with each store potentially having quirks or a neighborhood feel of its own, having one Twitter account to represent all of them is a unique challenge.

Winnie Hsia, social media senior specialist for Whole Foods, says, “From the beginning, it has been important for us to avoid creating a ‘cult of personality’ around any individual managing our social media presence. We want our social media channels to convey our brand personality and not necessarily the personality of the individual managing the outgoing messages and conversation. We have, however, sought individuals who understand our brand voice — friendly, positive and conversation-driven –- to be our social media specialists.”

She believes keeping a certain level of anonymity is important for the brand. Michael Bepko, social media specialist, adds that this has never been a problem for them with their fans. “In general, what is really important to our customers, fans and critics on Twitter is that they receive quick, helpful responses from us … not that information originates from a particular person,” Bepko says.

Best for: Brands that are international or multi-faceted where it may be hard for one person to represent the entire company.


5. Get Many Departments Involved — @JetBlue


jetblue image

JetBlue Airways is another great example of a company that manages its Twitter brand well. Morgan Johnston, manager of corporate communications, says there are approximately 20 people behind JetBlue’s corporate account. “Every one of us is an established crewmember with expertise in different areas within the company that our followers find useful,” Johnston says. “Representatives from Corporate Communications, Marketing, Interactive (web) team, TrueBlue (customer loyalty) team, and Customer Commitment team are all able to respond directly to customers.” This allows the JetBlue Twitter presence to answer all kind and varieties of questions. Johnston adds, “We like to think of the team as an all-seeing, quickly accessible amazing information booth.”

JetBlue maintains a Twitter list of on-duty reps so customers can find out who’s behind the voice at any given time. JetBlue also uses co-tags when someone is expressing a personal instead of brand opinion. Johnston explains: “So while @JetBlue as a corporate entity may not be able to advocate for any particular restaurant at our airport terminal at JFK, you can be sure if I’m handling the question, there will be a “Try the guacamole at Revolución ^MJ” attached.”

Best for: Companies where customers are looking for information first and need to be able to get in touch with different parts of the company.


6. One Account, One Voice — @PalmsLasVegas


palms image

This Las Vegas hotel has an active Twitter presence that works well for its image. It maintains its brand without feeling stifled. Amber Olson, the social media strategy manager for the Palms, notes that the account has one voice behind it, making it easy to maintain one consistent feel and personality. While having one person behind an account may be impossible for bigger companies, it may be just the right mix for a local hotel or business.

“Tweets are done freely and in real time; it’s more genuine and in the moment,” Olson says. While most companies strive for this, it’s especially easy with this approach because there’s no need to check to ensure the tweet is in the right voice.

Best for: Small or local businesses where it’s possible for one person to manage the whole account.


Conclusion


Much like every other aspect of social media, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how you should run your company account. However, there were some themes that held true in every conversation:

  • Your company Twitter handle should fit with your brand’s voice.
  • The person (or people) behind your company handle should have a personal voice that meshes well with the brand voice, and they should believe in the company’s core message.
  • Twitter is meant to be genuine and in real time. You have to trust those behind your Twitter handle and not make tweets go through layers of approvals.
  • Differentiate between personal and corporate views when appropriate.

The final take-away from these brands is that the voices behind them enjoyed what they were doing. That may explain a good deal of their success.

Disclosure: Ford is a sponsor of the Mashable Awards.


More Twitter Resources from Mashable:


- HOW TO: Launch a Successful Twitter Contest
- What Twitter’s Trending Topics Told Us About the World in 2010 [CHARTS]
- HOW TO: Use Twitter’s Advanced Search [VIDEO]
- 6 Ways to Score a Job Through Twitter
- We Hold These Tweets To Be Self-Evident [COMIC]

Image courtesy of Flickr, MARCOS XOTOKO.


Reviews: Flickr, Twitter

More About: brand, brands, business, customer service, ford, jetblue, List, Lists, MARKETING, palms, social media, twitter, Virgin, whole foods, Zappos

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January 02 2011

HOW TO: Use Social Media to Create Better Customer Experiences


Maria Ogneva is the director of social media at Nimble, a social relationship management solution that transforms your entire community into business opportunity by leveraging the best of customer relationship management, social media and communication tools. You can follow her on Twitter at @themaria or @nimble, or find her musings on the company blog and her personal blog.

It’s no secret that customer experience is one of the cornerstones of an effective business strategy. In all honesty, it should have been all along, but many companies chose to hide behind corporate walls and only talk to customers when it was convenient for them instead of when the customer needed them. There’s no need to belabor the point that social media has put customers in the driver’s seat. However, companies don’t need to live in fear of the next Kevin Smith or Nestle Fanpage episode. They just need to fix their customer experience to ensure that products and services actually do what they’re supposed to do and the company’s support and service are actually helpful.


Social CRM Connects Social Customer to Social Business


Today’s business must address more aspects of the customer experience than ever before. In addition to a stellar product or service, you now have many more channels to listen to and participate in, while keeping the experience consistently excellent. Where it gets complicated is wading through the noise, turning data into insights that the whole company can use, and sharing these insights. Because there is so much data being hurled at you, solutions that help unify and share information in a usable format have become necessary. Analyst firm Gartner estimates that more than 80% of growth in enterprise use of social networking tools will be driven by customer engagement projects and estimates social customer relationship management to be a $1 billion submarket of CRM in 2011.

Recall that in my previous post about social CRM, we addressed some key tenets:

  • Listen and engage;
  • Have a 360-degree view of the customer;
  • Adopt transparency and customer service as cultural foundations for your business;
  • Share and align with your team; develop necessary workflow;
  • Social engagement must be enterprise-wide.

In an effort to see these theories applied to real-life situations, let’s examine some examples of how my personal customer experience was affected by businesses correctly capturing, sharing and acting on relevant information.


Honeymoon and Teamwork


For my honeymoon, I stayed at a world-class resort called Tabacon in Costa Rica. Each day was full of thoughtful and personalized details that were carefully orchestrated among various employees of the hotel, as well as external parties. The best part of the experience was a private dinner in a cabana in the rainforest. Let’s dissect the collaboration and communication that had to occur for this experience to happen:

  • Our travel planner contacted the hotel to make arrangements and communicate our honeymoon status.
  • A reservation specialist received the reservation, captured client (mine) information in the internal record system, analyzed honeymoon suite inventory and booked it.
  • The hotel referenced client preferences via my profile for that hotel group (“Leading Hotels of the World”) and discovered my preference for champagne.
  • The hotel communicated this preference to housekeeping; housekeeping prepared the room for arrival with a champagne bottle and a personalized note of congratulations.
  • The concierge greeted me at the door and offered the private dinner and established a channel in which I could book it.
  • The hotel collected menu preferences and desired time; communicated time to chef and waiter.
  • The waiter came to pick us up in the room and the chef prepared food to client specification.

At least five people and two systems (internal and external) were involved in making this an unforgettable experience. So why did I use this as an example, even though there was no social media involved? Because social or not, the underlying business principles haven’t and shouldn’t have changed. A finely tuned communication and collaboration system is key if you want to provide an excellent experience, whether it’s via the social web or in-person.


How Does Social Media Enhance Experience?

Only when you are confident in your ability to support the collaborative process should you invest in a full-scale social media effort. I recommend following these simple steps:

1. Listen and respond. You should be listening for signals from social media for needs of existing and potential clients. You want to engage proactively: listening at the point of need; as well as reactively: listening for indicators that someone may need help. To provide another personal example, Virgin America effectively and quickly responded to a need I had via social media. Unlike its competitor, Virgin got back to me very quickly, taking care to resolve the issue in the backchannel instead of sending me to an 800 number.

2. Cross-reference social and internal customer data. Is there anything that could have made the Virgin example even better? Certainly! It would have been even better if the company automatically knew my frequent flyer number without me having to message it. To successfully serve someone or give them an unforgettable experience, you need to know what your relationship is with the person who tweeted, your history of communication, as well as purchase history, if it’s a customer. For example, at my company, we help you cross-reference people from the social media stream (either your own or as a result of tracking keywords) to the internal record for a full 360-degree view.

3. Understand context of relationship. Quick caveat: this new level of customer intelligence should be used in context of the relationship. While the customer may want you to get the full scoop on him or her in a customer service scenario, a company should never appear like it is using the personal information of someone who has no relationship with the company.

I once had a sub-par experience with a major financial institution where I couldn’t get in touch with customer service. Exasperated and in a panic, I complained on Twitter, after which the Twitter rep got back to me promptly. Before I could even write back with details about my situation, she proactively e-mailed me via the e-mail address on record. In this case, it wasn’t creepy and actually provided value, because we had a relationship, and I knew the company had my e-mail address.

Of course, if an existing customer is having a bad experience, your first priority should be fixing the experience, communicating it back to the user and asking this person to keep voicing feedback and opinions. This will increase brand affinity and create an experience worth sharing with others. Whether your customer is having a good experience or bad, it’s key to create a participatory channel in which ideas can be voiced and captured, and progress communicated back to the customer.


Share and Collaborate, Rinse and Repeat


As you do all of the above, make sure that your team, as well as key external parties, are on the same page with you. Cross-reference social data with internal data, retain and reference current and prior conversation threads and ensuing actions items. Just like how the Tabacon personnel immaculately shared information about me, delegated tasks to each other, and stayed on the same page, so should any business that wants to provide a superb customer experience.


More Business Resources from Mashable:


- HOW TO: Get the Most Out of Facebook Insights for Small Business
- 6 Free Chrome Apps and Extensions for Small Businesses
- Top 10 Digital Advertising Innovations of 2010
- 5 Predictions for the Public Relations Industry in 2011
- 5 Predictions for Small Business in 2011

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, AndyL


Reviews: Twitter, iStockphoto

More About: business, crm, customer relationship management, customer service, social crm, social media

For more Business coverage:


December 09 2010

“Best Social Media Customer Service” Finalists Discuss Their Success [INTERVIEWS]


This post is brought to you by BlackBerry, sponsor of the Mashable Awards’ “Best Social Media Customer Service” Category. RIM creates innovative wireless solutions, including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook, coming soon. Learn more on the Inside BlackBerry Blog.

As social media usage becomes more mainstream among businesses, customer service is among the top five reasons businesses give for partaking in social media, according to eMarketer.

Acting on this essential business area in social media, we added the “Best Social Media Customer Service” category to this year’s Mashable Awards, our annual contest highlighting the very best the web has to offer.

Mashable readers spoke loud and clear, nominating five finalists to the category: Aramex, Boingo, Eurail.com, Hewlett Packard and ZocDoc. We interviewed each of the finalists to get an inside look at why you, our readers, chose these companies as your top picks.

Check out the interviews below, share your thoughts in the comments, and most importantly, vote to help choose this year’s “Best Social Media Customer Service” winner at the Mashable Awards.


Aramex


It’s advisable for brands interested in getting involved in social media to have a real reason to get started. That’s why we admire companies like global logistics and transportation provider Aramex. When we asked Aramex’s Online Conversationalist Feras Hilal what inspired the company to start using social media as a customer service tool, he answered logically:

“We identified where customers communicate and interact, and found that our customers were talking about us online. We went where our customers are, and social media is a channel that enables us to tune in to their issues, so we can provide them with solutions. As a customer-centric company, our approach is to listen to customers and adapt to their needs.”

Simply put: go where your customers are. And when you get there, do it right. Hilal believes that Aramex’s success is based on social media being a natural extension of the company’s culture and values. Through social media, Aramex reaches customers in a timely and relevant way, helping it “research customer needs, improve our services and really know what our customers (and employees) need,” said Hilal.

Aramex stands out from other nominees on the list, because it is notably the only one based in emerging markets. Hilal notes, “We were among the first adopters of social media as a powerful tool for customer engagement in the Middle East, Africa, India and Southeast Asia.”


Boingo


Gearing up for the new “Best Social Media Customer Service” category, Mashable’s Meghan Peters recently outlined three examples of stellar social media customer service. One of the companies outlined was Boingo. Citing the Wi-Fi service’s knack for technical support, customer engagement and community building, Peters deemed Boingo one of the top players in this area. Mashable readers agreed, nominating the company into the finalists.

We spoke with Boingo’s PR and social media manager, Baochi Nguyen, to get the inside scoop about Boingo’s social media strategies and philosophies. Nguyen was quick to clarify:

“We believe there’s a distinction between customer ’service’ and customer ‘care.’ Customer service means you’re doing just that — servicing a customer. It’s old school. It’s doing the minimum. We like to think of ourselves as being in the customer care business. We want to create connections with folks. We want to foster meaningful relationships. We want people to know we’re grateful for their business and the opportunity to serve them.”

Regardless of how customers are connecting with Boingo — whether that be via a “traditional” channel (phone/e-mail/chat) or a “new” channel (social media), Nguyen noted that great customer service is “all about being available to help, no matter where that conversation takes place.”

So what makes Boingo stand out from the other nominees on the list? Nguyen pointed out two areas:

  • Being proactive. “We don’t wait until a complaint makes its way to us to address it,” says Nguyen. “Instead, we are proactively scanning for comments and conversations to jump in and help. Because of the nature of our service — people using the Boingo Wi-Fi network are generally very pressed for time — we need to be helping ‘real time.’ It doesn’t help if someone tweets a complaint and we show up 30 minutes later to help, because by then their plane may be boarding or they have to leave the coffee shop. So we need to be extremely responsive.”
  • Being authentic. “The other thing which may set us apart is our commitment to authenticity. We don’t hide behind our brand. We use our real names, give our real e-mail addresses and encourage our employees to engage with customers in ways that feel true to them and their style.”

Nguyen concluded that great social media customer service is “authentic both to the brand it represents and to the person representing the brand. It’s incredibly responsive. And it goes way beyond just ‘customer service.’ It’s customer care.”


Eurail.Com


Chantal Sukel, campaign manager for Eurail.Com, an e-commerce site for Eurail train passes, told Mashable that when the company began its endeavor into social media three years ago, it was focused on “interactions in general.” Since founding a social media presence, however, the company has come to realize that customer service is one of its biggest reasons for staying involved in the social media space.

“Soon we noticed that customers knew where to find us to discuss travel plans, ask questions and get inspired by others’ experiences,” said Sukel. “When the number of fans and interactions grew, I set up a small and dedicated team of travel professionals who since then assist our fans. Social media works faster and more effective than e-mail support, which is why this way of communicating has rapidly become an important part of our customer service.”

Sukel believes that Eurail.Com benefits from the personal touch that its agents add to its social media presence:

“Eurail.Com is lucky enough to have extremely dedicated agents that strive to answer all questions within eight hours or sooner. Not only in English, but also Spanish and even Dutch or German! Our fans receive a personal reply, not a script. They talk to an actual human being who can give them anecdotes and tips from their own rail travel experiences.”

When evaluating customer service, Sukel believes that personal assistance is key. “Respect, transparency and attention are among the most important things in life, so why not in customer service?”


Hewlett Packard


Like Aramex, HP entered the social media space inspired by its customers. “Increasingly, our customers are using social media to get their needs met. If we’re not there, we’re not meeting our customers’ needs,” stated HP’s Lois Townsend, manager of global social media strategy.

Townsend noted that HP sets itself apart from others in the social media space by utilizing customer feedback about its products and emphasizing community engagement.

  • Product Feedback. “HP builds technology hardware and software,” she said. “Through social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and our HP Support Forums, we are garnering valuable feedback from our customers about our products. HP provides that feedback to our product and content teams, which goes directly into the building of future technology.”
  • Community Engagement. “We also put a big emphasis on community engagement and even hire folks to manage this — creating ways to provide value to our community, and to recognize folks who are actively assisting fellow community members.”
  • Highlighting HP’s community engagement efforts, Townsend noted its brand advocacy program: “We’ve recruited over 100 HP experts to serve as ‘Ambassadors,’ reaching out and helping our customers every day. For example, one of our Ambassadors reached a customer via Twitter to help them obtain English-speaking support while on holiday in Spain.” She also pointed out that HP hosts online Expert Day events to provide free, 24-hour real-time access to large teams of experts on various topics of customer interest. “These online events attract hundreds of thousands of customers — think of it as the ‘Super Bowl’ of expert assistance,” she said.

    Townsend shared that HP’s data shows that increasingly, online channels are a preferred method for its customers in finding answers to questions about HP products. The company plans on continued social media integration to support this need. Townsend imagined a future possibility: “Next steps include enhanced integration of social media channels so that, for instance, you can post a question in Facebook that can automatically tap into the experts out in our HP Support Forum.” She also told us to keep an eye on a “revamped, very cool recognition program for our top community contributors.”

    When it comes down to it, Townsend believes that great social media customer service is about “Lively, quality, and active participation among the customers, and the host company.” She thinks that it should be a forum for “honest conversation that allows for both ‘good and bad’ to be discussed, with a focus on getting to a constructive and timely resolution for any issues.”


    ZocDoc


    COO and founder Oliver Kharraz, MD, told us that social media was instinctive for free online doctor booking service ZocDoc. “The ZocDoc philosophy is that people should have faster, easier access to healthcare. It only made sense to us that our users should also have fast, easy access to us.”

    ZocDoc is in the business of making it easier to find and book appointments with local doctors, taking into account insurance considerations. By filling in four pieces of information, users are quickly on their ways to finding an available doctor. This focus on healthcare may be the most compelling reason to vote for ZocDoc for this Mashable Award category, said Kharraz:

    “We work in the public interest. Every day we get hundreds of tweets, e-mails, and Facebook messages from people thanking us for helping them find a doctor when they needed one. From tourists on vacation to parents with sick children, ZocDoc has been the service to make people’s lives better.

    People should vote for ZocDoc if they believe that healthcare is an industry worth improving. Our goal is to bring customer service to the doctor’s office, where it’s never been before.”

    Focusing once more on ZocDoc’s customers, Kharraz explained that the success of a social media customer service program can be measured by “people’s responses.” He noted, “We get very excited when people choose to take the time to thank us or recommend us to their friends. They’re letting us know that we’re doing something right.” While it may not be the most scientific measurement, we’re always down for happy customers.

    What are your thoughts on the finalists for The Mashable Awards’ “Best Social Media Customer Service” category? Let us know in the comments below.


    The Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity (Vegas)


    In partnership with Cirque du Soleil, The Mashable Awards Gala event will bring together the winners and nominees, the Mashable community, partners, media, the marketing community, consumer electronics and technology brands and attendees from the 2011 International CES Convention to Las Vegas on Thursday, January 6, 2011. Together, we will celebrate the winners and the community of the Mashable Awards at the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage in the beautiful New York New York Hotel. The event will include acts and performances from our partner Cirque du Soleil Zumanity. In addition, there will be special guest presenters and appearances.

    Date: Thursday, January 6th, 2011 (during International CES Convention week)
    Time: 7:00 – 10:00 pm PT
    Location: Cirque du Soleil Zumanity, New York New York Hotel, Las Vegas
    Agenda: Networking, Open Bars, Acts, Surprises and the Mashable Awards Gala presentations
    Socialize: Facebook, Foursquare, Meetup, Plancast, Twitter (Hashtag: #MashableAwards)

    Register for Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage (Las Vegas - 2011 International CES convention) [Ticketed Event] in Las Vegas, NV  on Eventbrite

    Mashable Awards Category Sponsor:

    BlackBerry is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market. Through the development of integrated hardware, software and services that support multiple wireless network standards, RIM provides platforms and solutions for seamless access to time-sensitive information including email, phone, SMS messaging, Internet and intranet-based applications including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook. For the latest on the BlackBerry PlayBook visit the Inside BlackBerry Blog.


    More Business Resources from Mashable:


    - HOW TO: Define a Social Media Strategy for Enterprise
    - Social Media Success: 5 Lessons From In-House Corporate Teams
    - HOW TO: Get the Most Out of a Coworking Space
    - 5 iPhone Apps For Avoiding International Business Faux Pas
    - How the Fortune 500 Use Social Media to Grow Sales and Revenue

    Image courtesy of iStockphoto, geopaul

    More About: best social media customer service, customer service, facebook, mashable awards, mashable awards 2010, social media, twitter

    For more Business coverage:


December 03 2010

The 5 Nominees for “Best Social Media Customer Service” Are… [MASHABLE AWARDS]


This post is brought to you by Research In Motion, sponsor of the Mashable Awards’ “Best Social Media Customer Service” Category. RIM creates innovative wireless solutions, including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook, coming soon. Learn more on the Inside BlackBerry Blog.

The Mashable Awards, our annual contest highlighting the very best the web has to offer, is entering its final round and we’re announcing the five finalists in the “Best Social Media Customer Service” category supported by BlackBerry. They are:


Eurail.com




Aramex




ZocDoc




Hewlett Packard




Boingo



You have from now until December 15 to pick your favorite. If you have questions about the Mashable Awards or the list of finalists, please post them to our GetSatisfaction page. Let us know which social media customer service was your favorite: You can vote once per category per day, so get voting!


The Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity (Vegas)


In partnership with Cirque du Soleil, The Mashable Awards Gala event will bring together the winners and nominees, the Mashable community, partners, media, the marketing community, consumer electronics and technology brands and attendees from the 2011 International CES Convention to Las Vegas on Thursday, January 6, 2011. Together, we will celebrate the winners and the community of the Mashable Awards at the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage in the beautiful New York New York Hotel. The event will include acts and performances from our partner Cirque du Soleil Zumanity. In addition, there will be special guest presenters and appearances.

Date: Thursday, January 6th, 2011 (during International CES Convention week)
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 pm PT
Location: Cirque du Soleil Zumanity, New York New York Hotel, Las Vegas
Agenda: Networking, Open Bars, Acts, Surprises and the Mashable Awards Gala presentations
Socialize: Facebook, Foursquare, Meetup, Plancast, Twitter (Hashtag: #MashableAwards)

Register for Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage (Las Vegas - 2011 International CES convention) [Ticketed Event] in Las Vegas, NV  on Eventbrite

Mashable Awards Category Sponsor:

Research In Motion is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market. Through the development of integrated hardware, software and services that support multiple wireless network standards, RIM provides platforms and solutions for seamless access to time-sensitive information including email, phone, SMS messaging, Internet and intranet-based applications including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook. For the latest on the BlackBerry PlayBook visit the Inside BlackBerry Blog.

Images courtesy of iStockphoto, lightkeeper


Reviews: Facebook, Foursquare, Internet, Mashable, Twitter, iStockphoto

More About: best social media customer service, customer service, facebook, mashable awards, mashable awards 2010, social media, twitter

For more Social Media coverage:


November 24 2010

Social Point of Sale: The Holy Grail for Location-Based Marketers

Pushpin Map Image

Zachary Adam Cohen runs ZAC, Digital Agency, a boutique digital strategy firm in New York City, working with brands and businesses to re-equip themselves for success in the 21st century. He blogs regularly on topics such as social media, technology startups and the creative process behind digital strategy. He can be found on Twitter @ZacharyCohen.

Many have touted the latest advances in location-based technology, but the news is mostly disappointing for marketers, advertisers and digital gurus.

Writing in the Times, Joshua Brustein pined: “Everything is in place for location-based social networking to be the next big thing. Tech companies are building the platforms, venture capitalists are providing the cash and marketers are eager to develop advertising. All that is missing are the people.”

Brustein’s piece cites a Pew Research Center finding that only 4% of Internet-using American adults have also used location-based services. Depending on who you are talking to, this is either stupendous news or a serious reality check.

For the multitudes who are mostly unaware of location-based services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR, the fact that millions of people are broadcasting their whereabouts to their social networks — a mix of online friends, acquaintances and strangers — must be astounding. I hear it all the time. “Why would people tell other people where they are? Isn’t it dangerous? I’ve seen people checking in at church and OB-GYN offices. Is there nothing sacred?”

And yet for those on the front lines of technology, marketing, branding and advertising, that 4% seems painfully low.


What’s Missing From the Location-Based Revolution?


In a word: Sales. The conversion aspect just isn’t there. There is a small subculture of early adopters, but if these services expect the mass adoption that is necessary to attract the attention of brands and advertisers, then the process needs to be simplified.

One untapped solution marketers should explore is integrating social networking — especially location-based checkins — with the point-of-sale systems many businesses already have in place.

As it stands now, if I walk into Gap and check in on Foursquare or Facebook Places, and I end up buying a pair of jeans and a sweater, Gap may know that I checked in. But their POS system is only aware of the sale, not the social profile of the buyer.

It’s a missed opportunity: two disparate stars in their marketing universe, seemingly unconnected. Someone needs to build a shuttle connecting the two. Gap should know not only that I am in one of their stores, but who I am with, and how long it has been since I was last there. The logical extension of this is that Gap should know what I bought last time I was in. Then the store would be able to offer me specials, discounts or exactly what it is I came in to buy in the first place.

This is the holy grail of location-based marketing.


The Potential of Data-Driven Service


Once a retailer, restaurant or hotel makes this connection, it can offer the most relevant products as close to the point of sale as possible. After all, if you’re already in a store, you’re likely to make a purchase.

Let’s imagine a restaurant scenario.

There is a French bistro in downtown Manhattan that I frequent about once a month. Most of the staff know me, but I don’t have personal relationships with anyone in particular. I have a relationship with the restaurant itself. I check in on Foursquare, I leave reviews on Yelp, I tweet about people I see there or what I am eating. And if something interesting or terrible happens — seeing an Olsen twin for instance (both interesting and terrible) — I might write a blog post about it. This is on top of the normal offline conversations I might have with family and friends about the restaurant.

If the restaurant was aware of my physical presence there, in real time, the host would be able to see when I last visited, what I ordered, and how much I spent. Did I tweet about it? Did I enjoy a particular wine? Was the roast chicken undercooked?

Armed with this information, the restaurant could develop strategies to make my current experience even greater and turn an occasional customer into a loyal one — perhaps even a brand evangelist.

A host could thank me for coming back and apologize for the chicken, or offer a wine similar to the one I tweeted about enjoying so much. Perhaps after dinner on Saturday nights, I routinely go to a jazz club. The restaurant will know I’m a regular based on my Foursquare history and maybe it will co-market with that jazz venue to offer tickets to patrons like me. This would be small business community-building at its finest and realest.

They can discount me, up-sell me or offer me a value-add, but it will be so targeted, so relevant and so personal that I’ll hardly be able to refuse. Of course, it will take some time to establish what is appropriate and what isn’t, but this opens up a whole new world for strategists to discuss, test and develop into winning tactics.


Tasti D-Lite Is Leading the Way


As previously noted, Tasti D-Lite is the only national retailer that has integrated its loyalty program with location-based checkins. The problem for national retailers is that various locations often use different POS systems. The cost of synchronizing social POS across various platforms is onerous, particularly as the value prospect remains uncertain.

TastiRewards incentivizes customers to link their Twitter and Foursquare accounts to their Tasti D-Lite loyalty cards with the reward of additional loyalty points. Each time a customer checks in, a tweet is automatically sent out to his followers, earning the company a seemingly valuable brand mention.

More recently, Tasti D-Lite has started integrating branded iPad applications in several stores. Clearly this is a company committed to experimenting with new technology and social media. Its social technology officer, B.J. Emerson, has done a wonderful job promoting these initiatives.

Given what we’ve seen so far, I think that the integration of social location-aware apps into point of sale systems is inevitable, and it will be one of the greatest strides in bridging the gap between the online and offline marketing worlds.


More Location Resources from Mashable:


- Why the Best Online Marketing May Be Headed Offline
- HOW TO: Run Location-Based Google Ads
- HOW TO: Become a Foursquare Power User
- How 4 Small Businesses are Using Location-Based Services
- How Universities Can Win Big with Location-Based Apps

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, nfsphoto

More About: business, customer service, Facebook Places, foursquare, gowalla, location, MARKETING, small business, social crm, social media, social media marketing, twitter

For more Business coverage:


November 23 2010

3 Examples of Stellar Social Media Customer Service [Mashable Awards]

Mashable Awards Image

As part of the ongoing Mashable Awards, we’re taking a closer look at each of the nomination categories. This is “Best Social Media Customer Service,” supported by BlackBerry. Be sure to nominate your favorites and join us for the Gala in Las Vegas!

Customer Service ImageWith the connectivity social networks provide, companies are engaging their communities with new tools, methods and attitudes. They’re able to gain a greater understanding of their customers while reacting to inquiries and feedback more quickly and efficiently. It’s a win for both sides.

Social media customer service has become a combination of troubleshooting, engagement and building community. Like traditional methods of customer service, some companies are better at it than others. Here are a few companies that have nailed their social media customer service:


Zappos


Online retailer Zappos.com has set the bar for social media customer service. Its approach focuses on making authentic connections via social networks rather than selling or promoting products.

Since meeting customer needs is the goal, Zappos staff will spend time to help a person find an item they don’t carry — even though they’re making no money off the sale. Still, it’s valuable in building customer appreciation and trust. CEO Tony Hsieh recognizes that the web gives everyone a voice — including Zappos customers — and what they say on blogs and social networks can reach millions. That’s why Zappos treats every interaction as an opportunity not to make a sale, but to shed positive light on the brand.

Staff are encouraged to be transparent in their tweets, which helps make customers feel like they know them and can be comfortable reaching out. The interaction is authentic, leaving the customer satisfied and likely to tell others about the experience.


Pottery Barn


Pottery Barn is an interesting example of Social Media Customer Service because it shows that exceptional customer service online doesn’t always translate offline.

One customer, Jennifer Hellum, sought customer service after the glass top on her Pottery Barn table shattered in the extreme Arizona heat last summer. Calling the customer service line and the store where she bought the table didn’t get her anywhere. A few weeks later, she posted photos of the tabletop explosion on Pottery Barn’s Facebook fan page. Within 30 minutes she had a call from a customer relations representative who worked with her to find a new tabletop and reimbursed her for it.

Though the company engages customers best via Facebook, its YouTube channel does a good job of building community online. Video topics include how-tos for party planners, designer profiles and featured products. By giving advice about and telling the story behind products, Pottery Barn’s YouTube channel brings customers beyond the purchase — a proactive form of customer service.


Boingo



  1. Justin Dehn
    jdehn Why do boingo hotspots never work?
  2. boingo
    boingo @jdehn Never say never. Let’s make it happen. Which hotspot are you at and on which device? Do you have the software installed?

this quote was brought to you by quoteurl

Boingo understands the essence of all that social media customer service entails: Technical support, customer engagement and community building. The WiFi service connects with customers in all these ways on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn.

On Twitter, representatives scan the web for mentions of the brand and reach out to customers with both positive and negative feedback. They’re quick to find people reporting technical issues and often offer to connect by e-mail. Kind words about the brand will often see a retweet or note of thanks in a sincere, non-corporate tone. Each of the three social media customer service representatives have their name and headshot on the @boingo profile page, adding to the transparency of their tweets.

Boingo’s Facebook Page is also a hub for responding to troubleshooting inquiries, but just like their Flickr and LinkedIn profiles, it helps to build community. While some posts are company or product updates from Boingo’s blog, representatives more often post relevant links, videos and discussion questions. Anything related to the Internet, technology or travel seems to be fair game for the Facebook wall, showing Boingo understands the interests of its community members and is using the space for more than drawing attention to its own brand.


What’s Your Pick?


What social media customer service made your year? Let us know in the comments or nominate them for a Mashable Award.


The Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity (Vegas)


In partnership with Cirque du Soleil, The Mashable Awards Gala event will bring together the winners and nominees, the Mashable community, partners, media, the marketing community, consumer electronics and technology brands and attendees from the 2011 International CES Convention to Las Vegas on Thursday, January 6, 2011. Together, we will celebrate the winners and the community of the Mashable Awards at the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage in the beautiful New York New York Hotel. The event will include acts and performances from our partner Cirque du Soleil Zumanity. In addition, there will be special guest presenters and appearances.

Date: Thursday, January 6th, 2011 (during International CES Convention week)
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 p.m. PT
Location: Cirque du Soleil Zumanity, New York New York Hotel, Las Vegas
Agenda: Networking, Open Bars, Acts, Surprises and the Mashable Awards Gala presentations
Socialize: Facebook, Foursquare, Meetup, Plancast, Twitter (Hashtag: #MashableAwards)

Sponsorships are available. Please contact sponsorships@mashable.com for more information.

Register for Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage (Las Vegas - 2011 International CES convention) [Ticketed Event] in Las Vegas, NV  on Eventbrite

Mashable Awards Category Sponsor:

Research In Motion is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market. Through the development of integrated hardware, software and services that support multiple wireless network standards, RIM provides platforms and solutions for seamless access to time-sensitive information including email, phone, SMS messaging, Internet and intranet-based applications, including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook. For the latest on the BlackBerry PlayBook visit the Inside BlackBerry Blog.

Images courtesy of iStockphoto, lightkeeper; ManoelNetto, Laughing Squid; and Jennifer Hellum.

More About: boingo, customer service, List, Lists, mashable awards, mashable awards 2010, pottery barn, social media, social media customer service, Tony Hsieh, Zappos

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November 17 2010

New Mashable Awards Category: “Best Social Media Customer Service”

Mashable Awards Image

As part of the ongoing Mashable Awards, we’re announcing the final four nomination categories. This is “Best Social Media Customer Service” supported by BlackBerry. Be sure to nominate your favorites and join us for the Gala in Las Vegas! Sponsorships are available. Please contact sponsorships@mashable.com for more information.

Support Keyboard ImageThe Mashable Awards is hitting full stride with less than two weeks before the first nomination period ends. In preparation we’ve added the final four nomination categories, including “Best Social Media Customer Service,” supported by BlackBerry. We’re thrilled to add the “Best Social Media Customer Service” category to the awards and look forward to your nominations and selections.

With more and more consumers on social networks, companies are finding new and creative ways to integrate Social Media Customer Service. They’re using innovative tools to launch and improve customer engagement strategies on the web. Social media is giving companies a chance to reinvent their consumer connections, and this Mashable Awards category is honoring those that have hit it out of the park. Whether you’re a customer who has experienced great customer service through social media or a company recognizing top-notch engagement efforts, nominate your favorites for the Mashable Awards!


Mashable Awards Category Sponsor:

Research In Motion is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market. Through the development of integrated hardware, software and services that support multiple wireless network standards, RIM provides platforms and solutions for seamless access to time-sensitive information including email, phone, SMS messaging, Internet and intranet-based applications, including the BlackBerry® wireless platform and the new BlackBerry PlayBook. For the latest on the BlackBerry PlayBook visit the Inside BlackBerry Blog.


The Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity (Vegas)


In partnership with Cirque du Soleil, The Mashable Awards Gala event will bring together the winners and nominees, the Mashable community, partners, media, the marketing community, consumer electronics and technology brands and attendees from the 2011 International CES Convention to Las Vegas on Thursday, January 6, 2011. Together, we will celebrate the winners and the community of the Mashable Awards at the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage in the beautiful New York New York Hotel. The event will include acts and performances from our partner Cirque du Soleil Zumanity. In addition, there will be special guest presenters and appearances.

Date: Thursday, January 6th, 2011 (during International CES Convention week)
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 p.m. PT
Location: Cirque du Soleil Zumanity, New York New York Hotel, Las Vegas
Agenda: Networking, Open Bars, Acts, Surprises and the Mashable Awards Gala presentations
Socialize: Facebook, Foursquare, Meetup, Plancast, Twitter (Hashtag: #MashableAwards)

Sponsorships are available. Please contact sponsorships@mashable.com for more information.

Register for Mashable Awards Gala at Cirque du Soleil Zumanity stage (Las Vegas - 2011 International CES convention) [Ticketed Event] in Las Vegas, NV  on Eventbrite

Images courtesy of iStockphoto, Goldmund

More About: blackberry, customer service, mashable awards, mashable awards 2010, social media customer service

For more Social Media coverage:


November 03 2010

5 Tips for Improving Your Social Customer Service

Support Key Image

Maria Ogneva is the Director of Social Media at Attensity, a social media engagement and voice-of-customer platform that helps the social enterprise serve and collaborate with the social customer. You can follow her on Twitter at @themaria or @attensity360, or find her musings on her personal blog and her company’s blog.

Back in the day, if you wanted support from a business, you had to go to where the business’s reps were. Be it via an 800 number, support forums, e-mail or chat, the business would set the rules about how quickly your inquiry was addressed.

But with social media growing as a real-time support channel, the picture looks quite different these days. Customers are taking back control, and businesses increasingly have to assist on consumers’ terms.

I chatted with a colleague of mine, Brian House of IBM, about the different types of people searching for social support, and we discovered that most can be put in one of two categories. The first is the “social media native.” These are people who use social media, specifically Twitter, as their main point of contact with companies and brands. These types are social media-savvy and reach for Twitter to share their everyday thoughts and opinions, which often overlap with their use of products and sentiment about brands.

The second type is the “last resort social media user.” This type of customer is more dangerous to a business because she is likely frustrated with the brand’s traditional support channels and has resorted to the public forum of social media to voice negative sentiment. She is not happy and won’t hesitate to share her opinion with friends.

Social support is no longer a luxury, but a necessity in today’s business climate. It’s an opportunity to maintain engagement with the savvy users in category one and stay on top of potentially damaging chatter from those in category two. To ensure that you are successful, here are five tips and considerations that you need to think through before engaging in social support.


1. Influence Is Not as Important for Social Support


When it comes to social marketing, influence matters pretty much everywhere — except for support. If Jim and I both bought a product, having a higher Klout score than Jim does not entitle me to better service. What if Jim is a frequent and loyal buyer and I’m not? How does that change things?

Too often, companies start to freak out when someone with a lot of followers or a high Klout score starts screaming bad things about them. You should help these people, of course, but not at the expense of helping others.


2. Real-time and Complete Information Is Crucial


Social data, especially on Twitter, flies by at a million miles an hour. Blink, and you’ll miss something important. As noted above, if you’re committed to helping everyone, regardless of status, it’s crucial that you get all of your tweets, as they happen.

Make sure that your listening tool is able to surface tweets immediately and bring them to your attention in a way that allows you to act quickly and easily. As far as completeness of data, you should learn the difference between Twitter API and Twitter Firehose. Firehose gives you every single tweet, while API gives you a limited version. You should ask your Twitter data provider or listening service what kind of access they have.


3. Get on the Same Page


You need to be working from the same customer record as everyone else in the company, regardless of what department or satellite office they are in. Furthermore, this record should be dynamically updated whenever anyone touches that customer. Fragmentation of data is a problem, and the social customer isn’t going to be very forgiving if you tell her to call or tweet back later because the representative can’t access the data from another department.

It’s a process and a technology problem at the same time. Invest in a CRM system that can unify the traditional customer record and the social record, and make sure that it’s easy to access, use and update. CRM implementations that are mandated from the top down tend to fail if the end users can’t work with it.


4. Collaborate Internally


You can’t expect to give the customer an excellent social support experience if you aren’t social internally. Solutions to a customer problem can come from anywhere in the company.

Perhaps even more important is the need to collaborate quickly. You need to set up the right tools and processes to do that. Remember, the social customer doesn’t like to wait.

You can’t create a great overall social service experience if you’re providing a sub-par experience via a traditional support channel. Train your staff appropriately and empower them to be awesome everywhere. Take a page from the playbook at Zappos, a company that is immensely successful because it is extremely customer-oriented in every part of its business. The Zappos service experience is equally awesome via Twitter, phone or chat.


5. Private vs. Public


Service in a social channel can get dicey when you work in a highly regulated industry. Be aware of what’s appropriate and legal to say and do online before you engage in social support.

If a support engagement requires that you obtain a customer account number, social security number or any other private information, make the connection in public, but move the conversation over e-mail or the phone to gather sensitive information.

One major benefit of serving your customers in public is that others can see it happening. Consistent public customer service can earn you a reputation as a service-oriented company, and that’s always good. Just make sure that once you start the process of helping someone, you don’t drop the ball. Just because you went into a private channel where no one else can see you doesn’t mean you can then slack off on service. Practice excellence all the time, in private and in public.


The Takeaway


Make sure you are always listening, responding, creating value for your customers and really helping. Work with full and real-time information, get everyone on the same page internally, share information, and most importantly, strive to become customer-centric in social and traditional channels.

Don’t forget those traditional channels — 800 numbers, e-mails and online chat are just as important. You need to be where the customer is, whether they are calling or tweeting, or both. The benefits of service vigilance in social media are tremendous, and not taking an active role can destroy your brand. Embrace social service, because it’s not going anywhere any time soon.


More Business Resources from Mashable:


- Why Your Company Needs to Embrace Social CRM
- What to Consider When Building an In-House Social Media Team
- 4 Things Small Businesses Should Know About Facebook’s New Groups
- HOW TO: Optimize Your Social Media Marketing Strategy
- Social Media Marketing 101: In-House Team, Agency or Consultant?

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, sodafish


Reviews: Twitter, iStockphoto

More About: business, customer service, customer support, List, listening, Lists, small business, social crm, social media, support, twitter

For more Business coverage:


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