I grew up in the back room of my parents’ shop. I saw them face the trials and tribulations of customer service: rude and demanding people, poor treatment of staff and stock, and entitled customers. I also saw the times they made someone’s day, and the times when they went above and beyond to help someone out.
Fifteen years later, the world has changed massively. Automation and self-service frequently cuts out the human element of customer assistance, and our shopping habits have shifted to online purchasing (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic). For businesses, this means adapting to new customer behaviours.
One of the biggest changes of the last fifteen years is the rapid growth of social media. In 2006 Myspace and Bebo were king, and Facebook and Twitter were the newly emerging kids on the block. Some businesses had started using these platforms, however it was almost exclusively a way for friends to keep in touch and for people to meet others with similar interests across the globe. Nowadays we use social media for a range of other purposes, such as keeping up with the latest news.
Customer service has developed a much larger online presence over the years, increasing from email and newsletter communications to live chats, video, and – of course – social media.
One of the biggest misconceptions about social media is that it’s a place to dump information. As a social media manager, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to “put this message on all social media channels”. As soon as I go into detail about the myriad of information I need, as well as my own thoughts on how the information should be shared, I’m met with silence. These questions include “where can people go for more information?” and “who can people speak to if they have a question?” because unsurprisingly, people are curious beings and want to know more.
So why do I consider social media to be a customer service platform?
First and foremost, it’s because our audience are on social media. According to business-building company Oberlo, people spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on social media; it’s a huge part of their lives, and one we cannot ignore.
In my work as a social media manager I’ve found that if people have a question, they’ll often go to social media first. Gone are the days of trawling websites for contact information – instead, people go to Instagram or Twitter for a quick response. In fact, 40% of social media users expect companies to reply to their messages within an hour.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Social media teams are often quite small, and for most organisations their primary task is content creation and not customer service. Furthermore, the range of tasks and meetings social media teams are involved in, as well as the typical 9 am – 5pm working day, means a one-hour response isn’t feasible for many companies.
It’s important to work around these issues and find other ways to help your customers. Whether it’s setting up automated responses, making your content easy to digest or pre-empting concerns using social media content, we must help our audience as much as we can. Social media also cannot sit alone – it needs to connect with other customer service functions to support enquirers and understand when spikes are likely.
Secondly, social media offers people new ways of communicating. We used to see customer service as a one-to-one function – the customer would speak to someone at a business, and the business would respond. Occasionally there would be other people involved, such as multiple members of staff in different departments handling different parts of the enquiry.
Thanks to social media, a customer service question can involve the enquirer, the business, and millions of people observing. In some cases these observers will get involved, whether it’s offering their own support or deriding the company. In 2019 easyJet faced the wrath of social media users when it asked a passenger to take down an incriminating photo of their plane’s safety standards; many users responded by reposting the photo, and others pointed out how their request only made things worse. Meanwhile, when National Rail changed their website to greyscale to mark the death of Prince Philip, social media users tweeted them to point out accessibility issues.
No other form of customer service offers the same level of transparency as social media. Whilst this can be a nuisance for businesses, it also gives them the opportunity to address issues publicly and understand how their audience feels. This brings the power into the hands of the public, highlighting the need for audiences to trust the brands they associate with.
Finally, social media is a conversation, not a bulletin board. This is a common misconception within companies where social media is treated like forms of advertising including print and TV ads. Unlike these, people are given the platform to voice their opinion on a social media post. They may like what you’re posting, they may not. They may even have a completely irrelevant point to make. Whatever the case, it’s important to let that dialogue flow.
I’ve worked through many occasions where people have bombarded us with enquiries. Working in higher education, I’ve spent many A-Level results days answering questions on how to contact Admissions, how to find their new roommates and what they need to do next. Not only is it important to respond and help these people, it also helps anyone searching for that answer on social media. Lurkers form a huge part of social media audiences, and they’ll often scroll through messages to find an answer instead of contacting a company or even visiting their website. We can’t measure these audiences, but they’re still just as valid.
Whenever I’m responding to people on social media, I think back to those days in my parents’ shop. There were customers who would yell at them over a minor inconvenience, and there were those who eagerly recommended the shop to their friends. I started my first retail job at age 16, and I encountered the exact same people. At age 22 I started working in social media, and I encountered those people yet again.
No matter where they are, your audience are important. On social media, they can make or break a company. In an era of fake news and dwindling trust in companies, social media cannot be ignored. It doesn’t matter if you post 10 times a day or nothing at all, people will still talk about you. If you can establish a strong enough presence and work to help people when they need it, you can build trust in your business.