6 Social Media Customer Service Tips for Small Businesses

"The Scream" by Munch

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch

We’ve all been there.  That moment we become so utterly frustrated and incensed over a product or service mishap that we angrily dial the phone to reach a live person for help.   If we survive the exasperating labyrinth of automated phone hell, we may finally connect with someone who – after all that – may or may not (“I have to check with my supervisor”) be able to help us. Argh!

Well, it seems that phone complaints are becoming passé.  The often profane-laden phone tirades, accusations and pleas have yielded to a new medium through which to get a company’s attention: Social media.

I believe there are several reasons for this. First, social media correspondence has taken over for many as a preferred method of communication, especially among millenials.  Second, today’s  automated customer service phone systems are designed to work more as a moat surrounding the corporate castle, and only the fittest and those with too much time on their hands can steamroll past the murky water to reach a representative. Third, consumers have realized that the last thing a brand wants is to be shamed on Twitter or Facebook for all their customers to see.  In my experience, consumers posting problems via social media channels have typically led to companies resolving matters fairly quickly.

Large brands employ a social media community manager whose job is to create awareness and engagement for the brand as well as observe and respond to customer inquiries and complaints.   However many small and mid-sized companies don’t have the time and resources for a full-time community manager.  So what happens in many instances is that monitoring the social channels becomes an afterthought.  Companies double up social media duties, throwing them into the lap of a sales executive, administrative assistant or even (gasp) IT.  And, I’ve seen many times with small businesses, the CEO/owner takes the helm of the social media channels.

If any of those scenarios are the case for you, here are some tips to effectively address customer complaints within social media channels:

1. Regularly monitor your social media sites – I believe one of the biggest assets of social media (particularly Twitter) is listening.  It’s not glamorous or edgy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to help understand your customers’ wants and needs. You don’t want to hear it second hand that someone has dissed your brand on social media; you want catch it first.  Be active in monitoring brand mentions and complaints so that you can swiftly react and rectify the situation and nip situations in the bud. Jetblue social media

2. Respond quickly – but not too quickly – Waiting five minutes before addressing a complaint can help eliminate the possibility of a hot-headed response from a gut reaction for which we are all capable.  Just as you should think before you speak, think before you tweet or post and avoid the possibility of making the matter worse. Here’s a great example (left) of the airline Jet Blue responding to a customer’s frustrated tweet.   Brands that do it right respond to a complaint in four hours or less.

3. Don’t be defensive or condescending – Look, you and your brand are never going to come out ahead in a name-calling match, so try your best to avoid that scenario.  And, keep in mind that while most complaints are valid, there are a group of folks out there who simply like to stir the pot just for fun.  Make sure you can tell the difference between the two.

4. Acknowledge their problem – Customers – whether in-store, on the phone or online want to know that their voice is being heard.   Respond initially with something like “I’m sorry to hear your [product] is not working/broken/missing a part, etc.  I can help you.”  Then as a next step:

5. Do your best to get them offline – You don’t want the dialogue to go on publicly through social media, especially when the customer is very angry.  I recently voiced my frustration via Twitter about – of all things – the phone system maze at my bank.  Within an hour, I received a response from a point person at the bank who gave me her direct number and I was able to get the matter resolved.  If you really can promptly and effortlessly solve the problem, it’s alright to do so publicly – just be careful not to appear as self-serving.

6. Use humor when applicable – I’m not advocating that you make light of any complaint.  But, In some cases when the problem is not a grave or serious one, adding some friendly humor can help disarm some egghead who is ranting and raving without due cause (remember those folks who love to stir the pot). Sometimes the best way to silence them is with an unexpected, cheeky response.  Use discretion as this can be a tricky line to cross.  A great example of this is a recent letter written from BIC pens UK, in response to what we infer was one man’s outrageous and profane complaint about his new pens (strong and explicit language here so read at your own risk): http://www.brandwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/bicletter.jpg

In most cases, acknowledging a customer complaint and responding quickly and purposefully will be enough to resolve matters.   As with all of us, customers appreciate being heard.

4 Great Reasons to Hire a Freelancer

There is still a lingering misconception today that freelancers – or sole practitioners – are simply professionals between jobs, and that the act of freelancing is more of a necessity for them than a choice.  This misconception is also fortified by the perception that most of these individuals must have been let go from a job or passed up for new opportunities because they are not talented or good at what they do.

This is simply not true.  In fact the opposite reigns:  freelancers today are doing their own thing, on their own terms, by choice.

For a myriad of reasons,  these individuals have chosen to work in a sole proprietor or freelance capacity because it better suits their current professional and/or personal goals.  They might desire greater flexibility or just simply want to have more control of their professional destinies.

Thanks to technology — specifically the ability to be able to connect anywhere at any time—   individuals spanning all generations are now working in a free-lance capacity.  According to Fabio Rosati, CEO of elance.com, an online community of over 2.5 million freelancers and 500,000 businesses, freelancers, consultants and temps make up twenty-five percent of the workforce.

That number isn’t expected to shrink in the upcoming years. Earlier this year, software company Intuit  predicted that by 2020, 40% of the American workforce (or 60 million people) will be employed as freelancers.

So as a business leader, why should you consider working with freelancers?

1.  Value – You retain the services  of a seasoned practitioner for less than you’d pay for their same services at an agency

While there are many millennial developers, graphic designers and social media freelancers today,  I believe that much of the marketing and communications fields are comprised of seasoned and successful veterans in their industry.

Because of their experience and expertise, they are able to command a higher fee for their services. This is great for them, but it’s also good for you as a business owner, because their fees are still typically much less than the hourly rate you would pay for their same services if they were working at a big agency, since its rates and costs are higher in order to help cover fixed costs including salaries, building rent, benefits, etc.

2.  The person you hired is actually the one working on your account

As a business owner or marketing manager, selecting an agency as a partner has as much to do with the agency’s reputation and portfolio as it does the folks involved in the pitch.  Chemistry,  personality and work styles play a large part in why businesses may select one agency over another.   So, it’s no surprise that many companies are often blind-sided when they call the account supervisor (who was in the pitch) with a problem or challenge, and discover that this person knows very little of what’s been happening daily on the account.

Sure, underlings are supposed to communicate to their team leaders, but those team leaders might be managing other accounts as well as being pulled in to pitch new business.   It’s part a function of and part good business sense for the agency to utilize junior people for the blocking and tackling since their hourly rates are lower.  However, junior folks lack the experience and confidence that allows them to make a quick decision on a dime or handle conflict in an effective manner.

Working with an accomplished freelancer gives you the best of both worlds.  Your experienced account person is deep in the trenches, and at the same time, has the savvy and skillset to handle any situation – whether it’s a negative Tweet or an emerging crisis situation – in a quick and efficient manner.

3.  Flexibility

Working with a freelancer is advantageous since they are able to respond and adapt to your needs or any changes in a program without a hassle.  Solo practitioners don’t have to go through a series of processes in order to accommodate any changes in the scope of a project.

Agency processes are typically very rigid, and while they are meant to streamline project time and costs, they often have the opposite effect.  Think of all the internal meetings and steps the agency must implement– and that’s all before they begin any  actual work on your account.

4.  Speed

Freelancers work quickly.  Their expertise allows them to speedily turn over projects. For instance, a seasoned PR person can write a news release in about half the time of a less experienced practitioner.

Years of ‘doing’ gives them the advantage in knowing all of the steps to successfully complete a project.  After all, they’ve done it many, many times before and know all of the short cuts.  Moreover, as was mentioned above, they don’t get bogged down following all of the agency processes (or office politics) that add time to jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that businesses forego agencies to only work with freelancers.  Agencies do serve a great purpose.  Larger companies and big brands can justify hiring an agency, since they often require a more dynamic, integrated marketing plan involving many resources that are often under one agency roof.

But, if you are own a smaller business or run a small marketing department and you don’t want to sacrifice great counsel and service for a lower price, I encourage you to check out the local freelancers in your area, myself included.

Tips for Preparing Your Organization for a Crisis

Typically, when we think of companies that absolutely should have crisis plans in place, those such as pharmaceutical, airline and oil companies come to mind, since even the slightest misstep could lead to massive loss of lives.  It’s a given that big corporations invoke the help of stellar public relations teams  to help management map out various crisis scenarios and plan appropriate processes, procedures and communication to address those potential situations.  Crisis 3

However, small and mid-sized companies need solid crisis plans too.  After all, it’s  not usually the original crisis that typically brings down a brand, but rather how that company responds to that crisis that determines if the company’s or brand’s reputation is irreparably damaged or not.  And, with social media playing a larger role in the communicative landscape today, companies need to be more prepared than ever.

Many executives at small and medium-sized businesses think they don’t need a crisis plan; they believe that they are nimble enough to handle a mishap and will be able to get their arms around the situation as it comes.  What they don’t realize is that in the chaos of crisis, being prepared is the best and only way to really help take control (as much as you can) of the situation and to not make it worse.  Most recently, the Carnival Cruise Triumph crisis comes to mind.  Not only was the loss of power, rationing of food and the passengers’ exposure to raw sewage a crisis, it was compounded by Carnival’s lack of transparency and immediate response to its passengers and the public.  The company is still in damage control mode from that mess.

And, if you think that your company doesn’t need a plan because it isn’t public-facing, you are mistaken. Unfortunately, natural disasters or disgruntled employees waging violence can descend at any time upon your workplace, as can fire damage or even personal scandals.  What many business leaders don’t realize is that it behooves any company to have a solid plan in place.

Here are few steps to take in helping ensure that your organization is prepared for a crisis:

Prepare in advance
The onset of a situation is no time to determine your plan of action.  Knowing your business as well as you do, begin to address all of various the types of scenarios that would create a crisis for your company (from on-site accidents to natural disasters).  Knowing those potential situations in advance can help your team better determine the appropriate response and focus on the next steps to help manage the crisis.

Organize a crisis response team
Choose individuals who will comprise of your crisis management team.  This can include the CEO, communications and public relations managers, legal counsel, HR, and other appropriate officers of the company.   The team will decide who is responsible for what roles in a crisis situation, especially in determining who the spokesperson will be and how the team will communicate with each other.  Everyone should know his or her role so that he or she may act accordingly in a seamless and responsive manner.

Let employees know the crisis policy basics
With social media being so pivotal in spreading news these days, especially within the epicenter of a crisis, you need to make sure all employees know what they can and cannot do in a possible scenario.  Of course they don’t necessarily need to know all the response details of the team, but certainly the crucial ones such as no tweeting or posting about it.  Many times, the media will call an employee and try to find out what they can from them.  You can avoid more confusion and headaches if you let employees know in advance that they are never to speak with the media as well as to whom on staff they must notify if they are approached.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Make sure the crisis response team does some actual test runs of the plan so that roles are clear and communication is quick and nimble.  Just as you might have on-site fire drills, you need to ensure that your crisis team has practiced scenarios so that if they do happen to occur, everyone is well-prepared.  I have a friend who interned at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo one summer.  He was excited about the time he got to play the escaped animal (a polar bear in this case) in an emergency practice drill.   He had a certain amount of time (minutes) to hide anywhere in the entire zoo until emergency personnel became aware and could find him.  Of course, he was no match for the well-rehearsed response team and was found within minutes cowering in the shrubs near the waterfowl exhibit.   Luckily, they didn’t shoot him with the tranquilizer gun!

In summary, while taking these steps can be challenging since they takes time away from your business at hand, they are truly essential in helping to ensure that your brand navigates as successfully as possible through a crisis situation.  For more information on crisis management, please email me directly at slvaselaney@slvpr.com.