Customer service takes on social media

THERE’S a dichotomy in the world of customer service. Marketers and retailers are under pressure to cut costs, but customers’ expectations of great service are rising.

Retailing provides a great example. In store, companies have cut costs by cutting staff numbers, which puts enormous pressure on the remaining few to deal with customers. To enable more face-to- face customer service time where it really matters, some stores are automating areas that don’t really require interaction. This is why supermarkets have moved to self-service checkouts.

But the real breakthrough for marketers has been in using social media. Twitter has become the go-to customer service tool for many brands. Staff from the shop for, marketing and the brand’s call centre are trained in how to listen to social media conversations about that brand, and respond in real time.

Social listening tools such as Radian6 highlight when a brand is mentioned on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram, and alert staff. If somebody is complaining about poor customer service, then that brand can respond, just as one would in an email or on the phone. There are many great anecdotes of a customer venting their frustration to their friends on social media, only to have the brand write back instantly, apologising and asking the customer to contact them so they can help. That creates a huge swing from a negative brand moment to a positive one.

Australian start-up Local Measure is making an impact in its home country and in Asia with its ability to listen to social media conversations in retail environments, even if the brand is not mentioned. It uses precise geo-targeting to alert the brand’s custodians that somebody has an issue in a store. For example, if a customer posts a picture of a rubbish bin overflowing in a fast-food outlet, with a comment “Disgusting”, Local Measure can alert head office instantly and the store manager can be contacted to fix it.

An ability to respond in real time is now just the cost of entry. The new game is anticipating customer needs before they arise. And consumers are beginning to expect this level of service, because they know brands have an incredible amount of data about them. For example, as you are viewing a brand online, the website can suggest a special offer tailored just for you. Great. But as you click through to take up the offer, you are asked to fill in all your details again. Very frustrating. A positive service moment turned into a negative one.

Conversely, some stores are anticipating customers’ needs by encouraging them to buy bulky, big-ticket items on their mobile device in store and have them delivered for free the following day. Better to provide multiple ways for a consumer to buy your product, and wear the cost of free WiFi in store, than to lose a customer who is worrying about lugging that big item back to their car.

Proactive customer service is the ultimate goal. Again, Local Measure is working with Qantas in its first-class lounges around the world to provide just this. A passenger tweets to their followers about their 24-hour fight ahead, and wishes there was a fresh juice on the lounge menu to pep them up before they fly. Local Measure “hears” this, and a few minutes later the waiter walks over, saying they heard you were after a fresh juice.

Simple but powerful customer service.

North American start-up Inside has built a platform allowing retailers to see little avatars moving around their website representing visitors. If somebody looks “stuck” in an area of the store, Inside can begin a conversation with the customer. “You look a little stuck, do you need any help?” pops up in a message box.

The ability to enable great proactive customer service in store and online is here. Retailers that invest in these tools and skills are beginning to skip clear of their competitors.

Originally published in The Deal magazine in The Australian, 17 April 2014,