Best practice in interacting with customers on social media – what users want
Social media has revolutionised the way Internet users communicate with firms. Not only do social media users talk very publicly about their experiences and opinions of brands but, increasingly, they reach out to the organisations behind those same brands. For instance, social media users may leave comments on an organisation’s Facebook page, tag the firm on a Twitter message, leave a comment on a discussion forum or write a blog post about a pleasant or an unpleasant consumption experience.
These public comments offer an opportunity for organisations to enter a dialogue with their customers. However, numerous examples show that, when handled poorly, such interactions can degenerate into a public relations nightmare. So, how should organisations respond to such brand related comments?
That is exactly the question that I set out to research, with Moira Clark, Professor of Strategic Marketing at Henley Business School and Director of The Henley Centre for Customer Management. We investigated social media users’ preferences for interactions with organisations on social media, following a positive or a negative consumption experience. The examples discussed ranged from very small organisations to multinational firms, in a broad range of industries, from airlines to utilities.
The replies revealed an appreciation for firms that approach social media interaction in a rather structured way. Specifically, social media users appreciate when the organisation has clearly assigned someone the role of handling social media interactions and when there is a process for dealing with those comments. Furthermore, users value when the social media channel is well integrated with other communication channels, such as the telephone, the e-mail or dedicated areas in the company’s website.
Interviewees also revealed preference for reliable interactions with organisations via social media. This means that social media users want to be reassured that they can access the organisation, and that they will get a response. Respondents also value consistency in the service levels delivered via social media, for instance in terms of how long it takes to get a response from the organisation.
In terms of the aspects of the interaction, some of the social media users participating in our study liked to feel that they were talking with an authorised representative of the organisation that was in a position to solve their problem. That is, they wanted to feel that they were talking with someone who could take action or apologise on behalf of the firm. However, respondents also liked to feel that they were dealing with another human being, as opposed to an abstract corporation.
An aspect highlighted by some respondents was ‘personalisation’. Some interviewees praised personalisation initiatives such as the firm retweeting comments, or engaging directly with the social media user and knowing their circumstances. Some firms may try to use this to their advantage, by broadcasting positive messages to their followers. However, firms need to approach this with caution as such behaviour may also been seen as spam or an attempt to bribe opinion leaders.
In summary, our study reveals that social media users have gone beyond accepting that firms eavesdrop on social media conversations. Instead, they expect companies to interact with them and to offer support across an array of platforms, even those not traditionally thought of as a business channel, for example Facebook. Social media is seen as the effective channel to interact with the firm. It can solve customers’ problems, give them access to useful information, make them feel valued and provide engagement opportunities. It has huge potential in customer service and can support the development of long-term relationships. Companies absent from social media miss a valuable opportunity to deliver tangible value to its customers and to develop emotional ties. However, we are past the days when businesses could consider social media as a side project in their marketing programme.
To capitalise on the opportunity to create goodwill among customers that use social media, firms need to have a clear strategy in place regarding how to respond to customers’ comments, in order to meet customer expectations and deliver reliable experiences. Customers expect companies to use the various social media platforms proficiently, working around their limitations. While platforms like Twitter may be a good listening tool, conversations ought to be continued in other media most suitable for dealing with the issue in question, for example the telephone. These expectations add complexity to marketing strategy and the management of customer relationships over time. Managers also need to carefully consider what kind of multichannel customer management structure to put in place to meet these expectations. But, as this research has shown, even very small companies can benefit from interacting well with social media users.
The findings from this study have been published in the Journal of Marketing Management.