By Micah Solomon
Keynote speakers at business events tend to run into the same questions over and over again from nervous audiences facing new online and offline realities. For me, a question that comes up at almost every event I speak to goes something like this:
“Micah, isn’t it dangerous out there for my brand, my company, myself, in the social media universe? How can I be sure we’ll even survive in this new landscape where any 14-year-old with a grudge can damage our reputation?
I sympathize with the fear behind this question. It is dangerous out there; even the most customer-centered companies will eventually encounter angry online critics voicing complaints on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor or Facebook. It’s true that these critics can harm your public image and your profit margin. Yes, there is a lot at stake.
Fortunately, learning to respond effectively to such feedback can turn this negative into a positive for your company’s image. In fact, each such critic is handing you an opportunity to show the broader public some of your best features — such as the strength of your commitment to great service and your grace under fire. But to make use of these opportunities, you have to be ready for them. Here are five principles to keep in mind:
1. Social media responsiveness is a type of customer service, so give it the superb planning and staffing that customer service deserves.
Social media responsiveness is customer service, plain and simple. Sure, it’s customer service at breakneck speed, with lots of hazards and quirks, but it’s still customer service. So if some of your customers expect that you will serve them via social media, meet their online expectations superbly. Engage and assist those customers online as energetically and effectively as you do through traditional service channels.
Get this effort off on the right foot by staffing your online presence with your own front-line people. This is crucial. Companies often make the mistake of leaving their social media teams in the hands of technical experts. Technical wizardry is a crucial resource, but don’t let that technical tail wag the customer service dog. Let your people experts lead the way — because your social media team needs to be every bit as customer-centric as your other support/response channels. If not, it’s bound to hurt your brand rather than help it.
2. Beware the Streisand Effect.
When someone uses social media to attack your business, your first urge, naturally, may be to sic lawyers on the critic, or otherwise try to intimidate the attacker into removing the complaint. Think carefully before taking that course of action. The rule online is that a defensive reaction tends to bring additional publicity—very negative publicity. This rule even has a name: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s precariously sited mansion from the California Coastal Records Project. Streisand’s aggressive reaction to free expression offended some “netizens” and titillated others. The result was far wider distribution of the photograph she wanted to suppress – on T-shirts, websites, coffee mugs – and a permanent blemish on her public image.
Over and over, brands and businesses discover the inviolability of the Streisand Effect the hard way. Threatening your online customers almost never solves the harm they are causing you, and it often backfires dramatically. Consider the following ‘‘retraction’’ on Yelp by a restaurant guest, after the company called in their lawyers. (Only the identifying details have been changed.) Did coercing such a customer serve the business well?
“I earlier posted a review on this website and was threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney representing ‘’Serenity Cafe.’ In response, I’m hereby posting my retraction: In retrospect I really should have said ‘To me, the “line-caught rainbow trout” tasted like farmed fish because it was almost flavorless, and it looked like farmed fish because it was the wrong color and crumbly. Perhaps it was indeed wild trout that just spent too long in the freezer…’ and I should also have said pertaining to the chicken that… ‘this chicken seemed to me like frozen tenders because it was the size, shape and texture of large pieces of solid plastic.”
Of course, this tongue-in-cheek retraction was forwarded to more people than ever would have seen the original complaint—and now you’re reading about it!
Any public, digital argument with a customer is an exponentially greater risk for your company than the old-fashioned kind of argument that didn’t involve social media. Without a doubt, arguing with customers has always been a losing proposition for time immemorial. But today, online, those same arguments are far costlier because of all the additional customers and prospects you risk losing who are watching from the sidelines. So make sure everybody who represents your company online has taken the time to learn how to slow down, breathe and bite their tongue — consistently. Train them to think of the big picture. The future of your company likely depends on it.
3. Reach out directly to online complainers.
Suppose that you’ve spotted the following outrageous tweet about your firm:
Company X double-bills customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—#FAIL
Whew! This is insulting, and hard to handle. Not only will your staff need to suppress the urge to respond angrily, they also will need to prepare a response that is thoughtful and positive. A thoughtful and positive response in a situation like this is rare precisely because it’s so hard for somebody who has just been insulted to muster thoughtful positivity.
But that rarity makes it powerful: A thoughtful and positive response can come as such a surprise to an online critic that it can help to convert the critic into your advocate. At the least, it will stanch your losses, as described below.
First, however, in order to respond, you’ll first need to reach your critic. How can you do that online? That depends on your professional relationship with the critic. If the person behind this message follows you on Twitter, or if she’s in your database, send her a direct, “backchannel” message. Include a real, monitored email address and phone number. Otherwise, reply publicly in the same forum she chose. List offline ways to reach you (including a real, monitored email address and/or phone), and express your regret and concern.
Contacting a social media critic to request an offline conversation is the digital equivalent of ushering a loud and angry customer into your office for a discreet discussion. You move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting your every move while failing to understand the whole story. After a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw the original ugly comment.
4. Avoid the social media fiasco formula.
Can you spell F-I-A-S-C-O? The formula in social media is simple: Small Error + Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster. Put differently, the magnitude of a company’s social media embarrassment is proportional to how delayed its online response was. An event in the online world gathers social steam with such speed that your delay can become more of a problem than the initial incident. Even an afternoon’s lag in responding can be catastrophic.
5. Prevent online complaints in the first place.
Unhappy customers are less likely to complain by public methods like Tripadvisor or on their blogs if they know they can use email, the phone or a feedback form to reach you directly — and if they feel sure that their problem will be addressed immediately. You can do a lot to ensure that the first impulse of such customers is to reach out to you directly, day or night: Offer “chime-in” forms everywhere. Provide direct chat links for when your FAQs fail to assist. Provide an easy way to respond directly at the bottom of every corporate email you send out, instead of ending with that obnoxious “please do not reply to this email” footer.
Overall, become widely known for your rapid and satisfying responsiveness. Customers will come to you, offer to help you improve — and keep their complaints and misgivings “in the family.”
Micah Solomon is a business speaker and author on the subjects of customer service, the customer experience, leadership and marketing. His latest book is “High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service” and he will be presenting seminars on service-related topics both Tuesday and Wednesday, March 25-26, at Pizza Expo.
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