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Be quick or be silent: Social media as a business tool

Or how to lose the muppetosaurus label

As many readers know I live in the Channel Islands. A while back someone started a very popular Facebook group called “Bad or Good Jersey Businesses”, and the locals are not backward in coming forward with both bouquets and brickbats for businesses they've recently dealt with.

Unsurprisingly, more and more business people I speak to are aware that social media is an important consideration for any business – particularly those that are consumer-facing. But precisely what you do is a hard decision.

At the basic level you can have someone keep an eye on the core social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) and pass any concerning messages they spot up the tree. Or do you go the whole way and have a formal presence on social media, with a team dedicated to feeding and watering it?

Simplistically, the answer is: one of the above, but nothing in between. We'll see later why that is.

Basic monitoring

Watching social media for references to your company is rather like overhearing people at a party dissing or praising your services. Do you interrupt? Do you march over and point out that (say) their delivery was unfortunately late because the van was involved in an accident? And do you do the latter quietly by taking the individual to one side, or noisily to those around to whom he's just proclaimed your company's failings?

The same applies to social media, and if you're in simple monitoring mode the first thing to do is see if you can figure out who the customer is from what they've said online.

Often this won't be possible, but I've seen examples where people have posted big lumps of their bill for some service or other, with their full name and/or account number plastered all over it (numpties!). Also when they rant that they've called three times today and spoken to John, then Jane, then James, and been given the same wrong answer you can track this through your CRM system if you have one.

If you can't find who the customer is, decide whether you actually care enough to start a two-way discussion. Often it's not worth the hassle for a single customer with a low-ranking problem, but in many cases it falls the other side of the “do I follow this up?” line.

Send them a polite private message, apologising that they're having poor service and offering to help - and obviously don't ask for personal information but instead give them a phone number or email address to call/write to which obviously or at least verifiably belongs to your company, promising that you'll be watching like a hawk for them to get in touch.

Do everything else off-line - restrict the involvement of social media merely to the act of identifying a customer with a problem and getting them in touch with you. More than the most light-touch contact will start a snowball rolling and before you know it you'll have a social shit-storm on your hands.

There's one exception to the above, incidentally: if you've tried two or three times to private-message them and they've not responded, but instead have continued to whine about your company, don't be frightened to flame them publicly along the lines of: “It's a shame you're so vocal publicly but can't find the time to respond to the three private messages I've sent you asking you to get in touch on our CEO's personal direct line”.

I've seen entire audiences turn instantly against a moaner when they've discovered that they're actively thwarting the business from fixing their problems. Don't make a habit of it, of course, but actually you won't need to: there aren't really that many professional moaners out there, and those that exist will move on and harangue other businesses when you show them up.

A full-blown presence

At the other extreme is to have a formal presence on social media, with a team of people responsible for it. If you're proactive on social media then you're generally on the front foot - forward instead of responsive, promoting good stuff and announcing improvements instead of just apologising for poor products and services.

So select the subset of the social media options available to you and don't bleed into the others (you simply don't have the resources to keep up with every social media site). Promote it in your email signatures, on your Web site, on your bills and receipts.

In short, then, if you're going for a full social media presence you need to treat social media not as an exceptional service but as one of your mainstream mechanisms for communicating with people.

Just as you have an advertising plan and budget for the year, and a plan for the campaigns you're going to run on your catalogues/bills/receipts, you should have beside it a plan and budget for your social media activities.

For every message you want to put out, analyse the channels you want to use to broadcast it and co-ordinate the broadcast of each one. Be prepared for the response, and have the right number and type of staff on hand to deal with them.

A full-blown social media presence also means using it as a customer support channel. A proper, official, full-blown one, where all levels of the support chain have access to it and it's properly integrated into the CRM system so that you can easily pull up customer and problem histories just as you would with a troubled customer on the phone or at the other end of an email interaction.

And this is the bit that people forget: empower your staff to communicate on social media. You can always tell a company that's merely dabbling in social media: they're the ones that take a week to respond to anything on Facebook or Twitter because it's classed as “speaking publicly on the company's behalf” and has to get sign-off from several layers of management.

I've never understood this – companies have tribes of people in a call centre telling customers stuff on the phone all day, yet they need to get the Pope's signature in triplicate just to scratch their arse, social media-wise. Social media is instant: either use it as such or have a policy not to use it at all, because otherwise you're going to be labelled a muppetosaurus.

How to do it, then

There's only one attitude you can take to social media: a former colleague of mine used to have a phrase: “s**t, or get off the pot”.

At the very least, keep a watching brief on social media and react as silently as possible to follow up on the cases that are worth the risk of sticking your head above the parapet. And do the latter sparingly, except when you need to elicit information from the customer (which you should do privately) or to put a professional moaner back in his or her box (which you should do sparingly but not shy away from).

And if you want to do more than this, do it all. Make it an integral part of your customer service and communications/CRM strategy and systems, and staff it properly.

The one thing you absolutely must not do is a half-arsed attempt at using social media for business. It'll simply make it seem - not just to your customers but to thousands of potential customers who see what you're posting that you're stuck in the Dark Ages.

And that's very probably because you are. ®

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