Social media is putting customer care teams on the frontline of public relations. How can PR teams prepare for incidents in this new environment? Matt Travers over at ServiceRage.com has some ideas.
At ServiceRage, we witnessed a dramatic spike in negative Twitter feedback to two big banks during recent customer-facing outages. We examined the responses to consumers’ tweets by customer care teams, to identify three scenarios where the challenges inherent to the new communications media are evident.
Widespread outages at NAB on February 8 resulted in 125 negative tweets. On February 25, Westpac received 93 complaints. On a regular day both of these banks would receive a mere three or four negative comments.
1. Comparing Notes
Traditional channels allow customer care staff to address complaints individually. It is not necessary to acknowledge the overall scope of the outage. Consumers do not know whether they are among an unlucky few or whether there is a widespread problem.
With social media, the brand no longer controls the flow of information and this changes the balance of power. A quick Twitter search will reveal a great deal of information about the scope of the problem, allowing consumers to come to their own conclusions independent of the brand’s explanation.
For example, this Westpac consumer compares his experience with another Tweeter:
While another criticises the brand’s response to another consumer.
This increase in information means it is essential for customer care teams to be completely transparent and resist the temptation to gloss over problems.
2. Weakest Link
With the brand responding in public, it is essential that statements are consistent. Consumers can easily compare, so one inaccurate response can be shared and spread at the expense of accurate statements from the customer care team.
In a traditional customer care scenario, an inaccurate statement can be damaging, but the impact is likely to be limited to a single consumer.
For example, these consumers question the brand’s claim that the problem is just slowness:
While another consumer suggests that the brand has avoided mentioning problems with the ATM network:
3. Pass It On
Social media makes it easy to share the story with the mainstream media. Twitter is very popular with journalists. The informality of the medium means that many customers feel comfortable contacting journalists directly.
Combine this with the easy access to Twitter data, which allows a journalist to assess the scope of the incident, and a headline is to hand.
For example, an unhappy NAB consumer lets the Sydney Morning Herald know:
while a Westpac consumer takes his frustrations to The Age newspaper:
It is clear from these insights that the public nature of social media is changing how customers expect to interact with brands. Customer care via traditional channels, like phone and face-to-face, is a private conversation between the brand and the customer. But on Twitter, anyone can observe and comment as a consumer makes a complaint and the brand addresses it. Social media interaction is becoming more popular as consumers realise that complaining in public raises the stakes for the brand and makes their voice more powerful.
Whilst the major banks have been early adopters of social media customer care, these recent crises demonstrate the challenges of this new communications channel and require some new behaviours from the PR and customer care teams who seek to manage them.
So what can business do to prepare for an incident in this challenging new environment?
1. Share skills
PR teams tend to be specialist and close-knit. But the new social media environment means many more people across the organisation can find themselves on the front line of communication. It is not just the official social media presence that needs to be considered, what about all the employees? How will they respond when their friends tweet or Facebook them asking about the incident? Social media makes the whole organisation more porous so plugging the leaks is impractical. The best response is to help the whole organisation become PR savvy by sharing skills from the specialist team.
Social media demand faster responses to a bigger and more diverse audience. The key to responding to this fire hose of feedback is a cross-functional team with expertise in PR, marketing, customer care and technology. But for this team to work efficiently they need to be in the same physical space with access to the tools to gather information and disseminate it to the social audience.
Take the time now to plan the physical, technology and people requirements to create this team at short notice and practise with a mock incident to iron out the glitches and unforeseen problems.
3. Reset Expectations
Now is the right time to talk about how social media have changed the ground rules for managing incidents. There’s no time for reflection during an event and afterwards it just sounds like excuses; so take the initiative now and talk to internal stakeholders from the CEO down about how the environment has changed.
Stakeholders need to accept that the organisation has less control during an incident but also to understand that this is is a small price to pay in order to access the marketing opportunities presented by social media when the business is running smoothly.
Matt Travers is the founder of service comparison website ServiceRage, which uses social media feedback to rank Australian banks, health insurers, energy companies, and general insurers. He has more than 15 years experience on the client and agency sides of digital marketing in Australia and Europe.