How to avoid the customer service 'fiasco formula'

Ignoring small complaints can create big problems for your business but rapid response can work to your advantage. Entrepreneur and author Micah Solomon shares why social media can help.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Micah Solomon grew his company, Oasis Disc Manufacturing, from a one-man basement operation into an industry leader by treating customer service as a strategic differentiator in a tough commodity business. Soon, he found himself sharing his secrets with other entrepreneurs and business executives.

Solomon's latest book about strategy for this increasingly important function, "high-tech, high-touch customer service," tackles two topics with which many companies are struggling -- how to handle customer service in an era of instant gratification and how to keep social media from becoming a liability.

SmartPlanet spoke with Solomon about how support expectations have changed, how to keep customers from having to ask stupid questions and why it's important not to try to settle disputes publicly using social media.

What technologies are essential elements of high-tech, high-touch customer service?

Micah Solomon: It's not so much the specific technologies that you need to start with, it is the awareness of how customer expectations have changed recently. If you look around, you'll see that customers expect dramatically sped-up timetables. They expect to find aggregated, personalized information without really searching for it. So if you go to Netflix, you want to know what the next movie is that you want to watch, and Netflix will tell you. You don't have to search, it has an algorithm that will figure it out for you. People expect that more and more.

Another changed expectation is that people want the ability or option to do things in a self-service manner. From there, the technologies that you need are going to flow in kind of a self-evident manner.

How should social media be integrated with existing customer service channels?
The first mistake that many customers make is to put whoever is best at technology at the top of their social media team. For doing customer service through social media, you want your best customer people, not necessarily your great technology people in charge. The technology people are very important, but they should only be part of the team.

Now, how to integrate it other than philosophically but practically is that you may want to use a ticket system such as Zendesk that allows you to turn any kind of Tweet you receive into a logical flow so that you can respond in a way that doesn't overlook any of the many channels that customers now use to contact you.

How important is mobile technology?
Incredibly important. It is growing dramatically in importance. There was a recent study by Accenture that said most shoppers would prefer to get an answer to a simple question on their smartphone rather than wait for a clerk who may or may not know the answer. That's from the customer end. From the business-proactive end, mobile checkout technology is really important trend. Right now, only a couple of companies, Apple, Nordstrom, are doing a good job with it. But really, this is the future of retail. There aren't going to be checkout lines anymore.

How can you turn a social media complainer into a fan?
The first thing you want to do is eliminate the likelihood of social media complaints in the first place. … If your customers are your friends and, most importantly, know how to contact you and you actually include your email addresses, phone numbers, everything, on your Web site, it is much less likely that they are going to go to Twitter and complain about you. That is principle one.

Principle two is obviously don't get in an argument with customers over social media. You never want to get in an argument with a customer anywhere, but you doubly lose in social media because you alienate the customer and everyone is watching the interaction.

What you want to do is reach out directly to the online complainers. … If they never get back to you, at least you put [the situation] in their court. But they probably will get back to you and you can have a private discussion which will hopefully calm things down and give them a chance to get what they want.

You need to avoid what I call the 'fiasco formula.' That is simply a small error coupled with a slow response time. Something small goes wrong, and someone complains about it, but you don't respond for a while, which nowadays can mean a day. That is enough to have a colossal PR disaster in the world of social media. Responding quickly is one of the most important things you can do.

Is it a mistake to think of customer service simply as an operational expense?
This is something that drives me absolutely crazy because customer service is one of the few differentiators that most companies have. … Most of our businesses are not clearly differentiated, and one of the places you truly can differentiate yourself is through customer service. If you think about it, your marketing team probably spent $25, $100 to make the phone ring or make an email come in and when it does, you should really be grateful and use that as opportunity.

Zappos spends a lot of time on the phone with their customers, despite the fact that probably only something like 5 percent of their customers purchase over the phone. But they feel that everyone might call them once and that is their one chance to shine, it's a really opportunity.

However, I do counsel companies that customers don't want to contact you for what I call stupid reasons. So, if it is something that should be in your Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section that they should be able to find on their own and they are only contacting you because they couldn't find it, that is a self-defeating way to run your business.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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