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Handling Complaints on Social Media - A Post Mortem

customer service3I've had a lot of cause for thought about how Social Media is used for Customer Service this week.  It has led me to some very useful conclusions about what best practice looks like and how to build a formula for successful complaint handling - which is, let's face it, the "pointy" end of engaging customers online. I sometimes use Social Media to complain about a company's conduct in its dealings with me.  Publicly naming-and-shaming an organisation on Social Media can be a good way to hold a company to account when they aren't addressing your problem fast enough, or it can be a perhaps badly-thought-through knee-jerk reaction to something that has annoyed you.  We are all guilty of the latter.  In this case I probably was in hindsight guilty of spleen-venting but the issue was nevertheless genuine.  The company in question - Setanta Australia - engaged me quickly to solve the problem and in the process has provided me with an excellent case study to break down how this kind of important customer service can be best executed.  It is my view that Setanta's conduct was all-but best practice.

I can say that because while this dialogue was taking place, I was in fact attending - quite coincidentally - a workshop on How to Handle Complaints on Social Media run by an Australian-based expert in mediation and dispute management - Nicole Cullen at @Cullaborate.  There was a great deal of value in the day-long session,  from three speakers: Fiona Scott-Handley at @CloudSherpas who presented excellently on how to design a strategy for your customer service channel on Social; Buzznumber's Jess Whitaker who spoke authoritatively about Social Media Monitoring and from Delib's Craig Thomler on how to use Social Media to manage a crisis (Craig's very informative presentation can be seen at his blog here). But probably the most instructive content for me was from Nicole herself on how to approach the actual dialogue with the customer.

Customer Service Resolution Model

In terms of essential structure, the workshop introduced us to a well-established Customer Service Resolution Model that provides a framework for handling complaints.  Put simply, customer satisfaction takes three forms, and the more of these boxes that are ticked, the more complete the outcome.  My understanding of the model is as follows:

  1. Psychological Satisfaction - this is the warm-fuzzy emotional response that entails simply acknowledgement and validation of the problem, and ideally some empathy (but not necessarily an apology which could cause larger problems legally further down the line if substantive resolution isn't possible). Where most companies fall over is in not even providing this.  This can be by not responding, or responding defensively or failing to even see the complaint.
  2. Procedural Satisfaction - A 2011 Bain report found that 83 per cent of customers that complained to a company on Social Media either "liked" or "loved" the response.  These customers can very quickly turn from angry customers likely to churn to competitors to enthusiastic advocates for your brand.  Where that transition comes mainly is in the knowledge that a procedure was enacted  as a result of their complaint.  A resolution may not even be possible, but if a process is at least followed then a customer will be in a far more forgiving mood.  However, it is important that this process is followed through and concluded - not merely promised as a form of placation.  This is the ultimate validation.
  3. Substantive Satisfaction - While this isn't always possible, it obviously makes for a complete resolution.  A great deal of the damage is repaired in the previous step but if the customer's concern can be fully addressed - be that a refund, a formal apology, a gift etc - then everyone wins.  However, Nicole did make the important point that a customer's demand - or position - isn't always the solution and something else could be the answer.  This will become apparent with investigation.

So beyond this model, Nicole and the other speakers also provided a toolkit of tips for how a complaint should be managed, many of which aligned with my own understanding of best practice approaches.  By way of post-mortem, Setanta very adeptly demonstrated these in turn:

  • Respond quickly - one of the companies attending the workshop has a standing and public response SLA (service level agreement) of two hours.  Case Study: Setanta's response was within three. This is very reasonable and practical in the event of something that isn't life-threatening.
  • Acknowledge and Understand- Case Study: which Setanta did very clearly, and while they did defend themselves it was not in a defensive way but only to explain, which is only fair.
  • Take it offline - it is important to quickly move the conversation into an offline or private environment, for two reasons.  First there might of course be privacy issues that if the conversation is conducted publicly will make the problem hard to resolve; and second any discussion of a service shortcoming in public will damage the brand.  Case Study: Setanta engaged me on Direct Message.
  • Investigate - use the CRM to examine the customer's history and product/service portfolio.  This will reveal any opportunity for alternative resolution should the customer's demands not be possible to satisfy. Also, check the customer's profile for help with the next step.  Finally, check the customer has not mis-understood or even mis-represented the situation and that there isn't a hidden agenda.  Case Study: Setanta quickly established my situation accurately  and then rectified it.
  • Build rapport - When apparently faceless agents become people with similar interests, it is much harder to shout at them!  Case Study: Setanta did this very well by asking questions about my sporting allegiances as they updated me on the procedure and then related to me in a personal, human way by congratulating my team on a recent win - that I appreciated and it went a long way to diffusing the situation quickly.  Sport and music make it easy - pressing a fan button always works!
  • Resolve and/or conclude - Either solve the problem or conclude it amicably.  An open wound will fester and make for a motivated detractor that could escalate the problem and continue to damage the brand (as a well known Australian mobile phone brand knows all too well).  Case Study: my relatively simple complaint was resolved completely within 24 hours and I now see Setanta quite differently - very positively now after some  bad experiences in the past.

The only points I would make about the way Setanta handled the situation - which are open for debate - are that first, they did not acknowledge my tweet publicly which to me seemed like a missed opportunity to show others that they were responding.  After all "customer service is the new marketing"!  Second, their responses had no personal identifier.  Common protocol is the initials of the agent are included at the end of tweets using the "^" symbol.  This can then be broken out in the profile of the account - i.e. "^GL = Gareth Llewellyn (@mrgareth)" or not.  However it is done, it is just important that some sort of identifier is there to aid the rapport.

At the most basic level though, it is important to say that where the complaint is genuine - no response at all is the very worst approach and increasingly will be seen as unacceptable to consumers and a failure of a brand's responsibilities to its customers.


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