Following a recent problem I had with a purchase on eBay, I’ve decided to blog about my experiences using phone, email and social networks for support, and how these mechanisms relate to giving a great user experience, help you to manage your reputation online, and plays its part in your online marketing.
But before I talk about my experiences, let’s roll back the clock a little. Telephone and email have been the traditional mechanisms for offering support. Some individuals like to receive support responses by email so they have a written record of all discussions for later reference, others prefer to receive an answer immediately and therefore prefer to pick up a phone and talk to someone directly. Telephone support has several drawbacks for both the company and the customer; firstly it isn’t always possible to answer a question without research, and secondly people get frustrated when kept in a queue or on hold, causing them to become rude and abusive when finally speaking to a support person. Email doesn’t fare much better; hiding a support address behind endless FAQ’s annoys an already angry consumer and having to wait for a response doesn’t improve the situation.
These are scenarios I know well from many years working in customer care, and in all my roles we worked hard to ensure all people contacting us received a fast, accurate response. But not all companies have the resources to provide such a high level of support.
The internet revolution led to the rise of forums, and companies soon realised that a consumer using a product regularly would have an equal or greater level of expertise than an official support representative, yet would not require expensive and time-consuming training. This led many companies to create forums powered by software such as VBulletin. It was a great idea; a customer with a question could talk to other enthusiasts and have their query answered quickly without needing the company’s direct involvement. I still see this approach in use today, and companies such as Adobe and Netgear offer email support, telephone support but also suggest posting questions about how to use their products within their official-unofficial community support areas.
Does this work? It reduces overheads because many people will no longer need to contact an official help line. It allows people to discuss products with other consumers, safe in the knowledge that any response will be less biased and formal than an official reply from the manufacturer. Depending how it is configured, this can help increase the amount and frequency of updated content, factors known to help with search engine optimisation and ranking improvements. Companies practising this effectively have an entire support team working for them, but they don’t require training or payment. So is this a complete success? A magic bullet? No.
Community-based support commonly fails because a company will set up a forum, post links to it all over their website, guide people to the forum but then have no further involvement. If a customer becomes frustrated, they’ll post complaints. If a company fails to respond to a complaint they’ll find their own website filling with criticism and bad reviews. Whilst forums may be helpful in reducing the overheads of a technical support team, they can also cause their website to work against them, giving them bad publicity and destroying the very best efforts of their marketing departments. I saw this recently when purchasing a media streamer from a company I won’t name; they failed to respond to my support emails and their website had already filled with complaints and angry comments advising future potential customers to shop elsewhere. Which is what I ended up doing.
With the rise of social networking platforms, community support has evolved away from simple forums. Forums still exist, and add fantastic value when managed correctly, but now social networks are taking over. Organisations are becoming more aware that their reputation online matters and are far more effectively responding when people moan.
Where forums failed, social networking sites succeed, yet this isn’t really due to the social networks themselves, it’s down to a better understanding by the companies using them. Whilst companies would previously allow forums to go unmonitored, they now know how to handle a customer posting public criticism. People still post complaints, but companies are more willing to notice and respond openly and honestly, which goes a great way not only to diffusing awkward situations, but also earns them a reputation as a caring supplier. It would have been so easy to follow this approach in forums as well, however lack of understanding and resources prevented this. Since the rise of Twitter and Facebook, companies have a better understanding of online reputation management.
And sometimes – just sometimes – social networking platforms give consumers a better experience than traditional methods of support. I recently purchased the Adobe Master Collection on eBay for use in my hobby of video editing. Poor quality packaging and some quirks during installation with the activation process led me to believe I’d been sold counterfeit goods. In the past I had previously asked the community users for a list of things to watch out for; the responses I received frustrated me a little as rather than being given a list of things that may indicate my software was fake, I was instead told simply never to buy software on eBay. I decided not to bother with this again and opted to call Adobe Customer Support. The phone lines were closed at weekends. Now rather frustrated, I emailed them but also vented my frustration with a minor rant on Twitter. Whilst on Twitter, I noticed that Adobe had responded to similar messages by guiding people towards their excellent @Adobe_Care account. I followed @Adobe_Care, sent them a message and the next day received a direct message back asking me to send them the serial number from my suspicious-looking installation DVD’s. By mid-day Adobe had confirmed the software I’d purchased was fake and, on request, they emailed me confirmation so I had something to forward to the seller during my battle for a refund. Of my original support enquiry sent by email, I’m still waiting for a reply, however it hasn’t yet been a full working day since I first contacted them and I’m sure I’ll still receive a timely response.
This is a fantastic example of why I rate social networking support. The community support forums weren’t going to be able to help me on this occasion. Telephone support was unavailable, email support took too long. The support via Twitter was fast, responsive and gave me the information I needed straight away and I’d like to thank Bev at @Adobe_Care for all her help.
So how can a company provide their consumers with a great support experience without risking damage to their reputation?
- If it’s appropriate to your business and the products you sell, add a forum in addition to your other support mechanisms. But don’t set it up and leave it to rot, check it. If people complain, don’t delete their messages (others will notice and comment), respond calmly and efficiently, demonstrating how much you care and that you’re willing to resolve the issue. Remember, forums will only work if you can attract enough users – an empty forum will be nearly as bad as unchecked forum.
- Get on Twitter and Facebook. Even if you don’t, your consumers will. If you create an official presence then you can see what people are saying and respond.
- Search Twitter for the name of your brand and your products. If people are tweeting angrily about you, they may not include your username so searches are essential. If you spot any angry comments, respond to them calmly in public, gently recommending a course of action or that they contact you directly so you can resolve their issue.
- And of course, don’t neglect the traditional methods of email and telephone support. Reply to every email straight away to acknowledge the senders question. Look up an answer, reply. Simple. If you need more time, send them an email and let them know. Customers often won’t mind waiting while you have to look something up. But they will mind if they don’t know what’s happening. You need to show your customers that you’re on the case.
- Don’t hide your email addresses behind endless pages, menu’s, questionnaires and FAQs. If someone wants to contact you they will; the more difficult it is for them to find your contact details, the angrier they’ll be.
- If someone calls and you don’t know the answer to their question, never lie! That’s the biggest mistake I see people make. People never lie deliberately and they don’t do it to be malicious, usually this happens because people become flustered and are scared to reveal they don’t know the answer to a customer’s question. Be honest, tell them that you think you know the answer but you need to check it and you’ll call them back. And make sure you do! Any customer will appreciate honesty and integrity over speed and inaccuracy but they’ll get annoyed if they think you’ve forgotten about them.
Different companies have different preferred turn-around times, however in at least two places I’ve worked the official turnaround times were expected to be an acknowledgement within 20 minutes and either a full response or at least an update within two hours.
So why am I discussing all this on a blog about search marketing? Your reputation is one of your most important assets – if you lose that then you’ll find it very difficult to obtain new customers. If you manage your support correctly and publicly using social media, not only will your customers receive a far better experience, it will boost your online profile, it’ll make you far more visible and will demonstrate that you care about your customers. It turns your support department into part of your marketing. It’s all connected.
The companies that fail to realise this are the ones that gain a bad reputation and find their support services and social networking working against them. If you upset your customers, you’ll disrupt your marketing. If you manage your support correctly, you’ll give your marketing a massive boost.
In my next post I plan to focus more closely on search engine optimisation and talk about the initial stages of research and preparation, however I’d love to read your comments about the crossover between customer care and online marketing and also if you’ve noticed any approaches I’ve missed. Please do leave any comments or questions in the box below.