And They Told 236 Friends…

February 16, 2011

Remember that old shampoo commercial, where one person told two friends, who told two friends, and so on? Social media is a little like that, except telling two friends is now more like telling 200 or 2,000 friends–in just seconds. This exponential increase in friends and the speed with which they can be “told” is great for businesses when customers are sharing a positive experience. But what about when the conversation is focusing on a negative? In this age of social everything, businesses need treat social media as PR, be prepared to listen to relevant conversations, actively participate and, most importantly, effectively respond when the talk takes a bad turn.

“It’s important–maybe more so than ever–to make sure that customers are happy because they can go out there and do a lot of damage via social networking,” says Marc Karasu, the founder of MeasuredUp, a site that gives individual consumers a platform for identifying problems and partner companies tools with which to respond to customers and manage online reputations. “If there are reviews and complaints out there that are negative, it’s likely that one of the first things [people will come across in a search] will be a negative review.”

Stephen Smith, public relations director of Logos Bible Software, said being social is the first step companies need to take to ensure that they are not only in on the conversations but ready to respond to and manage negative messaging.

“It’s important that every company understand how customers and prospects view social media,” said Smith. “Companies often look at social media as just another way to get a marketing message out. But the average consumer views it as another way to ask questions, get info, share opinions, and be heard. The average person views social media as an all-purpose ‘contact us’ link, and the conversation is public. If you don’t engage users on their level, whether ignoring their comments/questions or just saying ‘please contact us at 1-800,’ you’re missing out on a solid opportunity to frame the conversation and show you care about individual consumers.”

When a negative comment appears, whether on a business’ Facebook or Twitter page or via a customer’s presence, it’s important to respond proactively and through appropriate channels, according to Smith. “There have been times that customers have written on our Facebook wall about a bug they’re having with our software. The question was ‘lean’ enough to come through social media, but the answer was too detailed and situation-specific to send through social media. So we called [the customer]. They were so thrilled with our responsiveness via a different channel that they went back onto Facebook and posted a glowing review and thanks for our customer support team.”

Responding quickly is also key, says Ben Nesvig, project manager at Fuzed Marketing. “Conversations happen in real time and can amplify very quickly,” he says.”It is best to respond as soon as possible when it comes to negative feedback, to pour water on any potential flames.”

Nesvig adds that companies should own up to any problems, but that any response or apologies should not sound canned. “This cannot be emphasized enough,” he said. “If your apology reads like a press release, it can further hurt you by not being sincere. The apology should come from a single person and be written in their voice.”

The corollary to social media sites having unbridled ability to have their say is that companies have the same opportunity. The worst thing a company can do when faced with negative comments is to ignore them, says Brett Brohl, founder of health care apparel retailer Scrubadoo. “In the past, word of mouth may spread and the company may have no idea that bad things are being said about them,” he says. “Today, you can track your brand with free programs like Google Alerts and you can respond to any claims. If the customer has a legitimate issue, you need to address it, and doing so in a public forum such as Facebook can help quell the storm and even show that you do care about what they are saying. It also provides invaluable feedback to help you make changes or learn from your mistakes.”

For more on how your company can monitor and respond conversations and complaints via social media, check out our webinar on our Zendesk-Twitter integration, where users can feed tweets into business workflows and turnTwitter into a value-add channel for customer engagement.