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Forrester's 5 best practices for applying social media to better customer service

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OK, how come we all HATE being put on hold on the telephone or pushing prompts to get through some customer service maze, but businesses all expect va...

OK, how come we all HATE being put on hold on the telephone or pushing prompts to get through some customer service maze, but businesses all expect various social media strategies and social networks to be the answer?

Personally, I think there are three answers to this question:

1. Humans are very impatient by nature. What, you aren't? Right.

2. We like taking control of our destiny whenever possible. As in, now.

3. We like talking about stuff that has happened to us: good or bad.

Inherently, this is the sort of thing that draws people to communities associates with products or services that they use: the idea that we can take command and that we can commiserate. It is also what is driving some of the early behavior that all of Corporate America is anxiously watching for some insight on how to spend their social media budgets.

Lucky for you that Forrester analyst Natalie Petouhoff, who covers this space regularly, has just released a new report called "Best Practices: Five Strategies for Customer Service Social Media Excellence."

I won't give away all her secrets, but here are her main ideas:

  1. Take ownership. Keep focused on the true mission, making the customer service, and avoid letting marketing and sales control the agenda. Understand what they need, but don't skew what you're doing to accommodate tactical problems. If you handle customer service properly, it will naturally help sales.
  2. Figure out who you want to reach and set out specific goals. Don't just experiment.
  3. Focus on the customer experience. In particular, make sure there is support for a two-way conversation. Where possible, let the customer do the talking on your behalf by engaging and developing "super customers."
  4. Understand the role of different technologies. In all likelihood, your strategy will rely on multiple approaches. You need to figure out what's best for your audience AND you need to keep on top of the new tools that will doubtless be at your disposal in three months.
  5. Figure out the costs and build a real business case. Even if some of your perceived benefits might be intangible, you can assign them a value and weigh them against the start-up technology investment you might have to make. You need to know the risks and when to cut your losses.

By the way, here's my bonus 6th best practice to consider: Don't copy what other companies are doing. Figure out what is best for you based on your brand mission and the customers you are really hoping to nurture. Using Twitter, as an example, may seem like a default strategy because EVERYONE is doing it, but there are those who would beg to differ. My mom doesn't use Twitter at all, as an example, but she DOES use Facebook and she regular checks status updates.

Here's a link to Petouhoff's latest report. If you have a Forrester subscription, you can also read different corporate case studies that she used as the research foundation for her findings, and she is planning to publish more of them. Petouhoff has also created a calculator to help gauge the return on investment of various social media methods. Have at it.

Incidentally, here is a link to a blog that Joe McKendrick wrote about one of Petouhoff's earlier reports on this subject. It might be worth revisiting.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure