The perks and pitfalls of helping customers via social media

*Deep breath*

Hi. My name is Elizabeth Tobey and I shamelessly abuse social media when I need customer support from a company.

Okay, with that confession out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks: using social media as a primary tool for customer support is a bad idea. It hurts the customer’s experience (and in turn their satisfaction and loyalty) and harms your brand’s image.

Who the hell are you and why should I listen to you?

Excellent question! For the past 11 years, I’ve run various departments that all center around customer communication (Community, Customer Service, Marketing, PR… You name it, I’ve done it.) Currently, I lead the Support department at Tumblr. This is also why I know how to game social media to get support when I have a problem. I know that using these tactics means my problems are resolved faster and more completely than when I go through “proper” customer service channels.

Wait, you just told me social media gets you better support. How’s that a bad thing?

As a human being who wants to get my problem fixed as fast as possible, I’ll agree that my system is beneficial to me, but only in a singularly selfish way. As a professional who is in charge of creating efficient, effective, and positive customer experiences to solve problems for thousands of people on a daily basis, I want to smack myself for fucking up a company’s support pipeline and shitting up their brand’s Twitter account (my method of choice for support problems — but all social media platforms face this problem.)

So the million dollar question is: what do we, the support professionals of the world, do when a customer posts a support question via social media?

  1. deputize your social media person and set them free to do as they see fit
  2. train your team to send the customer a link or email address to get their questions or issues answered by the Support team
  3. share the social media accounts with Support members who will try and answer questions through comments, usually sacrificing spelling, grammar, and superfluous words like “the” and “at” in the name of 140 characters
  4. ignore them, usually by closing your eyes as you scroll really, really fast through your mentions

Spoilers: this is a trick question. I don’t think any of these options result in good customer support.

Option A entails giving the Support keys to a person who is generally trained in marketing or public communications of some sort. And while both of these areas are heavily involved in messaging and speaking directly to customers, their focus is not solely on the customer dialogue cycle: listening, helping, learning, solving. On top of that, the folks who are posting on social media are generally young and don’t have many years of work experience under their belts, making them even less qualified to deal with incoming social media support inquiries (which are often more emotionally charged or complicated when compared to your average normal support ticket.)

Option B sounds like it should be the best path and is the most frequently used social support track. It fails because it’s making the customer take an extra step — and that’s never good for your brand. Customers don’t differentiate between company communication channels and they don’t want to jump through hoops. Couple that with the fact that an inbound social support inquiry is usually an angry one, publicly asking a frustrated customer to seek help in yet another place is only asking for trouble. Each interaction between you and an angry customer that doesn’t get the customer closer to their desired result actively drops the customer’s opinion of you and your company.

Option C is also a frequently used method: after all, it does help the customer directly, without sending them elsewhere. The trade-off here is that you have a very public conversation (so personal information can’t easily be shared) and because the conversation is happening on social media, the thread of dialogue is often jumbled or lost. A customer doesn’t see your tweet or get a notification. Your message is truncated due to the platform’s limitations, further confusing or frustrating the already befuddled and irritated customer. Chances of turning a detractor into an advocate is slim.

Option D I wish I didn’t have to talk about it at all but it is actually a strategy some brands employ. They use their social media for marketing purposes: to post cool content, maybe retweet or favorite a fan’s posts or send a sporadic smiley to a happy customer. All those unhappy people? Their voices are lost in the noise of the stream. And while you might gloss over them by scrolling really quickly, trust me, they don’t forget, and sometimes those people are like me, and they keep trying bigger and louder methods until they get your attention. And I speak from experience here. It took an article in The Consumerist and an email directly to the head of Customer Experience at an airline, but I did get a refund for the plane ride that was canceled in my connecting city, causing me to miss my grandfather’s funeral.

All right, all of that sounds like a nightmare. Should I shut down all my social media accounts?

Good god, no. Please, don’t.

The internet might have done a lot of terrible things but its ability to empower customers and allow companies to have real, two-way dialogues with those same customers is awesome and amazing. We should embrace and celebrate the opportunities we are given by this brave new world of easy access and instant gratification. But with great power comes great responsibility: you need to be educated in every platform your company chooses to be on and every department that communicates with customers should have a seat at the table while developing both the social media strategy and the social media tactics for these platforms.

Does that mean I’m advocating for your brand to not be on every single social media platform in the universe? You are goddamned right I am. More isn’t better: your seven-year-old self doubled over amidst a heap of empty candy wrappers on Halloween night knows this to be true.

Decide which platforms are right for your company first, consulting product, marketing, communications, and support in the process. While doing this, figure out who you are talking to on each platform and why you are talking to them there. From there, you can figure out what you want to say and why that matters to your customers (which is the only reason they would Reblog, Follow, Like, Share, Tweet, Pin, Revine, or do anything with your posts.)

Now that’s all set, you can figure out how best to serve the customer support side of the communication loop.

If you are reading this, you already have some sort of support structure in place. Hopefully you have a ticketing system. If you don’t, send me an email. I’ll buy you a drink, give you a hug, and then help you get that started getting set up with a ticketing system — because even if you are a one-man shop, if you have customers of any volume, you need a ticketing system.

Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. If you have fans, regulars, customers, consumers, any of that — you need to get yourself a ticketing system. I have friends who run a podcast for fun and they’ve had a single seat setup for years — and that’s considered their hobby.

Okay, ticketing system for customer support. Sure, I am with you there. How does this relate to social media?

In short: in every way. Once you have a ticketing system setup you need to make sure you pipe everything through that workflow. Yes, that means spending a lot of time setting up that system to ensure your pipeline is effective and efficient. Once you have the general queue in place, you can go on an tackle those edge cases: the VIPs, the anomalies, and yes, the social media inbound requests.

Years ago, I advocated for an @support account for my company in addition to our regular social media channels. Hell, we set up an Amazon account for the purposes of replying to folks in reviews when they had customer support questions. Don’t expect all your customers to come to your backyard: you have to go to them, too. This mantra is applicable to Marketing, PR, Community, and Support, but while I still firmly believe in this mindset, my tactics have changed.

People don’t understand or care about the difference between a company social media account and their support account, and frankly, they shouldn’t have to. If you have an official presence somewhere in a medium meant for dialogue, you should expect all kinds of conversation, including questions, complaints, and requests. There’s a time for levity, where you give an internet high five to someone who is happy with something you’ve done, and then there’s a time to get down to business and solve a person’s problem as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

To do that, you have to pipe all these requests into your ticketing system in a uniform and reliable way.

If you set this up correctly, anyone can make sure the questions get to the proper people, even your social media folks who aren’t trained in Support: all they have to do is direct the inquiries into your established Support pipeline and let it go from there. By doing this, you eliminate barriers between you and your customer, drastically cut down on the wait time before the first response from a support agent, and on top of that you have a detailed record of every interaction between the Support team and the customer.

Gone are the days you scour a Facebook thread, looking to see if someone has replied so that you know you answered their question. Say goodbye to holding your breath that someone even sees your attempts at support and that your well-intentioned efforts weren’t lost in the streams of chatter that are constantly flooding our social feeds. You’ll never again have to coordinate efforts among those on your team designated to answer support issues via social media: one person will work each touch of the ticket, avoiding the awkward instances when two people try and help the same person, making your organization look uncoordinated and spastic. And, wait, that’s not all! You’ll claw back time for your Support agents, too. They’ll no longer be switching between platforms, the nightmarish time suck that requires changing procedures and inevitably slows down productivity: it happens to the best of us when we have to switch between different tasks. Hell, you probably won’t even need to differentiate social media-oriented agents from your “regular” folk: in this brave new world, all support requests are created equal, no matter what medium they came from.

Okay, I think you have me convinced. How do I get started?

  1. Make a list of all the social media platforms your company is currently on, auditing the last month of data so you have a baseline for how frequently each channel receives Support-related messages, including details on what types of messages are most frequent for each platform.
  2. Research your current ticketing solution and find out if it has any built in hooks to connect it to social media (many do to varying degrees.) You can do this on your own with the help of Google or with your rep (if you have one.) You’ll also want to look into third party tools that can often help streamline the process: sometimes piping things directly from the social platforms into a ticket system isn’t the most eloquent solution.
  3. Map out who the stakeholders are for each social account from the top strategic planners to the most tactical boots-on-the-ground posters. Sometimes these aren’t all the same people: Marketing might control some accounts, Comms others, and Creative yet another set. Sit down with each of these groups individually and talk through your plans for the accounts that concern them and get their feedback on your plan. This is super important and you should spend at least 75% of your time in these meetings listening to them. They live and breathe these accounts: they have expertise and insight you need.
  4. Take all that feedback, incorporate it into a single plan, and present it again to all the teams together.
  5. Rinse, repeat, and revise until everyone’s excited about this brave new world where social media and support co-exist in a functional, customer-friendly way.
  6. Have a party. Preferably with cupcakes. Or booze. Or both.
  7. Post all about it on your social media accounts.

The process to getting this system setup won’t be fast or easy: plan for at least a quarter before everything is integrated. Trust me on this, though. If you properly integrate your social media into your support workflow, you will increase team efficiency and customer satisfaction while lowering the amount of time spent on each case. You’ll also find communication and cooperation between yourself and the other departments improving, too.


If you liked this story, please hit the “Recommend” button below — and let me know if you have something else you’d like me to write about. You can also tweet to me @dahanese with questions or comments.