Customer Service Online: The Art of Social Listening

By: Hessie Jones

May 28, 2012

By Hessie Jones

As the Web evolves, it allows people to display their opinions more transparently than ever before. And many of those who have the most to say are speaking as customers.

It's all about listening - and many companies need to upgrade their methods.

It's all about listening. Image: Melvin Gaal (

This is forcing companies to be more proactive in building processes and structures to actively mine customer conversation, whether it be through direct social channels or third party discussion forums, boards and social networks. This flurry of conversation is what has the potential to determine a company’s demise, if it isn’t properly dealt with.

Some time ago, I worked with a company that was going through a brand change: New name, new business model––all in an attempt to show the world it had changed. The new “company” (Company X) was formed in response to years of negative consumer response to its customer service, pricing model and a slew of other negatives.

While the brand change was a strong step forward, it did not dismiss all the years of questionable service and customer complaints still evident and thriving in social forums. The company had no hope of survival until it remedied its past. This meant  changing detractors into supporters – not an easy feat.

Evidence of Company X’s problems were deeply embedded on Web forums. The company realized that comments that were over 7 years old did not necessarily mean no one was paying attention. Those threaded conversations had over 300 posts that continued to the current day. A comprehensive social audit was conducted to provide insight into these conversations. The result of the audit necessitated some fence-mending before the company could go forward.

But it worked. Company X’ had some outstanding results.Within 4 months, it was able to gain favour within the negative forums by listening and providing solutions and making fundamental product and service changes based on the forum feedback. Forum engagement levels eventually played in the company’s favour as the forums became live focus groups that fed insight for continuous product improvement and promotion testing.

The bottom line? Within a short period,social media had the highest ROI compared to other direct acquisition channels. This fundamentally changed how social media was perceived within the C-suite, and managment began to transform Company X’s customer touch point processes. Most importantly, the company realized that the relationships it cultivated with its customers provided a a sustainable revenue base. Eventually, these strategies would evolve into best-practices for customer retention.

Whats the larger context? Here are some stats related to customer retention from CustomerThermometer:

  • 68% of your customers leave you because they feel you are indifferent to them;
  • Companies that prioritize the customer experience generate 60% higher profits than their competitors;
  • 43% feel less inhibited about complaining once they go online;
  • Satisfied customers tell 9 people how happy they are;
  • Dissatisfied customers tell 22 people about their bad experiences.

Honesty, transparency, humility

My early exposure to social media provided me an opportunity to experience first-hand the volatile nature of the online environment and its potential negative impact on companies. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  • Humanize your brand/company: Don’t be a corporate shill. Speak with a human voice.
  • Take some humble pie: figure out when it’s time to enter the conversation without being invited.
  • Be consistent: Be the ongoing voice for your company. Your commitment is vital.
  • Expect to make mistakes along the way. Don’t expect to get it right the first time. Relationships are hard. Find the rhythm that will allow your voice to be heard and accepted.
  • Create value: Do not sell. It’s the fastest way to be shunned from the community.
  • Don’t avoid issues. Instead deal with them head on before they become bigger.
  • Don’t delete comments on your social properties because they don’t align with your rules of engagement. They won’t go away. You can’t control the conversation so don’t attempt to do so.
  • Cast your ego aside. Responding to a non-binding statement which cedes to the other’s perspective really gives nothing away except respect. Success and peace is what matters NOT who is right.
  • When you are attacked, your instinct is to throttle someone because they’re wrong. Remember, the world is watching. Your next move will determine how others perceive you.
  • Be proactive: Anticipate any potential customer fallout, communicate the issue(s) and what the company is doing to remedy the situation.

It all comes down to honesty, transparency and humility… all in an effort to build trust. This is, perhaps, the most difficult mindset shift in an organization. Most companies take comfort and hide behind the art of ‘spin’ and obfuscation. But once a company realizes that customers can see through this,  they may opt to employ a different strategy––one that is more accessible to and accepting of their customers.

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