Social media: more than just another communication channel

More and more companies are discovering social media as a channel for addressing customers

Social media: more than just another communication channel

For many companies in Germany, social media have become an integral part of customer communication. They are used not only to inform customers about innovations, but also to give customers the opportunity to speak. “Social media allow us to get in touch with many customers simultaneously around the clock,” reports Gudrun Scharler, one of the Managing Directors at the internet provider and cable network operator Unitymedia, who is responsible for customer service and technology. “Our platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and our own community are not just one-way streets, but offers to engage in dialog. We try a lot of things out and experiment with new formats.”

However, the path to efficient customer communication using social media channels is not easy and the additional costs associated with such projects cannot be ignored. At the same time, it is important to remember that increased use of new channels in customer communication can also relieve the existing call center.

By the way, your social media customer service doesn’t have to be located where the customers are. Unitymedia, for example, operates its digital customer service in Berlin, where it has rented two floors in an old factory building. “We wanted to bundle all the topics relating to digital customer service in one place. This applies not only to digital customer service via chat or messenger, but also to the development and implementation of new digital service offerings,” explains Scharler.

Companies considering adding social media channels to their customer service should keep the following in mind:

1. Focus on the most important social media

Carefully consider which social media you want to use. In many cases, Facebook is likely to be the best because of its wide distribution and Twitter because of the combination of speed and the possibility to send direct messages. Establish one or two platforms rather than getting involved everywhere and confusing your customers.

In addition to the dedicated service channel, it makes sense to use an audience listing tool that filters out relevant content and proactively supports the customer when the company is being talked about without the official channel being used. Since personal data like contract numbers can only be exchanged by direct message, you should rely on appropriate social media. By the way, messengers like Whatsapp can be a good addition in this regard.


2. Respond quickly and efficiently

Companies should ensure short response times on social media in contrast to the usual response times for e-mails and contact forms. Depending on the industry, four to five out of ten customers who express a concern expect an answer within 60 minutes, according to a study conducted by Allianz. Telecommunications providers and transport companies should be particularly quick, and banks and insurance companies are given a little more time. Depending on the complexity of the request, this can be quite a tight time frame. As a company, however, you can take care of this by signaling to the customer, who addresses you via social networks, that you have noticed their concerns and, if necessary, consult with the department responsible for the particular issue.

By the way, it contributes to efficiency if your social media managers can see any complaints or problems the user may have already had in the past. The details therefore don’t have to be asked for every time. Ideally, this customer relationship management even includes merging the customer history with inquiries from various social networks or by telephone and email.


3. Communicate according to the medium—humorous but appreciative

It is not always easy to find the right tone in the written dialog with the customer, as the personal backgrounds and expectations of the customers vary too widely. In general, it is important to treat customers with respect in the event of complaints or inquiries and, as with any other channel, to communicate at eye level. If you use standardized answers, you should vary them and make them a little more personal (individualized). Concrete inquiries should therefore always be answered with the necessary level of seriousness, whereby negative trolling comments may well be ignored entirely. However, the margin of error is narrow here and therefore social media managers have to hone their sensitivity to this on a daily basis.

In contrast to other channels, however, corporate communication in particular can be much more humorous if this matches the overall corporate philosophy. The City of Berlin’s transport authority BVG is an excellent example of how humor can be implemented. The company walks the line between not taking itself too seriously, yet catering to their customers needs when issues arise. Especially companies, whose image is naturally somewhat blemished, can use humor to demonstrate their awareness of their own weaknesses and their efforts to remedy them.


4. Take customer service seriously, especially when things aren’t going well

It goes without saying that customer service should be provided through social channels with the same care as on your other channels. Furthermore, you should take particular caution here, as excerpts from such chats or postings can be copied and made public without further ado. Incidentally, it makes sense to introduce the dual-check principle at least during core business hours, as many companies are already doing. This can help prevent the company from providing contradictory or false information or a social media manager from using an inappropriate tone.

Good examples of how to combine communication to many people with 1:1 communication include Deutsche Telekom, which has expanded its Telekom-hilft community into social media, and Deutsche Bahn. Both companies are demonstrating how to respond appropriately to customer problems even when they are difficult to reach in the event of major disruptions. The railway company’s customers can even use this service to avoid paying the telephone hotline fees. Disruptions are communicated efficiently, so that some of the individual requests can be answered without one-on-one communication.


5. Avoid chatbots for now, especially when it comes to difficult situations!

Automated forms of customer communication like chatbots, which support customer service especially on weekends or late in the evening, are a model that will probably be used more frequently in the coming years, both for cost reasons and to relieve human employees of having to answer standard questions. But this is not (yet) a good idea, especially when it comes to communicating disruptions and complaint management.

“If a chatbot is not yet working well, it sends the wrong signal to use it in dealing with customer complaints,” says Ulf Loetschert, CEO of the conversational marketing start-up LoyJoy. This does not mean, however, that you should put the topic of chat and voice aside entirely. Customers are quite receptive to this, “but only if the systems truly include artificial intelligence and sufficient skills.” It is also important to clearly inform especially less IT-savvy customers that they are communicating with a bot.


The bottom line: Make better use of the opportunities

Many customers no longer want to pick up the phone or go to a branch when they have questions for a company. Especially when there are problems, companies should therefore have an open ear for their customers on Facebook, Twitter, etc. On the other hand, you should not just engage in social media on the sidelines. If managed intelligently, direct contact with the customer can be an efficient and cheaper alternative to hotlines.