Costco, K-Mart Ignore Customer Complaints & Questions; Most Brands Need Improvement

Brian Cantor

Though new researchreduces the concept of "social engagement" to a thirst for discounts and passive brand support for many users, it does not mean those customers who do wish to engage brands online wish to be ignored. When brands create social media profiles, they commit themselves to a realm of public discourse and scrutiny, and if they do not take that commitment seriously, they will undermine their reputations.

A recent inquiry into UK retailers found that few are effective at responding to customer complaints and questions, a practice which social advocates define as a mission-critical vertical. Often, "reputation management" is a fixture of arguments for C-level buy-in for social media, and if social media managers are not actively addressing concerns that pose reputational risks, they are effectively defeating the entire purpose of having a social presence.

This disappointing phenomenon is also true of many US-based retailers. According to a new study by Conversocial, several major retailers, including Costco, Kroger and K-Mart, simply do not respond to customer inquiries on their Facebook pages. Of those retailers that do respond, only Sears addresses the majority of its issues in less than thirty minutes (although, on an average basis, its complaint resolution still takes longer than one hour). Companies like Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Dillards, in fact, are more likely to ignore a customer issue than respond in that ideal thirty minute window.

Overall, half of the retailers studied delivered average response times of more than 4 hours, which seems unacceptable in the "real-time" world of social media. The longer complaints go unanswered, the more likely they are to go viral (or at least compel other disgruntled customers to "join the fight" and share similar experiences). And, if the customer gives up on social customer service and takes his issue to the phone, this significantly increases the cost of resolution.

Beyond attacking retailers over their slow or non-existent response times, the Conversocial report also addresses the inconsistency of social support. Great variance in resolution time, let alone whether the inquiries will ever be addressed, sends a message of unimportance to customers, and signals that "[social] channels aren’t being treated with the same importance of procedure as traditional channels such as email or phone."

Social Media Strategy Must be Clear and Brand-Wide

In general, organizations know that the world of social media can be a cruel one, with angry customers vehemently, loudly sharing their negative experiences with the brand. Whether a motivation for getting on social in the first place or a risk that must be contained to reap the desired rewards, responding to such negativity is a paramount part of any social strategy.

But even if customer service knows it needs to monitor for complaints and questions and provide meaningful responses and resolutions, there are still grounds on which breakdowns can occur. Notably, if the social media marketing and social customer service teams are on different wavelengths, brand damage results when customer service is delayed in its awareness of and ability to respond to negativity.

Conversocial cites examples of the communications issue—Safeway built a marketing campaign around a discount for Chef Boyardee products, which resulted in fan-bashing of both Chef Boyardee and Safeway. Customer service took particularly-long to respond, undoubtedly unaware that a marketing message had produced a CRM issue.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, caught heat for promoting products that were not available in local stores—luckily, it seems Wal-Mart is correcting this sort of mistake with its localized branding campaign.

The clear conclusion is that the segmentation that often plagues customer-facing businesses absolutely cannot make its way into the world of social. Social will wreak havoc on disjointed organizations by bringing evidence of their mixed messages into the public limelight.

No Matter What, Social Response is a Must

Call Center IQ’s decision to post an article undermining the role "demand for customer service" plays in social engagement alongside an article criticizing major retailers for weak social customer service seems somewhat contradictory—if the customer demand for social CRM is not strong enough to serve as the primary motivator of a social strategy, how can we fault companies for failure to properly respond?

True, social media users are not quite clamoring for high-level engagement the way marketing advocates might suggest—a "like," for most, is really just about showing superficial support for a brand, probably for the purpose of gaining access to discounts and promotions.

But from a "social response" standpoint, that almost makes the need more critical. Insofar as brand-following is not a customer’s confirmation that he lives and dies by the company and its products, it means he cannot necessarily be relied upon as a spokesperson or advocate. It means brands cannot just assume their Walls will be lit up with glowing remarks from the millions of Facebook fans. These fans are not necessarily highly-engaged and in fact may use the "like" invitation as a springboard to share ill will.

What the current nature of social really does is put the brand on blast. It injects the brand’s message into the lives of all customers, including those who are not passionate supporters, and thus subjects marketing and customer service issues that would ordinarily go unnoticed to public scrutiny.

With that in mind, brands must coat their social presences with an ability to monitor and respond to the complaints and questions that arise. This does not mean all organizations YET need to look at social as a full-fledged service channel, but it does mean that companies have to be ready to protect their presences.

"Like us for $5 off your next purchase" is not an open-and-shut request—it is an effort to forge a lasting relationship with a customer. And while most customers may not yet see value in taking that invitation to the next level and using the social platform as a limitless, regular communication tool with the brand, they might still use it as an invitation to weigh in—favorably or unfavorably—on the nature of the offer and their experiences with the brand. In exchange for the perceived value companies gain from courting this follower, they must be willing to navigate and control the conversation he wishes to throw out in return.

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