Keep Your Advocates Close and Your Critics Closer.

How can you approach negative conversations on social - and turn them into a source for growth?
Aika Zikibayeva
March 30, 2016 - 6 min. read

I often hear friends and colleagues talking about issues they have with a brand – be it something getting lost in the mail, a product not fulfilling their expectations, or simply having a question ignored on chat support. I give them all the same advice: “Just reach out on social media.” Why? It’s arguably the easiest form of contact as most of us already spend a significant time online already – it’s also public so customers have the upper hand. There’s no way out: handle a complaint timely or face consequences to your brand’s image as thousands of eyes are watching. These days, we want an answer and we want it now – or at least within the hour, based on the latest Edison research.  

From my personal experience, brands are quick to reply on social. However, according to the latest research, it seems I have been lucky. According to Maritz and Evolve24, out of 1,298 Twitter complaints only 29% of those tweet gripes received a reply from the companies in question. That’s a real eye opener – to which I say, both as a customer and a social media manager, tweet your feedback some more. It forces companies to accept the reality of social customer service or lose you as a customer. All in all, it sets the stage for social as a customer-centric channel, as it should be. The twist is that this feedback also brings tons of value for brands if handled in a smart way – here’s how.

Are negative comments so…negative?

Marketing on social is now defined by a whole new dimension – social customer service; and it’s not the usual customer care we’re used to on email or phone. It empowers brands to be proactive, influencing conversations, and even turning negatives into positives (surely, it goes both ways without a set strategy in place). It is the channel where you can show your brand’s personality and, through the quality of your service, make a major impact on the opinion of your customers.

Brands should be open to all comments and feedback, good and bad. CEOs or CMOs may bristle at the prospect of negative comments, however those are opportunities in disguise. No feedback also doesn’t mean that you are doing everything right – it just means that nobody cares enough to make the effort to let you know about their feelings. So when a user actually comes to your channel to share their opinion, try to make the most of it, and put that criticism to good use. Maker’s Mark is a stellar examples of that (click here for full story).

negative conversation

Their field, your move

What if you customer doesn’t engage on your channel? What if they choose a different one, or express their dissatisfaction without even mentioning you by name?

That data is out there, you just need to collect it and make it tell a story. Imagine you could deflate negative sentiment based on fully understanding the previous interactions with your brand, including signals that your customer has shown in off-channel conversations. The information you are able to gather can help draw the pain points of your customer into a cohesive picture and tailor the customer experience on an individual level. Your relationship is influenced by that moment in time, but defined by the sum of all interactions on all channels, not necessarily addressing you by name.

Outstanding brand experiences aren’t built overnight and require you to expertly gather all your data and knowledge together, make sense of this information, and start conversations with a full understanding of the client’s needs. With the proper elements and tools in place, this will empower your brand to offer superior service and personalized messaging, while delighting your customers every step of the way.

There’s no recipe – but here’s how we do it

There are many types of issues out there, and one can never have a script for all. Ideally, having a social media policy in place should allow you to operate within some general guidelines, but bringing a personal approach is always the secret sauce. Why is that? At the end of the day we are all humans, and we want to be heard and understood by other humans, not being served stiff replies.

Here are some of the key points that we, at Falcon Social, use as a rule of thumb when jumping into negative conversations:

#1 – Empathy is key. Apologize for the inconvenience, where suitable, as most likely the problem you are dealing with has put the customer in an uncomfortable state.

#2 – Details are vital. If you are unsure of the issue, ask for more information. You can’t fix something the right way if you guess. However do so with a light touch, without inflaming the other party. Show interest, not unwillingness to research.

#3 – Respond to complaints quickly. Time is of the essence when negative feedback arises. Your response time shows how much you value the interaction and will be the first sign to the other party that you are invested in resolving their problem. Some brands choose to wait until they have a resolution to a problem and then answer, but that might mean hours, or days. What has proven successful for us in the past is simply engaging with the people and acknowledging the issue. In most cases that’s what people want to hear – that their complaints are treated with respect and that the brand is truly interested in improving the experience.

#4 – Take difficult conversations in private. Both Twitter and Facebook have been working on releasing more and more features to encourage the development of social customer service, such as replying to comments privately or using special links that help transition the conversation from public to private . One thing to be made clear – this is not to hide the problem. As the marketing expert Jay Baer puts it:

“Social media doesn’t create negativity, it puts a magnifying glass to it.”

Jay Baer NY Times best selling author, speaker, consultant.

If your offering is faulty, social is just an expression of that. However, some things might be better solved in a more private space, where no one is watching. You might actually find that you are dealing with a calmer customer once the conversation truly becomes personal, away from a thousand observing public eyes.

#5 – Know when to disengage. Some minds, no matter how much you try, cannot be changed. Or maybe you’ve just met your first troll. No matter the situation, the conversation is not going anywhere and your replies have no influence on the situation. That should be a key moment for you to leave the conversation. Jay Baer recommends The Rule of Two: “Never, ever reply to anybody more than twice in public, be it a fan or a critic.”

#6 – Check in. It’s not enough to just tell your commenters that you will handle their issue – go the extra mile and proactively follow up to see if their problem is now fixed. This will give you a great opportunity to assess your relationship, and it will show your audience that you are interested in the outcome. This last step can be magical – and the starter of a strong relationship that can take a dissatisfied fan and turn him into a brand advocate.

Over and over again research has shown that brands are slow to react to the increase in importance of social customer service – and customers have stopped waiting around. The time of the “should we be on social” discussion is long gone; the conversation has now shifted to how well you handle the social customer experience as a whole, with an integrated social customer care program to keep issues from becoming a full blown crisis. No matter if your company is on social or not, your customers are – so you better be there to fulfil their expectations or lose out to your more social-savvy competitors.


Photo credit: Joris Louwes

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