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Thanks to social media, consumers have a voice like never before. In the past when your customers wanted to discuss a product or service issue, they’d dial your call centre and the problem would be addressed behind closed doors. Only you and the customer would hear the complaint or praise. Now these issues are aired publicly online to potentially huge audiences of potential buyers

Today a single customer complaint from someone with influence can have more impact on your company’s reputation than your best marketing — something we learned the hard way at Dell back in 2005 with Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell” customer service fiasco. We quickly recognised what customers were saying online couldn’t be ignored and began taking immediate steps to engage directly with them on forums and across social media channels.

Social media became a core part of Dell’s business functions and customer service, and it was clear that providing support for our customers in the digital realm needed to be a vital element of our social strategy. In May 2010, we launched a centralised Twitter account @DellCares with the express purpose of helping customers in distress. At the time, the social landscape was littered with unaddressed complaints about Dell products, so we set out to change how customers perceive Dell and Dell support through listening, engagement and resolution.

Since introducing @DellCares customer care and tech support just over a year ago, we’ve connected directly with more than 10,000 customers, have converted 35 percent of our demoters to promoters and have established a reach that is almost 4.5 times more than the circulation of the top 25 Australian newspapers combined.

We upped the ante in December when we opened the doors to our Social Media Listening Command Center, which allows us to monitor over 22,000 daily posts related to Dell as well as mentions on Twitter using the analytics tool Radian6. Since the launch, we’ve seen a significant decline in negative commentary about our products and services — proof that the ability to listen and respond instantly is a smart investment in any company’s future and a way to continually improve both business and customer relations.

While a listening mechanism like Dell’s requires resources likely unavailable to smaller businesses, any company can apply the principles we use with @DellCares to listen to what your customers are saying, to react to feedback more quickly and efficiently, and to gain a greater understanding of your customers’ needs and wants. What’s more, social media conversations can serve as an early warning system for issues that arise around your company’s products and services.

Choose the right medium for your demographic

Before creating a forum for customer support, evaluate your target market to determine which social media channels are most likely to reach them. Support forums and discussion boards can offer a great way to offer solutions to the masses and connect your customers with your experts, both your company’s experts and your customers and supporters that are experts. Twitter has a huge volume of 140 characters or less comments, and thus tons of opportunity for you to engage one-to-one with people talking about your brand, products, or services. Social networking platforms like Facebook, Orkut and RenRen also offer great opportunities to connect with your community members. Your customers are already choosing their platform of choice, and it’s important to meet your customers where they play.

Centralise your approach

Initially at Dell we had more than 20 employees with Twitter accounts, not all of which were effective. While we had a number of employees focused on Twitter who were able to answer questions and direct customer issues or compliments to the right departments, it wasn’t an efficient use of their time nor the best way to solve problems. We launched our @DellCares Twitter stream for the sole purpose of helping customers resolve issues, and as a result we were able to help over 1,400 people in the first month alone. Having a centralised tweeting process is key to ensuring success and preventing confusion within your company.

Personalisation is key

When you’re engaging with customers, it’s important to connect with them on a personal level. People respond to people, so brands can lose credibility quickly if your communication appears to be coming from a robot. Each of @DellCares’ customer support representatives have their initials and headshot on the @DellCares profile page and every tweet is signed so customers know who they’re talking to and their tweets appear transparent.

It’s a group effort

Providing customer support through social media requires collaboration between customer service, marketing and product development to address an array of different problems. In order to respond effectively to issues via social media, it’s important that your customer service team is trained on your company’s brand messaging and your overarching customer experience strategy. If responses aren’t in line with your brand’s wider goals, it may create confusion and could impact customer satisfaction and retention.

Use social media as a supplement, not a replacement

Social media won’t replace conventional support tools; it provides a way for businesses to connect with customers real-time in the places where they’re already having conversations. While Twitter is great for finding customers and reaching out to them, the 140-character limit doesn’t allow for a lot of rich dialogue and it’s often necessary to migrate the conversations to a more appropriate medium. Once you’ve resolved the problem, provide public closure on the original channel.

Define a response process and make sure to follow-up

Just because social media is real-time doesn’t mean every problem needs to be addressed instantly. You have to take the time to understand the concern and think through a response to provide a working solution. Don’t forget to acknowledge the customer complaint and let them know that you’re working on resolving the issue. Keep them updated throughout the process and once the problem is resolved reach out to the customer on the original social channel to ensure that they’re entirely satisfied. This illustrates that you care about your customers as people and not just about extinguishing negative public commentary on your brand.

Customers are finding a voice through social media and using it as a support channel more and more. Tweeting a request for help takes fewer steps than sending an email or dialing a support line and can elicit an immediate response. At Dell, we want and need to be where our customers are and we suspect you do too.

­Jason Duty works in Social Outreach Services for Dell

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