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Irrigation Association of New York

The Intersection of Customer Service Avenue and Social Media Street

This intersection isn’t on any GPS system. For you old-timers, you won’t find it on a map either. Where you will find it is on the Internet. If you’re a regular user of social-media networks, you’re probably familiar with people using social-media channels to make complaints, praise companies, start a discussion or indulge in a mudslinging match. It puts the power into the hands of the customer and forces companies to actually do good, not just tell us they do good.

As people turn to the Internet more and more for information on everything from electronics to lawn mowers to irrigation services, companies are faced with the challenge of having everything they say and do be exposed to the online world. Customer interactions used to be one-on-one. Now it’s one-on-many. What was once a company-controlled marketplace has become an uncontrolled, honest place where a very small portion of buying decisions are impacted by company marketing and communications initiatives.

Most businesses never planned to include their prospective customers’ trusted friends and colleagues or even strangers as a source of competition, and they’re having a hard time adjusting to this new playing field and set of rules. Today’s customer turns to friends and online networks for advice and help making buying decisions both big and small. He or she trusts the advice of those people more than she trusts marketing messages from companies. The Internet has turned into a research center. There are more sites than you can count, and more being added every day that house review after review and story after story of companies large and small. Online social-media communications have changed the way people seek out services and products and make buying decisions.

Everything today can be turned into a public spectacle that can make or break your company. The game has changed and any single service event can become a PR disaster of national proportions. United Airlines is one company that recently learned this the hard way. Any business owner who doesn’t think it’s necessary for his business to have a customer-service presence on social media, need only to witness the $180 million fallout experienced by United Airlines in the wake of the YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars.” With more than 9.4 million views since it deputed a year ago, this video quickly became a cautionary tale for companies that are reluctant to acknowledge the impact social media can have on a business and are slow to incorporate it into their customer-service strategy.

 “United Breaks Guitars” is obviously an extreme example. Your customers might not go that far, however, you don’t want them to go anywhere with that kind of story. The video serves to underscore the influence that social media can have on your business. According to one report, 12 percent of consumers have posted on social-media sites about a service experience they had with a company, with the average post being viewed by 45 people. Of course that doesn’t include sites such as Tripadvisor.com, Yelp.com and Angieslist.com. These sites are visited every day by people that are specifically looking for your services. What kinds of stories will they read when they visit them?

Research shows that 14 percent of consumers have recently read about a bad customer experience through social media, with 62 percent of them intentionally stopping or avoiding doing business with the offending company as a result. More of your customers are turning to social channels, and are looking to other customers for service insights and assessments.

Social media provide an ideal place for the irate consumer to let off steam. Providing poor customer service has always been a dangerous proposition for companies and brands. Failing to meet consumer expectations damages brands, but before social media began to explode, the risks were relatively small. A single bad service experience could have destroyed brand loyalty for a single customer and perhaps may have caused a stir with a few people that customer knows, but really damaging a brand’s reputation before the age of social media required significant, consistent, and long-lasting service failures. Enter social media and the rules of the game have changed.

Your customers are on social-media sites and they’re talking about YOU. What kind of stories are they telling? People love to talk. They talk about products and services. And they talk about experiences. People are talking about you and your irrigation company right now. Do you know what they are saying? Treat your customers well and they will encourage others to buy from you. Treat them poorly and they can ruin your business. The choice is yours.

One of the top trends this year has been customers leaving tweets about your business and the service they receive from you and your employees. It’s amazing what can be said about a company in 140 characters or less. It’s important for companies large and small to get on board with listening and responding to what is being said about them on-line. Twitter is fast becoming the easiest, most visible way for companies to address customer concerns and show customers that they are on top of their customer service. Make sure you know what your customers are saying about you. Check out services like TweetAlarm and TweetBeep and get alerted when someone tweets about your company.

How do you get the stories your customers are telling to be good ones? Without good customer service, there will be no sale but there might be a story! Make sure your people know how to treat customers or they will be someone else’s customer! As always, it is vital to hire, train and monitor customer-service employees.

It’s evident that if you want to maintain your customers, you need to really make the effort to keep them. If you value your company’s survival, it is imperative that you educate those who respond on your company’s behalf to bear in mind that people are publicizing their interactions on social-media sites. If someone isn’t happy with the way you’re treating them, they’ll go somewhere else. Some will go the extra mile to share with their friends exactly why they’re moving on, too, so don’t make any missteps that will cost you business down the road. Good and bad customer service directly ties to future purchasing decisions and recommendations to friends and family.

Your reputation is always on the line, and in this case, it’s also online, and if you commit any type of customer service faux pas, even if it’s a small one, don’t expect to be off the hook. Since it’s so easy for people to vent their frustrations, you could very well discover that you are the subject of their complaints.

At the intersection of Customer Service Avenue and Social Media Street, the customer has the right of way. Be careful when crossing that intersection, especially since that intersection is at every street corner!

Randi Busse is president of Workforce Development Group, and can be reached at 631-598-5598