As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, sixty-five percent of all U.S. adults now use social-networking sites, up from 61% a year ago and just 5% in 2005. This is no big surprise for those of us who use social media for business, but it does underline the fact that social media is here to stay and that we would all be wise to explore the uniquely personal customer interactions it makes possible.As a marketing tool, social media is invaluable. It's free, millions of potential customers use it, and it's designed for SEO. While this is also probably old news, what many business owners are failing to recognize is the potential social media has to affect a business' reputation-and not always in a good way.Public interactions with customers happen every day online. On a business' website, customers post comments or questions. On a forum, customers discuss a business' products or services. But on a social network, those same sorts of customer comments reach a much wider audience-an audience of your customers, their friends and families and your competition.
Social networks are designed to encourage participation and conversation. This is wonderful for friends and families trying to keep in touch, but, if not managed carefully, it can become a huge problem for businesses.Many (maybe even most) businesses are built around customer service. Without solid customer care, a good business can go bad, and fast. Reputation has always mattered for business and now word-of-mouth is word-of-status-a single unhappy status update can do more damage than an in-person conversation ever could. On social networks social interaction isn't just public, it's virally public and in real time. Everyone sees a complaint when it appears and, more importantly, they see your response to that complaint. If you haven't thought through your social networking etiquette, you might just post something you'll regret.
The best way to handle this social animal is to develop an internal social media customer service policy. Discuss best practices with staff and quiz them on how to handle different sorts of customer feedback. Provide a script with a list of appropriate responses to some of your most common requests. Make sure to tell your staff when they can offer discounts or specials and remember the gum analogy: if you give it to one customer, you better be prepared to give it to the entire class.If you don't feel that you can trust your staff to follow your strict social media customer service policy, you can easily restrict access to your company account so that only the best customer representatives can post. Remind them often that every single interaction has a large audience.The good side of all this is that you can quickly build an excellent online reputation by making the most of social media. Customers can tell when another customer is being unreasonable just as easily as you can, and that helps your case considerably. If you handle your social media interactions well, you will build a powerful network of trust. This network may be more robust than any traditional network you could hope to build. As our technology provides us with tools that blur the line between personal and public, we will all be well advised to think carefully about how we play the field.