How can you engage with customers in 140 characters or less without running the risk of being misinterpreted? William Buist proves that it can be done and offers his top tips on creating true customer relationships - even if you do make mistakes.
Twitter has created a changed arena for both brands and their customers. Customers have been enfranchised by Twitter: the cost of engaging in a conversation with a brand, talking about a brand, whether they’re listening or not, is effectively zero, but that’s not what changes the game. What changes the game is reach. Individuals can command audiences of thousands and a complaint about a brand which might have been raised in the pub on a Friday night with three or four friends is now being raised on Twitter with three or four thousand followers, all of whom can be influenced by the messages that are sent.
Brands recognise the risks that they run by not engaging in those conversations. However, they also run risks by engaging in them without an appropriate plan.
The immediacy of the communication means that an ill thought-out response may lead to additional complaints and concerns from customers who are not directly affected by the original problem. Twitter messages are very short in style and that means there is little opportunity to explain, either for the consumer about what’s causing the problem, or for the brand themselves in terms of how they intend to deal with it. However, the best are dealing with this issue by engaging in the conversation early and actively seeking feedback and demonstrating that they’re listening to it.
Tips for successful customer engagement for brands
Tip 1. Have a clear strategy
Many brands have historically attempted to control both the content and the style of that content used in their marketing, sales and customer service messages. Twitter doesn’t allow that luxury. Historically, marketing departments would proof-read, adapt and change messages to fit a corporate style; Twitter simply doesn’t give you time. Brands need a strategy to deal with immediate communication - conversations that are taking place in near real-time. In the same way as they understand the need for their customer facing staff to have guidelines and information to ensure that the messages they give are robust and constructive, the same is true for Twitter. Brands should therefore build a Twitter strategy that includes information about the subjects that should be discussed - and, particularly, those that should not - and the strategy needs to make clear who is authorised and free to speak on the company’s behalf and to represent the brand.
Brands must recognise that many of their staff will be engaged in conversations on sites like Twitter and the strategy should include all aspects of the interaction between personal communications by those individuals acting in their own right and the brand acting in its capacity as a business.
Tip 2. Be present
Some brands have engaged in social media in general, and Twitter in particular, in a reactive way, looking for conversations that criticise or build the brand and engaging in them only when they see a need to speak up. The problem here is that the other participants in the conversation have been building relationships over a period of time and an interruption from the brand feels and is treated just like an interruption in a conversation that you would have face-to-face. Whilst people may wait to hear what you have to say, there is no rapport or sense of engagement.
Brands that both promote conversations about topics they’re interested in add value to others talking about their brand, not just in relation to the brand but in relation to other advice and guidance that they’re able to give. Act as an engaged, interested party in a conversation and you will tend to be able to judge a more appropriate style when there is a need to deal with issues or difficulties that have arisen for an individual.
There is another advantage here, those that have built good relationships will find that the people they’ve built relationships with will also act to support and uphold the values of the brand itself, be they employees or not. Creating a following, a fan base, a group of advocates and people who understand your point of view, will allow them to represent it as they engage in conversation throughout these sites as well.
Tip 3. Own up to mistakes
Of course, there will be times when something is said in a way, in 140 characters, that’s open to misinterpretation. It’s inevitable that some people will misinterpret what you say when they have an issue with your business and will seek to use their interpretation to demonstrate your failings. Defensiveness rarely works. The best thing in those situations is to recognise and acknowledge that your choice of words was inappropriate or open to misinterpretation and to restate your position using an alternative approach.
Tip 4. You can’t please all of the people all of the time... Don’t try.
The reality is that some people will dislike your brand for whatever reasons that they have - be it rational or irrational, based on fact or opinion. But those people will engage in the conversations you’re having - these are public platforms after all. Again, acknowledge the alternative point of view and continue to make your case as fairly, openly and transparently as possible. Having a following with good relationships who are interested in what you are doing and support and advocate you will help create a balanced view. It’s for this reason that your strategy must include engagement in conversations when there is nothing more to achieve than being present.
Tip 5. Be patient
Building relationships with a large following takes time. Building understanding of your points of view and your style takes time. It’s important that your strategy is consistent so that whoever is representing the brand does so in your style and in your way so that those engaged in the conversations understand that it’s your brand speaking and not the individual behind it. Followings are relatively easy to get quickly if the brand is well known - Barack Obama managed hundreds of thousands of followers in just a few days. But a large following doesn’t mean that you have a large group of people who understand you and are engaged with you. To do that takes much longer but the rewards are immense.
William Buist is founder of the Societal Web and runs a consultancy specialising in helping businesses to utilise social media to deliver business results through cooperation and collaboration.