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Martin Hill-Wilson: Social media service is in the 'Daily Mail' stage

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31st Oct 2012
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MyCustomer.com caught up with social media guru Martin Hill-Wilson to discuss social strategy, reputational risk and why brands’ use of social will get worse before it gets better. 

Social media is fast emerging as a service channel, and so far brands are struggling to keep up. With research from Fishburn Hedges showing customers are increasingly favouring social media over call centres for service queries, brands must train staff and organise their internal culture if they are to avoid any reputational risks.

But according to Martin Hill-Wilson, CEO of Brainfood, and a long standing member of the UK customer service community, both brands and customers are finding the logistics of social dialogue challenging.

“There’s a lot of evidence that says neither side really want to talk to each other that much. A lot of evidence says customers don't want to interact with brands; they just want to use it for themselves. A lot of brands want to dialogue but are geared up to do campaigns,” he says.

“On average, 70% of all queries that are pushed out via social channels such as Twitter and Facebook are not being responded to right now by organisations. Naturally, people aren't very happy about that. It’s part of the evolution that's happening; social interaction between people was probably the original reason why Facebook turns up, you've then got brands trying to get something out of that and now you've got them trying to interact with people.”

The customer service and social business strategist polled the audience during his talk at the recent Call Centre and Customer Management Expo, asking for the biggest challenge organisations face when adopting social. The overwhelming majority answered 'culture'.

“Social customer service flips things on its head – it’s transparent as opposed to invisible. If you think about an industry that for 30 years has not really revealed its performance to anybody apart from itself – never published its SLAs, never been particularly visible, occasionally caught out on Mary Portas type exposes – and then suddenly you're being watched real-time. If bad things then take place, it can get out of control – that’s a really frightening thing,” he says.

Bad hair day

Everyone has a ‘bad hair day’, Hill-Wilson suggests, noting the well-known Dave Carroll American Airlines case study. “That story completely illustrates you don't know what circumstances and which person is going to trigger that situation and put you out of control,” he explains. Therefore, as a planning assumption, you may as well assume that you don’t know so you may as well get your act together up front.”

He highlights a number of issues brands must first work out before setting up a protection strategy. Rather than prepping anybody who happens to be available, organisations must have a much more resilient response, he says. Hill-Wilson nots O2’s recent satirical tweets following its service outage as an example of an authentic response that helped the mobile phone provider “win the war”.

However, brands must not draw on this as a concrete case study for future crises. “If people try and draw the lesson that to be satirical is a good thing and that becomes codified, they're going to screw it up the next time round. For me, it's less that it was satirical and more so the fact that it was authentic or felt really. And that's what you want to put into the emergency manual – ‘Be authentic’.

“In terms of the process of law – the notion of 12 people acting as jury and witness – to my mind, the internet is the biggest jury available. You might be able to bullshit one individual person but somehow the power of witness makes it very difficult to get away with anything.

“Preparation work is all about having a rehearsal of how you're going to respond, clarifying how it works but not in an nth degree because there's never going to be a decent operating manual to explain overusing. You’ve simply got to get a cultural shift to become more flexible and responsive,” he says.

But customers aren’t just demanding an authentic level of service on social media but expect a consistent voice across digital and traditional channels. “You suss out the desired service experience, customer journey and bring appropriate channels that help do that job in the most efficient way from the customer's priorities.”

So how does Hill-Wilson see social media adoption evolving in the future? “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Brands don't often learn until they've got slapped so unfortunately more brands are going to have to get slapped.”

He notes the Fishburn Hedges research, which showed consumers are increasingly favouring social media over any other channel for customer service queries, and argues that before businesses progress to sophisticated adoption, we will first enter a Gartner-esque “trough of disillusionment”.

“We’re going to have more Daily Mail-style 'How terrible' stories and the honeymoon period will have gone. Then we're in to the real world of 'What’s the SLA, how good is good etc.’ The discussion about who owns it will get more relevant as we see more volume, in terms of social media usage.

“I don't actually know how much damage social media does to brands although I like to believe it does. But the one thing I do know is that the reputational risk discussion has got more senior ears than any other service issue I’ve come across in the last 20 years,” he concludes.

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