Customer Service: The Second Pillar of Social Media

Debra Ellis President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Posted on April 27th 2012

Customer Service: The Second Pillar of Social Media


Delivering quality service is the cornerstone of every successful business. Start-ups can’t grow into sustainable enterprises without it. Established companies lose market share when service levels drop. The need for a good customer experience is well known and easy to declare. Identifying the specific characteristics required to meet people’s expectations is much harder and changes over time.

Customer service demands are very different today. Making everything as easy as possible is replacing the over-the-top exceptional experience that drove sales and loyalty a few years ago. Our digital world robs people of time, making a quick and easy shopping experience a luxury. It also makes delivering quality service more efficient and effective.

When you add the ability to provide on-demand information via social media to the self-service shopping preferences of today’s consumers, you get an economical way to provide exceptional service. A study by the Corporate Executive Board of more than 75,000 people who had contacted B2C and B2B call centers found that 57% looked for answers on the website before calling the company. Imagine how having the right answers easily accessible for self-service individuals would affect your bottom line. Even if it only reduced calls by 20%, wouldn’t it be a significant impact?

What if providing answers online also increased sales and customer acquisition?

The lines between customer care and marketing are blurring. Answers that solve problems and link to products and/or services drive sales. Companies that recognize this and use all available tools and channels to provide readily accessible information have a competitive advantage.

The best customer service begins with managing expectations. Providing policy information in an easy to read and understand format establishes boundaries. Always give your business a little wiggle room because things happen. For example, if orders generally arrive at the customer’s address in 3-5 business days, state that orders arrive in 4-7 business days. People are pleasantly surprised when they arrive early and you have some extra time if there is a problem.

Transactional emails reaffirm the expectations established during the shopping stage. Customers should never have to wonder if orders or messages have been received and when items or responses will be received. Providing confirmation and setting expectations in advance significantly reduces questions and queries. Send updates as soon as possible if challenges arise that change the information provided.

Most people (as in 99.99999999999%) don’t want to discuss their private business on a public forum. If customer expectations are clearly defined and follow up communication is good, your social pages won’t receive posts concerning specific order information or complaints. There may be the occasional private message, but baring catastrophic operational failure your customers won’t use social sites to resolve in-house service issues.

How is customer service a pillar of social media?

Quality service solves problems. When people think of corporate customer service, transactional issues usually pop in their mind. They forget that the products and services offered by companies solve problems. The types of problems vary, but the reality remains that demand is driven by the need to solve problems. This is where social media is a valuable service and marketing channel. It allows you to show customers and prospects how your company can solve their problems.

For example, if your business sells parts, providing how to troubleshoot videos with links to the appropriate items is a service. Even better, create how to install the parts videos and include link information in every outgoing order for those items. Use good keywords to attract natural search and links to additional information for buying. It serves prospects trying to resolve issues and helps customers insure they are doing it right. The results are more sales and fewer calls.

Naturally it takes time and effort to reformat and upload all of the information you have available. The reward makes it worth your while because social sites become members of your sales and service teams. If it is done right the first time, there is minimal maintenance and long term benefits from providing digital customer service.



Debra Ellis

President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Debra Ellis is a business consultant, author, and speaker. She specializes in showing companies how to improve customer acquisition and retention using integrated marketing and service strategies. Her latest marketing guide, 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, is a practical resource for marketers seeking better results with minimal investment. Her engineering background provides statistical insight to finding actionable data that can be used to grow companies and reduce costs.

She is recognized as an expert in marketing from direct mail to social media, customer behavior, and strategic planning. Her expertise is often tapped by media sources including: The New York Times, CNN/’s Small Business Makeovers, Target Marketing, Multichannel Merchant, and MarketingProfs.

Her marketing guides include 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, Social Media 4 Direct Marketers, and Marketing to the Customer Lifecycle.

Debra loves the art and science of multichannel marketing. She is a student and teacher of the methods that transform shoppers into buyers and buyers into lifelong customers. In 1995, she founded Wilson & Ellis Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in creating strategies that make channels and departments work together to optimize the customer experience. Since then, she has worked with over a hundred distinguished clients such as Costco, Edmund Scientifics, Jacuzzi, Ross-Simons Jewelry, and The Body Shop.

Prior to founding her firm, Debra was instrumental in the record growth of Ballard Designs, Inc. while serving as Chief Operating Officer. Today, she uses her experience and expertise to show executives how to successfully navigate marketing channels and integrate activities to profitably grow their business. Her practical approach maximizes the return on investment.

She can be reached via email at She blogs at

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Calm Down Dear – It’s just another channel!

How to fix a problem like social media


With apologies to Michal Winner – and possibly David Cameron, it’s time keep calm, but not just carry on, and to take a measured view of what happening with social media and customer service.

We’re going through a customer service revolution and social media is dramatically changing the landscape. Increasing numbers of customers –and not just generation Y – are using social media as their first point of contact for customer service, bypassing more traditional methods such as call centres and on-line help centres.

They’re doing it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and there’s a new story every day, and classic YouTube videos such as Fenton, the Richmond Park deerstalker, ensure that millions of people get to hear about both good, and bad news, instantly.

Dave Carroll, whose “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video went viral in 2009 with more than 11 million YouTube hits, has rightfully become the poster child for the power of social media in outing companies that institutionally disregard customer service in an ever increasing connected world .

 Social Media continues to be a major battleground for all kinds of issues and especially for people complaining about poor customer service. And it’s not just the actual comments that are attracting attention. Hardly a day goes by without customer experience and customer service “gurus” voicing their opinions about whether or not Social Media, as a customer interaction medium, is here to stay or just a passing fad. Whatever side of the divide you find yourself on, it seems to me that ignoring it, and hoping that it will go away, is just not a sustainable strategy.

Many of these experts point to the fact that” it’s just another channel” and should be treated like all the rest. What they don't always tell you is that the customer service landscape isn't changing just because of social media. It's changing because customer expectations are also reaching new heights. And it's the combined adoption of social networks, and” I want it now”, that sets expectations for this new, connected customer.

There’s also a lot of debate about who “owns” social media and whether it should be marketing, customer service, sales etc.  The question should be – Why does anyone own it? No one department owns telecoms, email or other channels.  All of these may be utilized in different ways by each group, but clearly defined and guided by the customer experience strategy governing the organization and the impact on the customer.

However companies continue to do the craziest things and the problem seems to boil down to three key issues.

1.       Many organizations lack a coherent, consistent social media strategy

2.       Business are genuinely afraid of engaging with customers via social media because of the potential damage a “rogue employee” might inflict

3.       They lack the technology infrastructure to effectively monitor SM or hidebehind older legacy system “excused” for not being able to track negative sentiment.

While all of these are legitimate reasons, they are far from insurmountable, and frankly don’t differ dramatically from challenges in other channels, and importance of managing those effectively.  

However, as was graphically shown on Canadian TV recently, even the biggest retailers don’t seem to get it and there’s still some way to go. The companies highlighted in the show, Canadian Tire, Zellers and Wal-Mart showed an alarming lack of awareness of the existence of social media and the potential brand damage that just one of these customers could inflict. Upset customers had posted unfavourable comments about an experience they had each had with the companies. After 24 hours, only one company, Wal-Mart, had responded and asked the customer to send an email – but the email address didn’t work! The others not only didn’t respond, but wouldn’t even provide any meaningful comments on the findings from the show, resulting in an embarrassing, visual montage of belligerent security guards and low level PR hacks defending the indefensible.

I believe that businesses simply can’t afford to ignore Social Media and while there’s not really a “let’s dip our toe in the water” approach, I also believe that it can be addressed in an evolutionary or staged fashion, that allows a company to take an approach that is responsive to customers and can be adopted both culturally and technologically by the business. There are, not surprising, three key elements to doing this.

  1. 1.       Agree a social media strategy and in particular how, and by whom, Social Media interactions will be handled.
  2. 2.       Deploy a cloud based Social Media monitoring and listening solution that can be tested , implemented and integrated relatively quickly, to gauge the level and content of social “noise” and directed to the best people in the business for resolution.
  3. 3.       Use this to identify those people, especially existing customer who have been truly disenfranchised, from the trolls who are just ranting, and engage quickly and positively through a direct channel, but ensure the resolution is publicized appropriately.

While starting down the Social path can release an avalanche of negativity, the simple fact of responding and engaging early, puts you an elite group that still see customers as important, and actually puts you in a better position to stem the tide, by understanding quickly what’s upsetting them. Ignoring people is the worst of all possible outcomes and by not responding you risk alienating not just the customer who contacts you, but thousands, or even millions of their friends, with significant collateral damage to your company.

So before dismissing Social Media as just another channel, you should ask yourself - Do you really want to be the next United Airlines?

Hi Gerry,

My response to your comment is slow because I simply wasn't sure how to respond. No where in my post did I say that social media was "just another channel and should be treated like all the rest." Your comment has some valid points, but it seems out of place on my post. Was it supposed to be somewhere else? If not, what did I write that makes you think that I consider social media a problem to be fixed? 

Great piece, Debra.  We've just fielded a survey on how much adoption of social for customer service there is out there, but this is terrific context.

Thank you Robin. Are you planning on sharing the survey results? If so, when? I'm looking forward to seeing them. In my experience and observation, the adoption of social for service is minimal at this time. The companies that do it first have a competitive advantage. Watching the evolution is going to be fun.