While your main goals on social media likely are to increase brand awareness and drive sales, social channels can also be used to support your customers and develop closer relationships with them.
However, providing customer support over social media, instead of email, live chat, or other one-on-one channels, is different in one significant way: it’s public.
While many conversations on social don’t necessarily feel like other people are reading and following along, it’s best to assume they are, as they most certainly will be if the interaction goes poorly. If you’re using sponsored posts, you might even be paying to promote these negative interactions to a wider audience!
Knowing how to respond to comments is a crucial part of providing social support, and will largely determine your success on these channels. But how, exactly, do you navigate answering personal questions in a public space?
Social support: Staying public vs. going private
Although your customer may have started a conversation publicly on social, not every communication is safe to stay that way. A good rule of thumb is to move the conversation to a private channel when any account-specific details are needed—even if that simply means a direct message on the same platform.
If the information you’re sharing or asking for is specific to the user, and not fit for your FAQ page, keep it private. You may also want to switch to a private channel if the issue is complex and will take more than a few replies to resolve on social.
Otherwise, staying public as often as possible is the way to go. Customers hate having to repeat themselves. Forcing a customer who contacted you on Twitter to pick up a phone or send an email is sure to frustrate them as they chase you down for help.
Every support interaction is a chance to showcase who you are as a business.
If the answer is safe for anyone to read and won’t compromise their account or privacy, share it in a public response. By doing this, onlookers and potential customers can see the level of service you’re happy to provide.
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Developing your voice for social support
Anyone who’s worked in customer service—whether at a retail store, while waiting tables, or with customers on the web—knows that how you convey your message directly affects the outcome of any support interaction.
If you’re running a one-person side hustle or business, developing your voice can be simple: It’s your personal voice with a professional bent. Being professional doesn’t have to mean sounding stuffy, so experiment with your messaging to find the sweet spot for your business.
As you work on your voice and tone, here are a few key things to keep in mind:
1. Choose your words carefully
If a customer is complaining or obviously upset, avoid language that sounds like you’re minimizing their issue. Be especially careful not to use words that imply the answer to their question is obvious.
It can be tempting to describe a solution by saying something like “simply click on the X” or “you just need to” as a way to convey ease, but the customer wouldn’t be asking for help if they thought the solution was easy. Those phrases can come off as dismissive.
2. Be empathetic and don’t assign blame
Even if an issue really isn’t your fault or something you could have avoided, don’t deflect and throw the blame on the customer.
While it’s not necessary to apologize ten times for an issue you couldn’t have controlled for, showing empathy and your sincere intention to make things right can go a long way. Don’t waste time on assigning blame—instead, move forward and focus on the solutions that may still be possible.
Remember: A customer wouldn’t be asking for help if they thought the solution was easy.
3. Admit mistakes and stay genuine
If you make a mistake, own up to it and fix it. People see right through corporate claptrap, and trying to avoid the issue when you’ve failed publicly almost always backfires. Fortunately, the easiest way to avoid coming off as insincere and is to simply be empathetic and genuine.
Ipsy, a beauty subscription service, took a lot of heat for a campaign in June 2018. But their quick, transparent apology on social media regained the trust of their diverse group of fans.
4. Use humor when appropriate
Humor can be a great way to connect with people and leave a strong first impression. If someone reaches out with a simple question or a light-hearted comment, a funny reply can turn an otherwise mundane conversation into something memorable.
@TeaAndCopy Were there no other packs in the plaice, or was that the sole one on the shelf? Floundering for an explanation! David.— Sainsbury's (@sainsburys) January 10, 2014
@IHaveABirthmark Sorry to hear that, when exactly did your mum post them & what service was used?? ;-D— Royal Mail (@RoyalMail) June 18, 2014
It’s worth noting that if a customer’s message is about something even slightly serious, humor will come across as grating. In these instances, it’s best to stick to the facts and provide the straightforward help they’re looking for. But for many casual conversations, you’re free to have some fun with your responses.
Speaking of fun, many brands have found success on social media specifically thanks to their quirky tweets and replies.
Wendy’s has become somewhat of a hall-of-famer for their use of humor on Twitter. Their feed is a mix of helpful answers, good-natured ribbing at competitors, and replying to every tweet—even when it’s a response laced with snark to a customer asking to be roasted.
Turn your hat around, you aren't Bart Simpson, and it isn't 1997. 😎— Wendy's (@Wendys) January 3, 2017
While this approach can help build relationships with potential customers and garner attention, proceed with caution. One poorly worded joke or well-intentioned insult can put your business in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. If humor isn’t your strong suit, leave it to the comedians.
Defusing angry customers and dodging trolls
It can be tempting to ignore a possible troll, but it’s far safer to act quickly in order to prevent things from potentially spiraling out of control. You don’t want to have any sincerely bad experiences with your business become inflamed all because you chose not to reply.
Knowing who you’re talking to is key: A troll is more likely to express vague, but extreme emotions targeted at your business or account in general. In contrast, an unhappy customer will more commonly express frustration by including specific details or previous experiences.
Even if an issue genuinely isn’t your fault, don’t throw the blame on the customer.
If you receive a strange message and aren’t sure if the person is seriously upset or just looking to provoke a reply, responding as if they’re being genuine is a safe bet. If their comment proves to be a joke or made simply to cause anger or discomfort, ignore the trolling and move on. Stay calm and don’t get involved in an argument for all the world to see.
However, if the reply feels real, even if they’re angry, get to work figuring out their issue and ways to help them solve it. An upset customer will always appreciate:
- a quick response,
- recognition of the problem, and
- a solution.
If you can’t provide a solution right away, let them know you’re actively working on it. These steps are simple, but are important to remember when the pressure is on. In many cases, you’re just looking to reduce ambiguity, allay the customer's animosity by slowing things down, and provide assurance that you won’t leave them stuck without help.
Choosing your social support channels
Where you decide to provide support depends on which social media platforms you’re currently using for your business in general. To help determine where you should allocate your time, consider:
- Which platforms do your customers prefer? Where do they already spend their time?
- Where do people currently contact you? Where do you receive the most questions, even if you’re not actively supporting customers there yet?
- How many accounts can you realistically manage? Rather than trying to be everywhere, and struggling to respond quickly, it’s better to provide great support over a select group of channels.
Remember that while social media platforms have some common ground, who uses them and whether they’ll work for your brand will vary.
Pew Research Center’s Social Media Use in 2018 report is a great resource to help gauge which platforms are the good fit, especially if you lack a larger, more established customer base to guide your decision.
Tools used by social support pros
If you have a limited budget or if your social accounts are low on engagement, you’ll probably be able to manage replies directly in each social account, at least at first. If you grow your brand’s social following, however, support requests will grow with it, and a tool built for handling support will become essential for staying on top of things.
If you aren’t available to quickly resolve issues, you might lose a customer for good.
Fortunately, the popularity of social media means there are many tools out there that vary widely in features and price. To help you get a lay of the land, here are a few social support tools worth checking out.
Reply is a tool from the team behind Buffer. It's a customer service-focused social tool that threads conversations from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram into one inbox for your team to collaborate on and tackle together. Reply has a free trial to start.
Hootsuite integrates with over 25 social networks, and the dashboard is highly customizable. It also allows you to view incoming messages and reply with a free plan, and if you upgrade to a paid plan, you'll unlock many more features, including team functions for easier collaboration.
Sprout Social is built to help you manage your social profiles through data collection and creating a single stream of incoming messages from your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger accounts. Sprout Social offers a 30-day free trial, so you can give it a try before buying.
Facebook Messenger Channel for Shopify
You can use the Messenger sales channel to let customers shop directly from conversations in Messenger and to respond to their questions in a single message thread. Customers can also receive automated notifications in Messenger about their orders.
Build stronger relationships with Shopify Ping
Shopify Ping connects to the messaging apps you already use to bring all your conversations into a single mobile app, making it easier to respond to questions and build relationships with customers even when you’re on the go.Get Shopify Ping
Managing customer support on social media
Once you’ve decided on the best platforms and the right toolset for your business, it’s worth taking some time to map out your plan for tackling the actual work.
1. Set reply times and expectations
How quickly can you realistically respond to questions on social and who, if anyone, will help you with the job? Whoever is tackling social support, ensure they have an appropriate amount of time to do the job well.
A study by the Northridge Group found that 42% of consumers expect a reply to customer service inquiries within one hour, but that about one-third never get a response at all.
Data from the Northridge Group.
While it may not be possible to get to every message in the first 60 minutes, keeping your reply times down to a few hours and acknowledging messages even if you need more time to solve them will satisfy most customers. People tend to be more forgiving when they know they aren't being ignored.
2. Monitor your social accounts
Not every message directed at your social accounts requires a reply. However, not being aware of what’s being said about your brand is akin to having your head in the proverbial sand.
Social listening, the act of monitoring responses and untagged mentions, can come in handy when you're trying to get a handle on what people are saying. Consider monitoring your brand’s name or key phrases in order to spot conversations about you that don’t include your account directly.
This can be valuable in gaining market insight, and in solving issues you can help with even when a customer didn’t consider reaching out to you directly.
3. If needed, hire outside help
If your business has grown to the point that you’re spending more time answering questions and dealing with customer issues than on the work that allows your business to exist at all, it’s time to consider hiring someone to help with customer support.
Your initial search might want to favor someone who can adopt your brand's voice and manage on all of your support channels, including social media support, in addition to building out your FAQs and any other customer-facing documentation.
Customers are social. Your support should be, too.
The core principles of good support certainly apply to social media. The difference is social support feels much more like a performance, happening on stage in front of a potentially rowdy audience rather than in the safe, quiet confines of an inbox.
But with the added risk comes additional opportunity. Social support provides you with frequent chances to solve issues before they fester, receive feedback you might otherwise miss, and engage with current and future customers where they already spend their time.
If social care gives you a bit of stage fright, just remember every interaction is an opportunity to showcase who you are as a business and how invested you are in providing a great customer experience. With a little planning, you’ll be able to deftly handle the occasional heckler and put on a great show.