In the age of social media, brands are harder to control online. What’s more, the brand values dreamed up by the CMO or honed in a focus group are difficult to translate and drill into the memory of consumers.
Just ten years ago, an unhappy customer would write a letter to the company in hopes of a resolution, or some form of compensation for their troubles. No-one else would hear their concerns, making it easy for the brand to ignore. With social media in the picture, customers now have the upper hand.
Social media empowers people to voice their opinion, freely and quickly. They can say whatever they want about your brand, the product or service you offer, or your customer service capability to your entire following. The majority of social media vocalists are disgruntled customers, motivated to submit very detailed accounts of their experience with a company.
Advertising is often a one-way street, it does not help build brand value in isolation. To create a community within a brand, humanising the business is critical. One of the best ways to do this is through social media. Using social media to resolve issues and respond to customer queries is vital to building a community around your brand. This community will in turn become your marketing tool.
There will always be inevitable slip-ups: an ATM crash, a sales representative delivering false information, failure to meet service standards which have been agreed to or implied at the time of purchase. Criticism cannot be avoided, especially in the age of social media. It should be used as an education tool and integrated into a company’s strategy.
Most brands have a larger focus on reputation than they do on meeting customer needs. Many are using PR firms to manage social channels so they appear to be responsive and active. However, they almost always fail to offer solutions and only attempt to protect the public image.
Inadequacies in customer service provision are going to be articulated to a wide audience in a way that is easily indexed by search engines, as well as being readily shared via social channels. And don’t think there aren’t other brands just itching to come up to the table and eat your breakfast. If you fail to truly start resolving your customer issues rather than just looking to protect your image, get ready to start looking over your shoulder. Your competitors will take a leadership role both in terms of advocacy and in acquisition of your customers.
There are several methods to help brands perform better, online and off:
1. Don’t be afraid of negativity
One negative experience, posted on social media, does not mean that customers who see it will never use your product or service again. Engage with negative sentiment and provide legitimate answers to critiques. If customers see that your company is engaging and accountable, they will interact with you.
2. Brands can only provide utility value online
In fact, they are defined by the utility they provide. TVCs do not provide utility. A self-service strategy via applications or new interfaces may also not work by itself. Providing a new branded ‘mini-site’ which provides nothing more than an explanation of your brand or sub-brand strategy is not only a waste of money but will not attract enough users to make the spend rational.
This also does not mean simply providing additional channels of access. If these channels are troubled with the same service bottlenecks as existing channels, then it will only compound the workload. Faking it will not work. Just because you are on Twitter and Facebook does not mean you are responsive to consumers’ complaints or requirements.
3. Social complaining is a fact of life that companies need to address
Brands that are remembered are remembered for the value they provide in terms of resolving issues, answering queries, and creating interfaces.
A negative critique is an opportunity to learn and also an opportunity to create positive advocacy, quickly becoming the only legitimate advertising product. A disgruntled customer should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat. If a company offers support and compensation, they will acquire new customers through advocacy.
Brand perception is changing rapidly – especially for brands which have very low differentiation in the market – such as banks, insurance, utilities and telecommunications providers. For these companies it is absolutely imperative to provide legitimate utility value to the customer. It is via the service proposition that these brands will retain customers, and acquire new ones.
Brand value now equals utility value. Companies would be vastly better served by actively differentiating in the level of customer service they provide rather than trying to create a jingle or branded device which causes people to recall their brand.
Companies that conceive, plan and implement customer-centric strategies will be the companies that survive in a marketplace where consumer commentary has become both sales force and marketing. Market leaders will be defined by how quickly they can locate, access and take advantage of consumer advocacy.
In the online environment traditional delivery of brand does not work. Social media has made consumer advocacy far more prevalent – and the best way to win consumer advocacy is to engage on a deeper level. Companies must provide utility and real engagement rather than superficial PR engagement. Brands that achieve this will take marketing leads, and improve customer acquisition at the expense of the companies that fall behind.