Customer service is social: 5 lessons from SMEs in the know

As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously said, “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”. According to recent research from online giant Rakuten – the company behind – 46% of shoppers in the UK under the age of 25 turn to social media to publicly air their customer experiences, while a further 37% of all shoppers believe that quality of customer service is now more important online than in-store. So never before has it been so important for young ambitious businesses to deliver great customer service. But it isn’t easy!
Your audience no longer behaves according to old fashioned marketing plans. The modern, online audience don’t enjoy elevator music while waiting for your overseas call-centre, nor are they inspired by your ‘contact us’ web form.  Instead they are armed with a smartphone and empowered to instantly interact, engage and influence through the social web. As a result, good experiences and bad are instantaneously shared and recommendations, complaints or queries can reach an almost infinite online audience in minutes. Customer service is social, it is powerful, and it is not going away.
We’ve been talking to two exceptional SMEs standing out in this space – the King of Shaves – a global medium-sized challenger brand taking on Gillette, and Muddy Boots – a small ambitious food business bringing great British beef products to the dinner tables of the nation. Here’s what we learnt:
Never underestimate the value of a happy customer
Let’s cut straight to the juicy bit – cold, hard cash: According to a recent study by American Express, companies that respond to and resolve complaints via social media see 21% more sales than companies that handle complaints on the telephone or in written form.
Social media savvy consumers have higher expectations, but they’ll spend more when they get good service and quickly ditch a company when they don’t. So when you respond well, in real time, customers are impressed and become more loyal. As a result, those taking a social approach to customer service like King of Shaves and Muddy Boots are raising the stakes significantly in their favour.
Use your size to your advantage
Digital is a great democracy: In an age with so much choice the brutal reality is that there’s no market for average, mediocre or okay. Just take a look at companies like Nokia and Blackberry, mediocre products and in RIM’s case, poor customer service, have shamed these once global giants.
By contrast, businesses that are built on products that truly deliver, with customer care that is personal and responsive are creating genuine competitive advantage despite their limited budgets. This is how the King of Shaves has become a healthy challenger brand in a market dominated by billion dollar rival, Gillette. Up against their £40m UK advertising budget they have grown by being more innovative and creative to drive word of mouth, trusting in brilliant products and personal service on social media to create genuinely happy customers who do their marketing for them.
Be there first
Will King recognises that being an early adopter of new trends and new technologies is key in the fight against the big brands who are much slower to react. In 1995, when the internet was in its relative infancy he bought the domain for $35. They were also early adopters of both Twitter and Facebook, and made them the central place for customer communication from the very start.
This type of foresight helped keep King of Shaves ahead of the game. They understand that social media is continually evolving, that you need to be where your customers are hanging out, and make sure you’re part of that conversation.
Make it part of your business culture
Some business owners often complain that social media is yet another ‘job’ that needs doing in their business, others embrace it, and the very best position it as a telescope into the world of their customers and competitors.
Both Muddy Boots and the King of Shaves (KoS) utilise social media as their central portal to listen to what customers are saying about them and their competitors. Many CEO’s may be surprised to hear that Will King – who leads the global KoS brand – will send and answer most KoS tweets himself, engaging with customers, sharing their positive feedback and helping answer questions and responding to any problems they may have.
Be authentic and transparent – especially when things go wrong
At the very core of social customer service is transparent and honest conversations, but this isn’t always easy when things go wrong, which is when lots of brands try to stop anything negative going online. By contrast, many brands look at it as an opportunity to be great – recognising that by responding to something bad in a great way you will often impress that customer, as well as all the others listening in on the conversation.
There is no need for scripts and process documents – just treat customers as you would want to be treated – co-founder Miranda at Muddy Boots is a great example of this. She leads the way in customer responses online – quickly and openly replying to the 98% of positive comments, and fixing the tiny 2% that aren’t. In these cases, Miranda wholeheartedly believes sorry should always be the first word – she doesn’t care that the issue might be caused by the complex supply chain outside of their control. It isn’t the customer’s fault either, so she does what she can to make it up to them – recently sending a whole cool box of new products to say sorry to a customer, as well as a full refund.
It seems strange that social media – a technology – is making businesses more human, honest and transparent, but it is undoubtedly raising the bar for customer service and those embracing it are truly standing out.
Written by Christina Richardson, a business marketing specialist and founder of The Nurture Network: The on-demand marketing department for ambitious start-ups, and entrepreneurial SMEs  – bringing great marketing people into your team just when you need them.