'Tis The Season To Complain, Social-Style

As many retail executives try to jump into new social waters as quickly and aggressively as they can, they are discovering some sharp drawbacks—drawbacks that were never mentioned in any of the brochures. And this season's holiday crowds are making such a realization rather critical.

The public nature of social media is obvious, but few factor in that it wipes out the time-honored "private accommodation" option. And maintaining expectations is going to get exponentially more difficult as more consumers use social media to deal with retail complaints. Also, retailers are creating not-so-small teams to deal with social interactions, teams they plan on paying for by cutting back on call center group staffing. That is a sound plan, but few are giving it enough time. By late 2012 or so, such staff re-allocations may start making sense. But certainly for 2011, double-staffing (adding to social teams without significantly taking away from still-popular call centers) will be necessary. Have you budgeted for that?

Consider the much-beloved Listen and Help tactic. This is where a company monitors everything said about it on the key social sites and tries to respond to every concern. Even more importantly, the firm looks for customers complaining about bad service and then leaps in with an E-mail from someone in the CEO's office delivering the sought credit, refund, replacement item or apology. It's a wonderful technique, and it certainly can deliver powerful loyalty. Most consumers care less about the occasional screw-up and more about how quickly and properly a company deals with the problem.

But there are downsides. Customer service managers are used to listening to the particular details—and often sob stories—of customer problems. They have the ability to make exceptions and to offer accommodations on an individual basis. Offers made via Twitter or Facebook, though, are inherently public. A company has to assume that even a direct Twitter communication is public, because the happy customer will soon post about the great resolution.

Ironically, that means social network customer complaints may sometimes get less accommodating results, because the company needs to be consistent. So those quiet "don't tell anyone else I did this, but…" deals may have to die.

There's another cost to customer service via social networks. If your firm is tracking and responding to lots of messages, you may suddenly have an obligation to do it all the time—and for all posts. Are you prepared to do that? (That approach may indeed make sense for some companies, but it needs to be appropriately budgeted.)

Let's say you put a team of 50 people on monitoring and responding to every complaint posted. Hypothetically, let's say your team is superb and catches 88 percent of all complaints made. That would mean the remaining 12 percent of unhappy customers assume you heard their complaints but chose to ignore them. Now you're getting hit for something your team never knew about.

Another consideration: Group think (which is a much nicer way to say "mob mentality"). Fraudsters can take advantage of social communities to pressure you. You might be thinking, "I've been doing this for 22 years and this guy simply sounds like a con artist." But you can't make that case publicly.

Let me stress: I strongly applaud social network tactics and think they are wonderfully effective. This column is not intended to suggest otherwise. But many firms are galloping in to social networks without having thought through the next three steps. Statement of the obvious: Your customers will likely be more forgiving of your decision to not engage with them on social networks than if you start doing it, get in over your head and have to pull out.