social media customer service Consumers have embraced social media as a customer service channel. They are quick to post their complaints on social media. Some head straight to social media to resolve customer service issues and criticize companies for poor products or rude employees.

Brands receive 146 percent more social messages needing responses than they did three years ago, according to a Sprout Social survey of 1,000 consumers. But their response rate has decreased. On average, they respond to only 1 in 10.

Sprout Social says that “call-out” culture has become widespread on social media. When a customer calls out a brand, their negative comment can go viral as others share their post. It can escalate from a customer service issue into a public relations nightmare.

While 55 percent of people are likely to say something in-person, 47 percent turn to social media to air grievances, 42 percent use email, and only 35 percent of people are likely to make a phone call.

Brands Must be Listening

“Whether a consumer reaches out with an innocent question or a vicious call-out, brands have to be listening to ensure they have the chance to deliver a meaningful, timely response — before an issue goes viral,” Sprout Social states. That response, it should be noted, can be seen by all customers – now and in the future.

The survey also reveals that:

  • 80 percent of consumers surveyed say social media helps uncover instances of businesses treating people unfairly, indicating trust in social media.
  • Nearly half (46 percent) have used social media to call out or complain about a business, and 56 percent of millennials have complained or called out brands on social.
  • About 70 percent of people want other customers to be aware of an issue, and another 51 percent want to raise awareness among media outlets. Consumers are using social media as a tool to help their fellow shoppers.
  • Only 8 percent of people would simply stay silent if they saw inappropriate behavior from a brand.
  • Most people will think twice about buying from a brand after seeing a negative comment about it.
  • Common reasons consumers cite for calling out brands include dishonesty (60 percent), bad customer service (59 percent) and plain rudeness (57 percent).
  • Of those using social media, 54 percent simply want a response from a business. Only 8 percent seek monetary action from the brand, like a credit or refund.

How to Survive & Thrive in the Call-Out Culture

These are some of Sprout Social’s main recommendations:

Commit to consistent, quality content and service — online and off — regardless of how big or small an issue may seem. Even a single, seemingly isolated issue can prompt thousands of retweets, memes, comments and hashtagged posts.

Scrutinize how you staff customer service. Based on your customer demographics, ensure you’re staffing the right channels with the right type of people.  If they’re heavily focused on phone support, consider training customer service reps for social media.

Take responsibility. Provide transparency from the outset and apologize if needed. Respond with humanity and empathy. A poor response is worse than no response. About 50 percent of consumers say they’d never buy from a brand again after it responds poorly to their complaint; 41 percent of people would share that experience online.

However, a proper response can transform critics into advocates. Nearly half (45 percent) would announce their positive interaction on social networks.

“When it comes to call-out culture, an ounce of proactive social customer service is worth a pound of public relations cure,” Sprout Social states.

One more thing: Have responsible decision-makers from outside the call center and social media team listen to and evaluate call center tapes and social media responses. An outside viewpoint provides the company with even greater insight into customer problems and how the call center is handling them.

Handling Online Haters

While most consumers just want their problem resolved and questions answered, some online complainers are especially emotional, writes Jay Baer, president and founder at Convince and Convert. They don’t expect brands to respond to their tirades. They whine about companies to solicit interactions from friends and digital acquaintances.

The solution is to “hug your haters,” Baer says. Surprise them by responding to them and trying to resolve their problems.

“People who complain put in the effort to register their opinions, which is much better than the silent frustration and apathy of the unimpressed middle,” he says. “Complaints are something you can deal with, and when you handle them the right way, your efforts will lead to identifiable results.”

Bottom Line: Social media has become a leading customer service platform – and a potential source of PR nightmares for brands. Many customers prefer to air their customer service problems on social media than to send an email or phone the company call center. Brands without social media listening and brands that respond poorly risk an intensifying PR crisis. Those that respond promptly with professionalism and empathy keep customers and gain new ones.