March 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Valentine's Day massacre

Shoppers disappointed on Feb. 14 make clear how social networks tie into customer service.

Lead Photo

When it comes to connecting with consumers through social media, Howard Wyner, the CEO of fragrance retailer Scentiments.com, isn't above responding directly to a text message sent via Facebook and forwarded by a customer service rep—or even to a visitor commenting on his company's Facebook page.

Like the time during the 2011 holiday shopping season, when he answered a text message from a customer concerned about a late package she had ordered. "I tweeted her back that I'd look up her account," he recalls. "Within hours we had the issue resolved."

Thanks to the power of social media, however, things don't always go so smoothly. Major floral retailers learned that the hard way last month when, following a rash of late or missed deliveries, they had to scramble to reply to a flood of tweets from unhappy sweethearts. "I hope u know that u ruined my Valentine's Day," one tweeted.

With the public's surging use of online social networks—Facebook Inc. claims more than 845 million users worldwide and there are nearly 400 million Twitter accounts, including more than 100 million in the U.S., according to InfoDocket.com—Scentiments and other retailers realize they need to be aware of what consumers are saying about them over the Internet, especially when they are complaining or seeking a retailer's help.

Going social

"It's all about the customer experience," Wyner says. "We want to be able to communicate with them through every facet, including social media. It's essential that you understand what your customers are saying about you from a customer service perspective, so you can address any problems."

When all is well, a service-oriented approach to social networks can lead to more sales and fewer calls to customer service centers. And when things go wrong—as they did for some online florists this Valentine's Day—a close attention to customer service can minimize the damage.

Whether consumers' comments are positive or negative, retailers don't have much choice but to respond to consumers via social networks, because more and more consumers are taking it upon themselves to vent and seek help outside of traditional customer service arenas. "There has been a dramatic increase in the use of social communities for customer service," Diane Clarkson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says in the January report, "Understanding Customer Service Satisfaction to Inform Your 2012 eBusiness Strategy."

The percentage of U.S. online consumers that used an online forum or community for customer service rose to 27% last year, up nearly fourfold from 7% in 2010, she says. The number that used the Twitter online messaging service to contact companies for customer service, meanwhile, rose to 19% from 1%.

Adoption of online communities and Twitter for customer support is even more common among younger adults, with 41% of Gen X and 39% of Gen Y consumers using these forms of customer service, Forrester says. (Gen X includes anyone born between 1965 and 1979; Gen Y from 1980 to 2000.) For consumers 32 to 45, it's 30%; for 46 to 55, 20%.

A survey in late 2011 by Sperion Staffing Services found that, when consumers have a good customer service experience, 17% will express their opinions via social media, and 15% will write an online review. If consumers have a poor experience with customer service, participation in social media comments rises, with 25% expressing their negative opinions in social media.

Customers out in the cold

Consumers' penchant for complaining via social networks was apparent on Valentine's Day when peak order volumes for flowers and gifts led to some late or missed deliveries—no doubt leaving some lovers on cold, thin ice. But rather than just apologize to their sweethearts, many disgruntled consumers aired their complaints via Twitter—followed by a surge of response tweets from customer service reps who, if it weren't for Twitter and posts to other social networks, might not even have known customers were upset.

In addition to complaining that their orders didn't arrive as expected, many customers noted that a retailer's call center wasn't much help—underscoring how social media is becoming the next place many consumers turn if they can't get help from the conventional contact center. "I was on the phone for over an hour with @ftdflowers yesterday to no avail AND I followed their broken link and sent them an e-mail," one customer of United Online Inc.'s FTD tweeted Feb. 16, two days after Valentine's Day. FTD sent an unsigned tweet in reply: "We apologize & we'd like to investigate this for you further. Pls follow to DM your order # & contact info & we will assist you." (DM is Twitter shorthand for "direct message.")

Rob Apatoff, president of FTD, says the retailer has increased its customer service staff to accommodate the extra communications coming in through Facebook and Twitter, and expects such quick and personal responses from his customer service team will help FTD retain customers while enhancing its reputation for customer service. "We take every order personally," he says. "Any time we receive an inquiry, whether through our customer service phone line or through Facebook, Twitter or other social media, we work as quickly as possible to respond."

Dedicated agents

His competitors are taking a similar approach. Both 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. and Provide Commerce, a subsidiary of Liberty Interactive Corp. that operates ProFlowers.com and other gifts sites, are expanding customer service staff and dedicating agents to monitoring and dealing with consumer buzz in social media.

Provide Commerce, for example, maintains a dedicated team of customer service reps for monitoring and responding to consumer comments in social media, and the reps are authorized to replace any order if a customer or gift recipient is unsatisfied for any reason. "Although every order can't be perfect because we deliver a perishable product, this is what we strive for on each order," a spokeswoman says.

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