Customer service in today’s real and virtual business world

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In today’s hyper-connected, real-time, overflow-of-information world, delivering excellent customer service has become challenging, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. If there is no devoted customer service representative or department, it falls on the owner or manager to oversee and in some cases even handle customer service directly. When you add online presence— whether it be a website or a page on Facebook, Instagram, SpanChat or other social media—the challenges grow tenfold. This article reviews some useful concepts and lays out some useful tips and considerations when handling customer service online.

In today’s world, the virtual “suggestion box” is always open, 24/7. Any person can log online and leave a comment on a business’s social media account or website at any time of day or night. This reality makes it necessary to rethink the approach to customer service. Nonetheless, some basic concepts about inter-personal communications are useful to understand how and why people communicate, and to understand the best way to interact with everyone, from the customer leaving a 5-star review, to the ubiquitous “troll.”

Professor Angelica Fuentes teaches interpersonal and mass communication at South Texas College. She explained to RGVision some of the interpersonal communication concepts and social media etiquette to help our readers navigate through these difficult issues.

The first thing to understand is that online communications is qualitatively different from in-person communication. Simply put, when contacting a business or other individuals online, many people are much more willing to saying things that they would never say to someone else face to face. That is due, in part, to the fact that when communicating online there is a barrier or “buffer” between the two interlocutors. In this case that barrier is the technology that allows for virtual communication, in the form of the device: a computer, tablet, or smartphone. This explains why an upset customer is more likely to resort to an offensive or aggressive post on a website or social media site, rather than say the same thing to the person that they interact with at the store.

In addition, messages can be described as “rich” or “lean,” depending on how much information they convey. Online messages tend to be very lean, whereas in-person messages tend to be rather rich. A rich message conveys a lot of verbal and non-verbal information, contains tone and emphasis to help us understand the speaker’s intended meaning, and even body language and gesticulation can help contextualize the words being used. An online message, by contrast is limited to the text typed up on a messaging board. And even then, oftentimes online messages contain typos, incorrect grammar, missing punctuation and incomplete sentences that require the person receiving the message to resort to speculation in order to decipher the intended meaning. Even “memes,” which are increasingly used as a way to quickly convey a message using imagery in addition to words, contain non-verbal cues. As Prof. Fuentes points out, the meaning we glean from the verbal components of a message is around 7%, whereas the meaning we derive from its non-verbal elements can be as high as 93%.

When it comes to interacting with customers or potential customers, it is imperative to receive as rich a message as possible. This is particularly challenging when dealing with a customer who has had a negative experience about a particular interaction. A good practice recommended by Prof. Fuentes when dealing with such customers is to invite the person to a store location to address their concerns in person. This can be done on the same platform where the message was posted. This approach achieves at least three things right away: First, it transfers the conversation to an in-person context, in which communication is sure to be “richer” and where any emotions will likely be tempered down; second, it quickly responds to the person posting the comment or complaint, which is a commendable customer service practice in and of itself; and third, it signals to other customers who may read the interaction online that the business has taken concrete steps to address the aggrieved customer’s concerns.

Another consideration is what is known as the permanence of a message or conversation. An interaction or conversation—even a heated discussion—held in person has low permanence. We may remember details for some time, especially if it relates to something particularly memorable, but with time we inevitably start to forget the details gradually, until eventually most of it is forgotten. By contrast, a message, review or interaction online has a high degree of permanence—once posted online, it stays there for good. (See below for a discussion of whether it is a good practice to delete certain messages.) Although we do not always think about the issue of permanence when we engage in online communications as individuals, as a business practice, this issue becomes highly relevant. Every post or interaction online will be seen by hundreds if not thousands of potential customers—whether it be a restaurant review on Yelp being read by potential diners; a complaint about a flower arrangement delivered late; or an exchange on Facebook over the difficulties in returning a defective item.

Some businesses simply opt to delete negative reviews and messages. This is certainly a strategic decision when it comes to highly aggressive or abusive comments. If the person leaving the abusive or hateful comment is simply “trolling” (i.e., making a deliberately offensive or provocative post aimed at upsetting or eliciting an angry response, rather than address a real issue), it is not unusual to delete those messages. Deleting that type of message is a way to create a norm for the relevant platform. In other words, it sends the message that the business will engage with concerned customers, but will simply not engage with trolls and that trolling will not be tolerated on that site. This practice is very common for businesses and individuals who manage YouTube channels. With time, this practice leads to a reduction in the amount of trolling on the site, until it is potentially eliminated.

Others opt for a laissez-faire approach—a free for all, where everything is allowed and nothing is deleted. This tactic also sets a norm, namely that anything goes on that particular site. At the end of the day, which of the two approaches to follow is a decision to be made by the business manager.

There is little doubt that the growth of online businesses and the online presence of traditional businesses has led to a paradigm shift in how businesses must conduct customer service in order to be successful. As in many business and other environments, it comes down to survival of the fittest: those who manage to adapt to the evolving reality will be most likely to not only survive, but thrive.