Social Media ≠ Customer Service

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Last Wednesday I flew into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (the international part) and knowing I would need a SIM card for my US phone, purchased one from a vending machine.

Over the next two days I attempted to use the new SIM card in two different phones.  I even called the T-Mobile helpline. I was told by a very nice-sounding English woman that the wait would be up to 15 minutes and that calls to speak to a human would be charged at 50p per minute. I wondered how they would charge me when I had no credit on my account, as I was still waiting to ‘top up’.

Eventually – and without human help – I worked out how to get the log in I needed to access the payment section of T-Mobile’s UK site. I then discovered that the site would not accept my US credit card. Sigh. Really?? The SIM card I purchased in the international arrivals lounge of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 could not be topped up with a non-UK credit card? Who do they think is buying these?

I was the quintessential (extremely) frustrated customer. I’d had no help from the misleading instructions that came with the SIM card, and upon further investigation I discovered that T-Mobile’s customer service options included the aforementioned expensive phone calls, to write them a letter and send it via snail mail (this is a telecommunications company), or contact them via Twitter or Facebook.

Ah, of course, the Social Media Fairy will fix my frustration and help me to use your sub-par product with the confusing instructions and misleading selling point. For some reason, some companies think that ‘social media’ is all-powerful, like Dr. Who’s trusted sonic screwdriver.

I went to the company’s Facebook page, where dozens – perhaps hundreds – of others had gone before me. It was populated with feedback from other frustrated customers and I could see that even if the company had a large, highly-skilled team of customer service reps servicing just this one Facebook page, they would have difficulty playing ‘whack-a-mole’ to address all the negativity and vitriol. It seems that T-Mobile UK thinks that a mismanaged Facebook page and Twitter feed are adequate replacements for individual, online customer service.

Having recently managed an online customer service team, and in that role regularly partnering with the PR/Marketing/Social Media team, I can attest that although there is some cross over of responsibilities,  the two groups have distinctive roles.  When the product is technical or complex, or the site that customers interact with is convoluted and difficult to navigate, a Facebook post, a tweet, or an FAQ answer can fall short of providing what many customers want, which is service.

Further, I see a growing number of job openings for ‘Social Media Experts’, which is on the whole encouraging, but in many instances is concerning. Yes, social media can be an excellent tool for marketing and for developing a ‘community’ from a group of customers. It is an integral part of modern life, and will continue to be for at least the foreseeable (and likely distant) future.

That said, we must remember that social media is not a static entity. It evolves regularly, as any Facebook user knows (how often do they change the features and functions of this one site?) and as does anyone who had (has?) a MySpace page, a FourSquare account and any of the other dozens of social media tools that are now either defunct, redundant, or just plain uncool.

Understanding how to leverage social media to improve service or to grow a customer-base is an ever-evolving art; the specialists themselves learn daily.  I have collaborated on several social media initiatives to help improve customer service and am very interested to see where this fusion of disciplines can go. However, companies that pare back their customer service provision without really understanding how to integrate social media and without ensuring that their customers will still feel supported, are remiss. T-Mobile UK is just one example.

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