Social media is permanently changing the customer-business relationship, giving consumers more power than ever to voice their opinions and shape a brand’s fate. However, when it comes to customer support, is social media leaving the customer behind?
With live web chats, customer support pages on Facebook, customer support on Twitter and direct messages (DM), social media provides wonderful new channels for customers to connect with their favorite (and not so favorite) brands.
But What About The Plain Old Phone Call?
A recent New York Times article  illustrated just how hard it is to reach a social technology company on the phone:
“Twitter’s phone system hangs up after providing Web or email addresses three times. At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook’s system explains it is, in fact, “an Internet-based company.” Try email, it suggests.”
While some may see the shift from phone support as a sign of the times, any business needs to evaluate if it’s right for their customers.
Last year, American Express produced the 2011 Global Customer Service Barometer . Would you be surprised to hear that the majority of customers in the U.S. were most interested in resolving issues speaking on the phone with a real person?
In the study, American Express asked respondents if they were “very/somewhat interested in resolving customer service issues” using a range of methods (see Figure 1). 90% of U.S. respondents said “speaking with a real person on the phone.” Compare that with just 22% who showed interest in handling a support issue via a social networking site. And then, compare those findings with the customer service priorities across many companies today.
Very/Somewhat Interested in Resolving Customer Service Issues Using the Following Methods
Differentiating With Customer Service
As a small business (who needs to compete with some rather big fish in a mature market), we made the important decision early on to differentiate with customer service. We always provided live phone support (no automated phone systems here) during our business hours, but we decided to up the ante even more. We began providing free business phone consultations to everyone who wanted one.
We increased our investment in phone support, so we could give more customers more personal time. We even increased our prices in order to maintain the higher service levels. And as a result, our sales have grown; we have more repeat business; and we just got a top rating from a “secret shopper.”
Phone support doesn’t just benefit your customers. Talking to customers one-on-one is the best way to truly take the pulse of your customer needs and find out just how your company is doing.
Metrics and market data yield fantastic insight, but nothing beats personal conversations with the people that make up your target base. That’s why I frequently jump into phone support.
Nothing Beats One On One Conversation
No matter how big your business gets and how much staff you bring on, I always advise business owners and top management to stay as close to their customers as possible by talking one on one. Think of customer support as free market research.
For example, FreshBooks  (a company that really gets customer service) has its employees do a rotation in customer support, giving all team members the opportunity to hear from customers directly and understand their pain points. FreshBooks CEO, Mike McDerment, even spends some time on the support lines , as it helps him stay in touch with FreshBooks’ customers and reinforce the energy around the company’s customer service culture.
Of course, the key here is to move away from the traditional concept of customer service as a cost center, where efficiency (i.e. getting people off the phone as quickly as possible) is the valued metric.
Think Of It This Way
Every interaction your customers have with your company is an opportunity.
Customer support can be considered the most important of all these opportunities. If a customer is calling, they need your help. How your company fulfills that need will have a profound effect beyond that immediate support need. It will impact your customer’s enthusiasm, loyalty, referrals and repeat business.
Phone support can boost sales. It just might be harder to measure. And those companies that build bridges to their customers – including both social media channels and ‘back to the basics’ phone calls – will be the ones that humanize and differentiate their brand.
Customer Service  Photo via Shutterstock