Times are not easy for companies selling consumer products or services. Brands are questionned or even attacked from all sides from the moment the make a suspicious move. A consumer simply wondering whether he or she has done the best deal, or someone not 100% sure of how a product works, they all share it with the world and expect an answer. They share it with their world on Facebook or the whole world on Twitter.
Therefore, the first phase in developing social media plans is to start listening to these remarks and conversations. And that's a step where nobody get happy. Either conversation is scarce, and then you have to start building a plan to stimulate positive buzz about your brand, or conversation is abundent and then you can start wondering how you are going to manage all of that. Tools will help you detect and organize conversations, but appart from some futile attempts to evalute the sentiment of social conversation, online discussions can only be harnessed and responded to by real people. And as we all know, time is money.
So what are companies up against? Thanks to digital and social media, communicating with brands has become much easier for consumers. But with that comes a desire or even expectation from consumers to get answers to all their questions immediately:
On a sunday evening I'm fooling around with a video editor on the iPad and it crashes. I want to know how to solve this, like right now. I paid good money for the app, so they should help me, now! My internet connection is down, there's a good chance that the problem is located with me, but still I want my service provider to come to the rescue as soon as I shout out my frustration on Twitter. 
Some of the more service oriented and digitally organised companies actually offer this level of service, but at what cost?
We can expect products and services to get more expensive in the future because of the extra support we demand through social media. Somebody will have to pay for it. But hey, I'm the guy that's always helping out the others when their gadgets don't work (that is, by the way, the moral duty of every geek). Why should I pay more? Not me! And if you do make me pay more, I'll expose you on Twitter!
Increasing prices for more service is probably not the correct solution. Instead companies need to find a way out of this issue that takes advantage of digital communication, rather then trying to patch up new problems with old solutions. So a call center full of digital natives is not the solution. They need to stop the conversation when cost tends to grow disproportionally. And stopping the customer service conversation is best done by integrating conversation in every step of the companie's value chain.
So here is what I suggest:
  • Start by involving your customers in the design process of you product or service. Get in touch with you existing customers or set-up a research community. By doing so you will better cater to the needs of your consumer base and reduce the number of questions and remarks afterwards.
  • Have your customers on board when testing out a new service. Detect what's not good early on and adapt. Appart from buying a lot of goodwill from the community, you will also reduce complaints and negative buzz at a later stage.
  • Stimulate people to consult their friends when exploring your product category. Make sure they convince themselves before they enter the store. It may even save on sales people time which gives them the opportunity to better service prospects and thus increase conversion rates.
  • And finally, in the customer support stage there is a lot to be done to help people online without a need for immediate person-to-person conversation. A simple support forum can do miracles, provided it's populated with good content and easy to use.
So an increased cost of customer support and conversation management may be a reality today. But by taking action to bring the conversation forward in the value chain you can enjoy the benefits rather only bearing the costs.