Social media has become firmly established as a promotional tool for businesses and as a means of cultivating customer relationships.

Whereas some firms might once have questioned the wisdom of engaging with their target audience over sites such as Facebook and Twitter, today it is the accepted norm and consumers might start to question a brand if it doesn't have a social media presence.

This development has fundamentally changed people's attitudes to how they interact with organisations and what they expect from any communications. Many are moving away from more traditional methods, such as the telephone and email, and want to conduct their dealings with businesses over social networking sites instead.

But are brands responding to this accordingly? Simply having a presence on social media does not automatically mean they are using it effectively and doing a good job of managing their customer relationships.

According to research carried out by Forrester Consulting, the number of people using Twitter for customer service doubled to 22 per cent between 2009 and 2012.

However, figures also showed that many individuals were left dissatisfied by their experiences with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, when compared with their dealings conducted via email, websites, phones, text messages and instant messaging systems.

This was attributed to poor social media management, which was highlighted by statistics showing a large proportion of social customer service agents do not have a record of their conversation history with certain individuals. As a result, more than a third of these professionals have been forced to restart conversations with customers whenever they interact with them.

More than two-thirds of the companies polled agreed that social customer service is becoming more and more important, to the point where it is now the main short-term priority for contact centres in both the UK and the US.

So should companies be making more of a concerted effort to incorporate social media into their customer relationship management strategies?

There is one key aspect of social media that sets it apart from other means of engagement – the fact that any interactions with customers are so public.
As a result, brands cannot afford to ignore or mishandle a complaint that has been registered on their Twitter or Facebook page, since it will be visible to thousands and maybe even millions of customers.

On a slightly different note, web users could be hugely impressed if they see a customer make a query on a company's social media page and see them get both a swift and satisfactory response.

The point to stress is that, ultimately, how companies handle customers over their social media platforms can be hugely significant in both making and breaking their reputation.

As a result, it needs to be placed firmly at the heart of any customer relationship management strategy, with a dedicated and well-trained team of specialists on hand to deal with queries at all times and CRM software monitoring mentions of their company on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

This is a significant feature of the latest iteration of Microsoft Dynamics, which allows customer service specialists, marketers and sales teams to all find out what is being discussed on social media.

As a result, they can get valuable insights into what people think about their products, services, brand image and any other significant issues in real-time.

Case study 

Sealord, a worldwide sustainable fishing enterprise, is one example of an organisation that has benefited from using Microsoft's CRM technology to monitor social media conversations.

The company has found it a great way to keep up with talk from influential organisations and individuals in the sector, as well as understand the views of its partners and stakeholders on relevant issues.

As a result, it was well-placed to make a statement that resonated with its audience and the wider world when it spoke out on the issue of shark finning.

Alison Sykora, public affairs and communications manager at Sealord, said that without this technology, it would "not have had the opportunity to hear what was top-of-mind for our stakeholders and the community we serve – and ensure Sealord's work to be sustainable in these areas was understood".

Social media 'not just for young people'

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the number of British adults accessing the internet on a daily basis rose from 16 million to 33 million between 2006 and 2012.

By the latter year, some 58 per cent of adults in the UK were using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

This included 62 per cent of 35 to 44-year-olds and 40 per cent of those aged between 45 and 54 – thereby disproving the notion it is only younger age groups who use social networks to communicate online.

Figures also showed that the UK has the second highest proportion of social networkers in the European Union, behind Sweden.

It is therefore clear this is a platform that needs to be harnessed by businesses effectively in order to engage with consumers in a relevant and meaningful way – and in a manner that enhances their reputation and standing.

Customer engagement white paper