A couple of days back, I recall seeing a rant on Twitter. Completely normal, you’d say…Twitter seems like the Rant Headquarters of the world, anyway. But this was interesting enough to notice and blog about.

It had a guy tweeting (not the exact words, but recalled from memory),

“I tweeted them my complaint. It’s 2 minutes already and I haven’t got any response yet! WTF!!”

Let me add another story to it, to show you a trend.

We had launched a couple of social embassies for a client in India. The initial days are always heady…with a lot of activity and buzz, from the client side. They are looking at a lot of information we send them and are at a heightened state of awareness with all that feedback from random people online.

There were also a couple of completely normal negative sentiments over the late nights/weekends which perturbed them immensely. They asked us what we’re going to do about them – we had recommended responding to them in a couple of ways. One, to address the issue and not the sentiment – we check internally on what can be/needs to be done and respond when we have something meaningful to add; not add a placeholder statement that would infuriate an already annoyed customer even more.

Two, we recommended responding to them during office hours.

The second one baffled them and I had a long chat with them on the real-time’ness of social media.

I say this often, but here it goes again – social media is not like that phone ringing in your organization. Social media is more like a million phones ringing at the same time within your organization – that is the big difference.

It takes an informed client and agency combination to ascertain the best/average response times and stick to it.

Some of the considerations that should ideally go into this decision include,

1. The industry/space you are in
This is perhaps the most important consideration! Some industries, by nature, demand real time responses and interaction. Online transactions is one – when something goes wrong in an online transaction, as customers, we tend to panic and want to know what happened with our money. Having real time support in such cases can be a huge USP for a brand of credit card/bank/service provider. There may be other industries too that demand such real time interaction, but there are many others that do not demand such levels of real-time’ness. For instance, in case of an automobile service query, what is perhaps more important is a meaningful and intelligent response than something that is posted 2 minutes after the query has been posed. If you can pull off both, nothing like it, of course – you’re the champ then!

2. Is the team ready to handle the extra, new workload?
When I say team, I mean both internal and external. Usually, an agency side team is responsible for making the right things available for the client team. The client team owns the business and the brand, while the agency side of the team is a very good decision support system – not a decision making system (it can be, in some cases, but let me avoid that digression). Both teams need to be ready to support 100% real-time’ness in responses. If not, it is best to stick to more conventional response times.

3. Sudden bursts of enthusiasm cannot be sustained
There are team members who have a live-in relationship with social media. They would be enthusiastic enough to check updates and buzz over weekends and late nights too, but the important consideration is to check if it can be sustained. Imagine you responding in the nights for a week and then suddenly stop doing so because that enthusiastic team member has left the organization (or was dumped by his girlfriend…you get the drift?). That is bound the impact the brand.

4. You have a choice in setting average response times
Yes, you really do! You don’t have to be badgered by angry mobs online to respond instantly – if you do, good for you. But if you find it difficult to manage it consistently, you have the choice to set ideal response times which will eventually become a norm amongst your online followers. Just remember to ensure that when you do respond, they are useful, to the point and sensible. There are many Twitter accounts that mention the time period they remain active online – particularly international Twitter accounts. That’s a great way to be completely transparent and have a life.

5. An open query on social media is not the same as putting a phone call on hold!
No! It is not! When you, as a brand, put a phone call from a customer on hold, that customer is stuck in that call – he could be on a bluetooth hands-free for all he cares, but he is live in that call as long as you keep him on hold. On social media, an open query is just that – an open query. If you have set-up to address it in real-time, check the next criteria – can you sustain it? If you think you can, please go ahead with the real-time jamboree.

6. The obvious – financial/budgetary considerations
There is a reason why brands offer 24 hour phone support. It is usually offered at a premium (or an extra fee) in some industries. Just because social media takes the one-to-one communication out and brings the rest of the world to witness a customer service call does not mean brands need to have people stay awake all through the night helping customers. If you do, that becomes a fantastic selling proposition for your brand, but you still need to invest in getting that set-up in place, much like making available (outsourced, perhaps?) a round-the-clock phone support. If your organization is not ready with such a decision, at least make that clear in your social embassies and not mislead people that you ARE listening to them all through the day, and night.

7. Influencer engagement Vs Social CRM
The former is a selective PR exercise. It is akin to your brand reaching out to influential publications and journalists as a response to a story or proactively. You could do the same online – go after allegedly influential online personalities and perhaps prioritize their engagements. It is not a particularly bad tactic, but you should be prepared for allegations of bias (obviously), since whatever you may be doing is visible to all, unlike selective media outreach. Social CRM, on the other hand, is a much broader activity and you need to first set internal processes on how to make it happen.

8. Responses Vs interactions
Responses may be specific updates to issues raised by customers. Interactions are vastly different, however. The former is a component of social CRM, while the latter is an attempt at humanizing the brand online. This may happen via social embassies like Twitter, Facebook and so on and needs to be differentiated from CRM-style interaction since the responses require more detailed information compared to interactions, which requires good understanding of the brand’s personality and the space it operates in.

Remember…as a brand owner, you have a choice and can set the tone about how fast you want to interact/respond. Real-time is something you choose to allow happen; it is not a default. You gain a fantastic edge if you do, but please do consider the above points before jumping into it.

Photo by Elaron, via Flickr.