When loyal Target shopper Dana Poracky read about the company's recent data breach, she went straight to social media for more information.
She checked Target's Facebook and Twitter pages on Dec. 18, three days after Target learned of the massive breach and the same day computer security blogger Brian Krebs exposed it. There was no mention of the event. Instead, Target had posted a link to a YouTube video about a creative way to deliver children's holiday presents in clean pizza boxes.
Poracky then sent Target a private Twitter message seeking more information, but she never heard back.
Unable to get the information she wanted from the company, Poracky took matters into her own hands. By the time Target made an official statement -- via social media or otherwise -- she had already cancelled the credit card that had been compromised.
"It's kind of sad in this technology age that they didn't reach out via social media," Poracky said, a marketing intern at Homescout Realty, a boutique firm in Chicago. "I was disappointed in the actions they took and the actions they did not take. … I've had better experiences with other stores, and I'd rather give my business to them."
Poracky is not alone in her frustration. Consumers are increasingly turning to social media for customer service. They use it to complain, provide feedback and seek dispute resolution, social media analysts said, and they expect companies to be responsive. But some of the largest companies are falling short.
"Customers live on social media, so it stands to reason that they would like to connect with the companies they do business with where they are," customer service analyst and author Randi Busse said. "The sad news is that many customers' tweets and posts go unanswered. And I'm talking about big brands."
Where companies go wrong
Two years ago, Ashley Verrill was speaking to customer service representatives at a conference when she discovered the disconnect between customer service and social media.
Consumers use social media to complain, provide feedback and seek dispute resolution, and they expect companies to be responsive.
Almost every question from the audience was related to social media, said Verrill, a CRM analyst at Software Advice and managing editor of the Customer Service Investigator blog. It appeared the reps understood the importance of social media but didn't have the tools to use it properly, she said.
So Verrill set out to do some research. Over the course of 26 days, she and her team sent 280 tweets to 14 of the largest brands in the world, including Coca-Cola, Visa and Starbucks. The idea was to find out how often brands were responding, how quickly, and what they were saying.
"The overall story that came from that was that companies only responded 14% of the time," Verrill said. "It's unreasonable to think they can respond to everyone, but 14% is scary."
When companies did respond, she said, the quality of responses was lacking. The companies would deflect tweeters to another channel, such as a call center or email, rather than address the issue via the social media channel, where customers wanted it discussed.
Busse, author of Turning Rants into Raves: Turn Your Customers on Before They Turn on You, said she has found that some big-brand companies respond immediately, while others ignore customer's posts for days.
"If they aren't monitoring social media to interact with their customers, and they potentially have the manpower to do so, what are the chances that smaller companies have the ability to do so?" she said. "Companies big and small need to be where their customers are."
After news of the Target breach broke, the company's social media pages were flooded with questions and complaints. Customers threatened to sue the popular retailer or said they would no longer shop there. The majority of the comments went unanswered.
Target did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story, but it began addressing the breach via Twitter on Dec. 19 and via Facebook on Dec. 26. Regular updates have been posted since that time. The breach, which affected up to 110 million people, is under investigation.
In subsequent research that explored the social media habits of 130 major brands, Verrill identified eight common mistakes companies make when responding to customer service complaints. They include not being proactive about negative brand mentions, offering impersonal and poorly written responses, forgetting to resolve issues publicly so others can see, and ignoring social customer service as a way to connect with customers.
How to get it right
But not every company is missing the mark. Verrill said AT&T has an entire team dedicated to customer service on social media. Zappos is another good example, she said. The online shoe and clothing retailer monitors Twitter for mentions of Zappos, proactively reaching out to customers when issues come up.
Recently, Verrill said, someone tweeted that they wished Zappos would get better white sneakers. The company reached out to the customer, found a pair of sneakers the customer liked, and sold them.
Laura P. Thomas, chief blogger at Dell, said the computer maker resolves 97% of customer service issues when consumers interact directly with the company through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.
In addition to its primary social media accounts, Dell has created two Twitter accounts specifically for customer service issues: @DellCares for consumers and @DellCaresPro for business customers. Customers can visit the pages to ask questions, request technical support, log a complaint and more.
Thomas, who manages Dell's primary Twitter page, said the company responds to some 3,500 social media posts per day in 14 languages. It has a team of employees whose sole job is to respond to customer service issues on social media.
"Many people are surprised when they hear back," she said. "Fifty percent of the time, we've been able to turn to people who are ranting about Dell to people who are raving about Dell."
According to Verrill, the first step in providing good customer service through social media is setting up some kind of social listening tool, whether it's a standalone product or one that is incorporated into a larger CRM system.
Companies with a low volume of daily mentions -- say 10 or less per day -- can get away with a free product like HootSuite or TweetDeck, she said. Companies with a high volume should invest in CRM software that incorporates a robust listening tool.
It's difficult to reply to everyone, Verrill said, but a good social listening tool can auto-prioritize posts. Brands can be alerted to posts that are highly inflammatory -- those from loyal customers or those by people with a large social media following. Alerts can notify a customer service representative when certain combinations of words are used in a post (i.e., a company's name and #fail).
Once the post has been identified, according to social media analysts, the key is to respond quickly and offer a solution or special offer, not just an apology. Analysts agreed that when it comes to preventing or diffusing a public relations nightmare, a little goodwill goes a long way.
Presumably, Target learned that lesson when it offered an apology in the form of a two-day, 10% discount to all U.S. customers after the breach. According to a report by Boston-based Crimson Hexagon, which provides social media analytics, complaints about Target's crisis management decreased significantly during those two days.