Speedy responses on social media shouldn’t be confused with fixing the issues, argues Screwfix chief executive Andrew Livingston.

It’s a busy May Monday morning in Croydon. A customer tweets “in Screwfix Croydon, queuing #bored”.

Fortunately, our social media team see it and alert the store manager. He addresses the queueing issue and credits the customer with a voucher to apologise.

It took the sting out. One positive tweet later by the tradesman and we have rescued the situation – all in front of an online twitter audience of 40,000.

Successful retail has always had customer service at its heart. Happy customers lend a deeper sense of satisfaction and even purpose to our work. But in the information age, the stakes are higher than ever before.

One happy customer may tell a couple of people; an unhappy customer can now easily tell millions – day or night, from anywhere.

One in four social media users in the UK uses platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to make a complaint

The Institute of Customer Service

One in four social media users in the UK uses platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to make a complaint, according to a recent report published by The Institute of Customer Service. Businesses. Even careers can be damaged or, worse still, broken. Stories go viral, become permanent public records and easily get out of control.

Customer expectations

Our expectations as customers have changed. We are no longer satisfied with a response in days or weeks. Now we demand an instant reply. The change agent is a combination of our smartphones and social media platforms that reach a worldwide audience.

Yet with the challenge comes an opportunity. When a business acknowledges and responds in the instant, there is goodwill and a positive story.

It shows your business is alert and keen to provide good aftercare. A team monitoring online social activity 24/7 ensures issues are never left to fester or get out of hand.

“Our expectations as customers have changed. We are no longer satisfied with a response in days or weeks. Now we demand an instant reply”

Andrew Livingston, Screwfix

My recent complaint to an airline took two weeks to get a full response. I had written my email while still airborne, genuinely upset by some truly appalling service.

I received the standard reply – and not from the person I’d written to – explaining their two-week response time policy.

This did nothing to placate me and instead further fuelled my frustration. An opportunity to impress and regain trust was lost.

Issues and incidents will always be a part of retail service. But what impresses customers is the manner in which complaints are handled. And the handling is happening less and less in private.

Comprehensive customer service records are in the public domain. And it’s fine to have a track record of issues so long as they have been dealt with efficiently. Indeed a strong record of resolving issues can build trust.

So in the instant world, rapid response and recovery quality are essential. But they are not sufficient.

Service never sleeps

This is only one dimension of service. There is a more fundamental issue at stake: the opportunity to get to the root cause of the problems, stimulate learning and fundamentally improve the business.

I was reminded recently of a Sam Walton quote: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody from the chairman down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

“In no business can service ever go to sleep. In this high stakes game, we have to stay on top of the exponential growth of online traffic and social interaction”

Andrew Livingston, Screwfix

Our Croydon Monday morning queueing tweet became an internal story of great service recovery, but more importantly it made us review how best to deal with compressed periods of trading.

Now we are even more focused on getting Britain’s tradespeople on the road at 7am on Monday morning with the right gear.

In no business can service ever go to sleep. In this high stakes game, we have to stay on top of the exponential growth of online traffic and social interaction.

Handling service 24/7 is a skill we have to first build and then master. But the prize for those who can take the lessons deeper is rich indeed.

  • Andrew Livingston is chief executive of Screwfix