We wrote earlier this week about how much customers appear to hate waiting on the phone to speak to a customer support person — and, I mean, who can blame them? Opening up alternative channels for customers to get through to your company is becoming paramount for service departments, especially given how simple it is for a customer to blast your organization online, where 100 of their Facebook friends can give them a “thumbs up” hallelujah.

We’ve advocated allowing customers to get in touch for simple queries or schedule appointments through an online portal, or, better yet, an app — studies show that appears to be most customers’ preference. But that isn’t the only other option. In fact, once you start thinking creatively about ways and places to meet your customers, you can start coming up with some pretty interesting ideas about customer support.

Here are a few to think over:

Social Media

No duh, you say. By now just about every company’s on Facebook and Twitter (and if you’re not, hop to). But that doesn’t mean they’re doing it well. A study commissioned by STELLAService found that only 44 percent of customers’ questions posed to the top 25 online retailers via Twitter were responded to within 24 hours. And 56 percent of all customers’ tweets to these companies were ignored entirely.

That’s not good. If you’re going to go to the trouble of setting up a Twitter page, you’re missing out on its real potential if you aren’t treating it as a two-way communication tool. Make sure your service department is monitoring its social channels several times a day, and responding to customer questions or complaints quickly and courteously (remember, anyone can see this, so be on your best behavior!).

Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only “social” channels out there, either. You probably know about things like Yelp and Angie’s List, which it’s worth paying attention to. There’s also Gripevine, which is small but growing. It was started by a guy who got 12 million page-views on YouTube when he uploaded a song he wrote about the time United Airlines’ carriers tossed his luggage off the plane, breaking his guitar. So don’t mess with him!

Creatively Outsourcing Service

No, I don’t mean to a call center in India. Several new companies are popping up offering customer service support products, like LiveOps, which can track when customers mention your brand on Twitter or Facebook. A LiveOps agent can then invite that commenter to a private instant-message chat (thus taking the issue out of the public arena), and deal with the inquiry there.

Another new service, Needle, is even more creative. Needle recruits super-fans of brands to act as freelance customer support people. So when a customer has a question about your company, your fans are at the ready to chat with them (Internet only; no phone) about the ins and outs of your service, which, presumably, they know all about. It takes a certain amount of trust in the wisdom of crowd-sourcing, sure, but at least one researcher at Gartner, which knows about this stuff, called it a “great idea.” Maybe this is a fit for your company.

Stay Old-School. Just Do It Better

The last option I’ve listed here should probably also be the first one you put into practice. Take a sober, honest look at how your organization handles its customer support, and then think about whether you’d have the patience to navigate those waters yourself. (Probably not.) Tim McElligott, writing for Billing World, summed it up well:

“Here is why customers have seized upon the idea of self-care: The service providers have screwed up the simple concept of customer service so badly for so long and given customer the big F-U whenever they were faced with the bother of communicating with them that customers finally gave up and said, ‘F-U-2, I’ll do it myself.'”


More: Calling Support Is Customers’ Last Resort, So Why’s It Your Only Option?

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.