Executive Summary

The increasing popularity of social media has forced businesses to realign their corporate strategies worldwide. While marketing has remained a key component of social media interaction, businesses are increasingly incorporating customer service elements to appeal to a more progressive mindset. However, this is not without challenge, a transparent network with free flowing information can become a death trap for unsuspecting businesses. The power and influence of social media is quite tangible, and with an untapped business value of $1.3 trillion – Mckinsey, there is much to gain, much to lose.

Multi-Channel Communication and Connectivity

The widespread adoption of internet and wireless technology, attributable in part to the increasing affordability and accessibility of technology, has improved connectivity worldwide. Internet, considered an extravagance at one point, is now coupled with essential utilities like electricity by most households. A recent survey by Ericsson showed that internet is one of the last things that consumers will give up when reducing expenses. “It is only natural that the internet is now perceived as an essential service,” says Anders Lindblad, President, Ericsson Region Middle East and North Africa, adding, “I do, however, find it very significant that the study shows that consumers in the UAE and around the world would only disconnect their internet accounts only as a last resort. This demonstrates what an important part of our lives the internet has become.”

Similarly, multi-channel communication has also risen in popularity as modern-day consumers seek out more efficient ways to interact and socialize with other people, businesses and communities. However, as this trend begins to shape new social dynamics, it also alters behavioral ethics, roles and responsibilities. Organizations today too, face a similar predicament transitioning into digital space. With users becoming comfortable with information sharing, businesses are expected to follow suit and become more transparent. “Consumers today expect to be kept in the loop,” explains Umer Waqar, Senior Digital Marketing Associate at Cresset Technologies, adding, “So, when a business is discontinuing a product or cancelling a service, they expect to be heard, have their opinions factored into the end decision.”

Impact of Social Media

Social media has altered the relationship between a business and its consumer. By making it possible to connect with hundreds and thousands of users at the same time, it enhances business exposure and an organization’s marketability. “Social media helps you remain connected at all times. It helps you learn about customers, build personalized profiles and gather valuable feedback,” says Jalal-u-din Jami, a research analyst at LiveAdmins JLT, Dubai, adding, “It’s a powerful tool, and if utilized properly, it can help generate media buzz and publicity.”

However, while organizations have been actively utilizing social media for marketing purposes, they have been unusually quiet on the customer service front. A majority of businesses in fact choose to ignore customer service queries on social forums. Maritz Research in recent report stated, that according to their findings almost 71% of the complaints posted on Twitter don’t receive follow ups; “The problem is that while businesses view social media as a way to connect to customers, they see it as a one-way communication channel,” shares Jami, “This generates an expectation gap, with most (social media) users expecting rather an aggressive approach towards customer service.”

The prevailing passivity for customer service in social media is though, somewhat universal. In UAE, while social media has become a popular tool for customer interaction, the focus on service remains much withdrawn. “Managing your social media presence can be a bit tricky. A majority of Fortune 500 did not have a twitter handle late into last year (2011),” explains Waqar, Cresset Technologies, “What you have to understand is that a lot of businesses are still unacclimatized to the social media exposure.”


Dominos, a popular food chain experienced a marketing crisis when a prank video shot by two bored kitchen employees went viral on Youtube. However, what really sent the company into a tail spin was the delayed reaction. Domino’s inability to issue a response within the first 24 hours, led to significant criticism from consumers and media alike. While the brand was able to upload a (Youtube) response (48hours in) the damage was already done.

Such cases have only led to further skepticism towards social media. Businesses lean on resources have in fact often questioned the usefulness of social media as a support tool. “If you are on social media then you are expected to contribute to the community, interact with consumers and be active,” explains Waqar, adding, “Consumers taking to social media and other alternate channels of communication expect responsiveness.” According to a recent study by NM Incite, a social media research firm, nearly 47% of social media users ‘actively seek’ customer service through social media channels and 30% say that they prefer the method over a traditional phone call.

Social Media Adoption in MENA

A study by Omnicom Media Group showed that social media activity in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region had doubled in 2011, with a majority of users from UAE and KSA citing ‘Facebook’ as the first online activity. Half of the UAE respondents also admitted using social media apps on their mobiles, at least once a day! Currently MENA hosts an access of 30 million social media users in total, with every 3 out of 7 internet users connected via social networks.

While a majority of consumers in UAE and KSA agree that social media marketing does influence their buying behavior, return visits and consumer loyalty is largely influenced by the quality of service received. “Customers need to feel special when conducting business, they want to feel privileged shopping in a store and/or transacting online,” says Jami, LiveAdmins, adding, “Tangible aspects such as décor and website design can influence initial impressions, but may not retain business and clientele over the long haul. To induce loyalty, a business must be able to deliver on intangibles such as customer interaction, service speed and support reliability.”

Waqar, Cresset Technologies, similarly points out the importance of customer interaction, “Communication is imperative for sustaining any long-term relation. By being more responsive socially (on social media), you can build strong customer ties, increase the chances of repeat visits and acquire a customer friendly reputation.”He adds, “While self-service tools, such as live chat are making a name for themselves, it’s important to differentiate between reactive and proactive communication. Social media, for one, does not limit business-client interaction to ‘query beget response’, it in fact it encourages two way communication.”

The story of a boy, Luka who lost his Lego figurines and decided to contact the Lego customer support department made over a million rounds over social media networks. Lego customer service department, had not only sent the boy a replacement for the lost figure, but included multiple other freebies. The move was applauded by several readers and earned the company praise from several media outlets. Sarah Medina, one of the bloggers to share the news remarked, “Lego’s customer service department should run the world!”

Word on social media spreads like wildfire. Fans, customers and brand loyalists are able to promote their favorite products/brands by sharing interactive content, news and information within their social circles. The UAE’s retail segment has been one of the key benefactors in this regard, “The social community in the UAE is quite active. Users frequently share product news, groupon deals and discount offers within their social circles,” shares Usman Naeem, a social media consultant and a freelance writer, Dubai. Reports also show an increased tendency towards poll/survey participation, product/service reviews and social community contribution, “Some users will act as brand evangelists helping other customers through the use of company forums or pages (Facebook/Twitter),” he adds.

Role of Social Media in Customer Service

While having a self-sustaining community portal would appeal to a majority of organizations, many customers turn to social media to connect with the business, itself. Complaints and grievances are a commonplace on Twitter and Facebook. Consumers unable to get quality service from basic support channels, such as helplines and toll free numbers, will take to social media and/or alternative service channels (email/live chat service) in a bid to appeal to the corporate management.

Such trends are even more apparent in the UAE. With a diverse population mix, customer service in UAE lacks consistency and depth. “In UAE customer service in governed by processes rather than people. While this culture promotes organizational efficiency, the inflexibility of the system can compromise the quality of service delivered. This is one of the main reasons why multi-channel support is taking precedence over traditional methods of communication,” explains Jami, LiveAdmins.

However, the openness and transparency of individual interactions on social media does raise some concerns, “It’s a very public channel,” says Randy Brasche, Marketing Director, Genesys. “When you’re on the phone, it’s one-to-one. On Twitter, it’s one to many.” Social media users however see this as an opportunity, “Social media has made it possible to be heard. It has given users a voice.” explains Usman Naeem, adding, “Organization can no longer ignore the customer, a simple tweet like ‘airline lost my luggage and wont compensate me’ can go viral in minutes, generating significant backlash for the organization.” Patrick Stewart’s tweet that he had ‘lost the will to live’ after waiting 36 hours for Time Warner to install cable was re-tweeted by thousands of fans, and was picked up by a few media outlets.

While posting complaints may get you much faster results, Waqar, Cresset Technologies, questions the ethics involved, “Why does it has to come to shaming a company in public? While I understand that a lot of users use social media as a last resort, recent marketing scandals are perpetuating a new trend, You want something done faster? Tweet it!”

Comparative Analysis of Social Media Responsiveness

“Speed is essential component of service. Given the technology and resources at hand, consumers have a right to expect quicker responses and support process expediency,” shares Jami, LiveAdmins, adding, ‘This is why multi-channel communication has taken precedence.’ However, according to a recent study, while nearly 55% of consumers posting complaints online expect the ‘same day’ response, only 29% are able to receive one.

A study by SocialBakers showed that the telecommunication sector has the highest response ratio on social media outlets such as Facebook (60.4%), followed by Airlines (55%), Finance (46.4%), Retail (43.6%) and Fashion industries (41.5%). The research conducted during the month of March last year, involved statistical monitoring of (Facebook) page activity for over 10,000 different brands. Several other studies go on to support these findings, with the IT industry said to be leading the charge in multi-channel communication. “The technology sector has been on the forefront of multi-channel communication. Intel and IBM had their support forums back in the 90s, while a majority of other big names were boasting the effectiveness of their electronic mail support,” explains Jami, LiveAdmins.

The UAE market shows a similar trend, with companies like DU and Etisalat known to be quite proficient in handling complaints on twitter, amongst other various digital channels of communication (email). While food and fashion businesses are found to more interactive and user-friendly, they lag behind the IT sector in complaint management and customer service (including online orders). An Abu Dhabi resident shares that most small businesses, such as bakeries often send in complimentary items if you like posts or place orders online (Facebook).


“I was having troubles uploading credit into my DU account, so I requested help on their twitter account. I was initially redirected to a FAQ page, but after spending nearly 30 minutes I gave up. I went back to the twitter page and posted some comments in frustration, it immediately prompted one of the agents to call me back on my phone, and we were able to resolve the issue (I had to register a new credit card on their website). The agent explained that they were just following the procedure, and they did not meant to put me under distress by any means. I told him that I really appreciated the gesture, and also posted a thank you note on their twitter account,” shares a customer in Abu Dhabi.

Social Media and Defamation

The publicity power of social media has prompted companies to push for protection clauses and legal rights. Most governments (including UAE) recognize the risk of unwarranted social commentary by social user, especially when linked with defamation. Clyde & Co., a Law Firm, explains that use of social media should not be treated any different to that of publications in books or magazines. The risk of damage is higher on social media, given the instantaneous and largely uncontrollable dissemination of opinions posted on to social media sites. While the first amendment act in the US Law protects an individual’s right to freedom of speech, precedent shows that if proven guilty, Clay Corporation v. Colter, Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, Dietz Development LLC v. Perez, individuals can receive monetary fine for the damages to the business/company.

Recommendations for Social Media based Service

  • Keep your Customers Informed – A lot of businesses have been able to avert crises by duly informing their customers for expected downtimes and service delays. Corporate accounts have also been commonly used to address rumors and companywide issues.
  • Corporate Strategy – Integrate social media in your corporate plan. Organizations should be able to dedicate resources when necessary (crises management).
  • Separate Account – By a distinct customer service account, business can not only avoid negative publicity, but become more proactive in delivering support. Complaints can easily get lost in the shuffle when hosting a larger traffic, furthering churn and dissatisfaction amongst customers.
  • Same Channel Resolution – Redirecting a customer to another channel, phone, email, etc. can increase frustration and damage your relationship. Business should look to resolve problems using the same mode of contact, instead of disconnecting the customer and forcing them to start all over again.
  • Train Handlers – Customer service training is imperative irrespective of the support platform. Service representatives should be able to handle all issues in professional manner, serving the interest of the customer and the business, itself.
  • Qualitative Support – Do not chalk up customer service on social media as ‘secondary’. Your page and/or community should be able to reflect your brand name and the business culture.