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Social Media Becoming a Customer-Service Tool for Automakers

Sept. 1, 2011
'More and more, people don't want to wait for a 1-800 operator.'

Bob and Cindy Gribble are having problems with their 2011 Chevrolet Silverado. They recently turned to Facebook for some answers.

"It lunges and stalls and has [an] awful noise in the rear like someone left loose parts," they wrote on the wall of General Motors' main Facebook page.

Within a day of posting their comments, General Motors customer-service representative Christina Morrison -- a real person, not a bot -- responded to the Gribbles, on Facebook.

"Bob, I apologize for your frustrations," she wrote. "Can you please private-message me your VIN, current mileage and involved dealer? Have you spoken with GM Customer Assistance? I look forward to your response."

Welcome to customer service in the age of social media.

What started out as just one more marketing and communications channel is becoming an indispensible tool for automakers such as GM and Nissan to resolve customer issues.

"Every month we receive more and more comments, questions, issues and concerns submitted to us not over the 1-800 phone line -- that almost seems analog with all the new technology -- but through Facebook and Twitter," says Erich Marx, director of social media and interactive marketing for Nissan.

The use of social media as a customer-relations tool is only going to grow, Marx adds.

"More and more, people don't want to wait for a 1-800 operator," Marx says. "We all walk around with our handheld devices. If you have an issue, you want to submit that question right there, and you want an answer and expect an answer.

"I think the norm these days is people expect an answer the same day."

The Human Face of Social Media

GM's Facebook wall is a mix of kudos ("The Cruze looks great," says one recent post); new-product suggestions; requests (bring back Pontiac!); photos of car lovers with their new (or classic) GM vehicles; and complaints -- with complaints being in the minority. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 285,000 people "liked" the GM page.

Henige: GM is building customer loyalty and changing perceptions through its social media efforts.
Still, it's clear that GM views social media as an important customer-service tool. At GM's customer-assistance center in Saginaw, Mich., a team of 10 specialists monitor social media sites -- from Facebook to Corvette fan clubs -- to answer questions and resolve issues as they come up, and to just join in the conversations, says GM's Mary Henige.

By being an active participant in the hubbub of online conversation, GM not only is building loyalty to its brands but also is changing perceptions among those who may have fallen out of love with GM vehicles, Henige says.

"What we've learned is you have some people who are saying things that are just dripping with poison -- I mean they are mad," says Henige, who is director of social media and digital communications for GM. "But if you ask them some more questions, you come to find that it's not so much that they hate you. It's because they care about you so much that if you disappoint them, they want to make sure you understand.

"But if you engage in conversation, pretty soon you find out that they're driving your vehicles, they love your vehicles, but they think what you're doing might not be the right move. If you explain it, they usually understand."

In terms of customer relations, social media serves a larger purpose for GM. After taking government bailout funds as part of its bankruptcy reorganization in 2009, "it was pretty easy to hate General Motors," Henige recalls.

Its "Faces of GM" video blog, which tells the stories of GM employees, dealers and loyal consumers, and other social media efforts -- such as having real people respond to customers' issues on Facebook -- help show that "we are a company filled with people who really care."

"It's really a way to humanize the company," Henige says.

Editor's note: Be sure to check out the September issue of IndustryWeek to see how social media is fueling innovation for automakers by giving them a new window into consumer insights.

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