What Being A Waiter Taught Me About Good Social Media

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Once upon a time, I was a waiter.

It was the summer of my freshman year of college and I needed to earn some extra cash for books, food, and, um, spirits for the year ahead. Since my older brother had worked at Friendly’s for a few years, I figured I had an easy in. So, after a brief interview–mostly a formality, really–I soon found myself donning the restaurant’s classic visor and red shirt and learning the ins and outs of the menu.

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My time at Friendly’s wasn’t too memorable, save for the time sparks flew from a weathered coffee machine and when a patron said she couldn’t understand me because I was “mumbling.” My response to the latter? I grossly enunciated my words when I delivered her order: “Here. Is. Your. Milkshake. Please. Let. Me. Know. If. You. Need. Anything. Else.” Naturally, this resulted in a “talking to” from my boss.

But there were a few things that made the experience a valuable one. I not only met some great people, many of whom I remain friends with today, but I also developed a deep appreciation for customer service. This “service” included everything from helping make the restaurant experience more enjoyable to resolving the “problems” my customers had. During a given shift–between delivering Reese’s Pieces Sundae’s and SuperMelt sandwiches–I would help patrons clean up spilled milk; find directions to their next stop (I worked at Friendly’s way before GPS and MapQuest); and locate a place to dispose of their assorted scraps of paper and other refuse.

While I wouldn’t consider myself the most altruistic of individuals, I truly enjoyed helping those I served and this customer service perspective is something I’ve embraced in my current role as social media manager for the Harvard Business School’s (HBS) alumni office.

But how do you apply this model to alumni relations? I’m not, after all, selling anything. My main concern is alumni engagement, which is an abstract concept that’s difficult to quantify (i.e., it’s almost impossible to determine whether or not my social media work has helped inspire alumni to donate to the school or participate in some other way by, for example, attending an alumni event).

But I do believe there is tremendous value in applying customer service approaches to social media and in this post I’ll share some examples of how I’ve put this approach into practice.

Be Proactive

Customer service can be, at its core, a reactive process.

Having a problem with your cable? Call your service provider.

The “check oil” light is flashing on your car? Make an appointment with the local garage.

There’s an issue with your boiler and you have no heat in the house? Jump online and schedule a call.

These are the points when the customer service process begins in earnest and what follows determines, for the most part, whether the experience is a positive or negative one.

When it comes to social media, though, customer service can start much, much earlier. In my role at HBS, I take a more proactive approach and try to help alumni as early and as often as I can.

Examples of this outreach includes…

1) Connecting alumni with their section mates and fellow alumni with shared interests.

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2) Alerting alumni that fellow graduates are attending the same event or letting alumni know of a gathering in their region.

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3) Promoting the apps or products released by alumni.

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4) Reacting swiftly to alumni queries.

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By viewing alumni as “customers,” we’re able to serve their needs and also strengthen our relationships with them. Furthermore, our alumni have come to see us as a trusted source for assistance and have been reaching out to us more frequently when they have news to share or an issue they need help resolving.

Unfortunately, this perspective isn’t always embraced by social media managers. It’s much easier to react to your target audience–waiting for them to reach out to you with a problem or query–than it is to engage with them proactively. But there are definite drawbacks to this reactive approach:

1) You may not seem completely invested in your audience since you only interact with them when they have a problem as opposed to trying to assist them on a regular basis.

2) You may operate like every other brand they are following. Granted, some brands fail to respond to their audience at all (which is fodder for a future blog post), but even if you respond to your audience you’re not really setting yourself apart since Twitter feeds typically fall into two camps: those that respond to their audience and those that do not. But if you follow a proactive, customer service-driven approach you can be an outlier in the very best way. You will then be part of a much smaller third group.

A social media channel with the primary objective of providing the best possible service to its followers…even when they don’t even realize they need help.

Was this post helpful? Is there anything I missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

LinkedIn Photo_5Robert Bochnak manages social media for the Harvard Business School’s alumni office. He’s also the former writer and editor of GradMatters: The Blog for Tufts GSAS.

Follow Robert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobertBoc.

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