When United Airlines’ baggage handlers broke musician Dave Carroll’s $3,500 guitar, the company had no idea that 13.3 million people would eventually know about it. The power of Carroll’s wrath was proportional to the time it took him to try to get compensation from United: nine months. After Carroll’s music video series, “United Breaks Guitars,” went viral on YouTube, United’s stock dropped by $180 million, and its brand equity took a lasting blow.

The grocery chain Tesco, much-maligned in 2013 for selling ground burger that contained horsemeat, faced a more immediate firestorm. During the crisis, its customer service team made the mistake of posting the following tweet: “It’s sleepy time so we’re about to hit the hay! See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets.”

These famous examples are mere blips in a rising wave of social activity. Apart from the occasional PR disaster, consumers are using real-time social media channels at a staggering rate to reach out to brands for day-to-day questions, issues and complaints. The balance of power has shifted; customers are putting themselves front and center, and expect instant, individualized service. Companies must respond to customers on their chosen schedule, channel and device.

The only way forward is understanding that the best way to service customers is meeting them on their ground, in the way they communicate.

No Wait Time for Amazon Prime

Consumer communication behavior is rapidly changing, catalyzed by social media and mobile connectivity. Social messaging app usage tripled in 2013 and is poised for “massive adoption” in 2014. The number of messages to be “transacted” on social messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line are expected to grow from 27.5 trillion in 2013 to 71.5 trillion by the end of 2014. (Source)

Instant communication is becoming the norm, and it’s inevitable that consumers will demand the same responsiveness of brands.

Why do so many companies still act as though customer service operates on 9 to 5 business hours?

Popular companies like Amazon, Netflix and Uber solidify the expectation of painless immediacy. If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, it only takes a few clicks to buy something from your personalized homepage—and then it appears on your doorstep the next day. Scroll through your customized Netflix recommendations, and one click later, you’re watching a movie that sounds interesting. A few taps on your mobile device and you can expect your own Uber private driver pick you up in a high-end sedan within minutes.

Why “Going Social” Isn’t Enough

Imagine the frustration that customers today feel when they get put on hold for 30 minutes, and then don’t receive a personalized response. If the bad service elevates, customers can easily go nuclear via social media, as Dave Carroll showed United – and the world.

Why do so many companies still act as though customer service operates on 9 to 5 business hours? The consumer is now living in a fast-paced, mobile, ever-connected world. They use tools like WhatsApp, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook messenger to instantly communicate with friends, and get annoyed if that person doesn’t respond within a few minutes. It’s ridiculously obvious that they will – and already are starting to – expect the same from the brands they trust.

We see companies making the mistake of spackling a social feed or two onto their existing customer-support infrastructure and calling it a success.
What they don’t understand is that the way consumers are putting themselves front and center on channels like Twitter and Facebook is just the first sign of the shift in consumer behavior, demands and even power. Social is simply the leading indicator of a much larger revolution in customer communications: the expectation of real-time engagement, on every device and through every medium, whenever they want it.

The customer does not care if it’s 2am at your headquarters, and you don’t have someone monitoring your Twitter account right now.

Your competitor is just a click away. And your customer knows it.