Calming down an angry customer is never easy, but doing it in front of millions of people—that’s a brand nightmare. Yet, it’s becoming more and more common on social media.

Thanks in part to Twitter—one of the fastest growing customer service channels, a brand’s reaction to customer issues has gone from private to public. Customer service mishaps are no longer one-to-one interactions, but public debates, with real money to lose if a brand is seen in the wrong light. On the flip side, all this public attention can bring great ardor to a brand. One tweet of praise may go viral and generate a surge of new customers. This phenomenon is part of the growing Promoter Economy—a business benefit of customers and fans praising your name online. It’s the souped-up digital version of word-of-mouth marketing.

The Promoter Economy—a business benefit of customers and fans praising your name online. It’s the souped up digital version of word-of-mouth marketing.

One person who knows all about the promoter economy is Veronica Belmont. She’s a startup advisor in San Francisco who helps brands be more empathetic, honest, and engaging on social media. Or as she puts it, “How not to be an asshole to your customers online.” With her own legion of 1.75 million fans, Veronica has had many candid conversations with brands—for better or for worse and has synthesized those experiences into practical advice for companies in any industry.

From going off script in customer service Tweets to the great VW emissions scandal, Veronica shares her wisdom on ‘being real’ and building better brand and customer relationships.

Talking with Veronica

When it comes to customer service, why do you think there are so many brand mishaps on social?

Part of the reason is that brands aren’t treating it like a conversation channel. Instead we see scripted answers that aren’t answering the problem. When someone [the social media manager] doesn't have the power to deviate from that set script, you get a situation where customers are kind of receiving this canned response, when what they really want is someone to listen to them. They really want someone to pay attention to their specific issue, their need, and so in that moment you have an opportunity to really say, "Hey, I hear that you're having this problem, let me see what I can do for you now." That's really the best course of action instead of returning to the, "You have problem A, so I'm going to respond with response A," and go along that set script until, hopefully, the issue is resolved. Which typically it's not.

Yeah, so why do you think that organizations feel more comfortable falling back on a script? Is it because they don't trust their staff, or is it because logistically it's just easier?

It's probably a combination of both of those things. Sometimes the people who are in the position of fielding customer complaints aren't empowered to be able to answer the questions. So they have this script that has been sent to them by their higher ups. They may not be knowledgeable in the way they need to be to fix the issues that customers are bringing to them, so they follow the script.

Their bosses think, "Oh hey, well these are the most common issues that we have, so here are the most common responses that we have seen typically help that customer." But that doesn't always work.

How can an organization help their employees feel more comfortable going off script?

It's hard because sometimes this has to kind of come from the ground floor up. When you're starting a company, when you're building your customer service department, or your social media team, you have to empower them.

That's a little bit easier when it's a larger company because you have more people who can devote time and resources to those issues. At the same time, it’s a good idea to make it part of the corporate culture, or the startup culture from the start, to say, "The people who are answering your questions are the people who have hands-on experience with the product itself, and know what those issues mean."

What do you think are the benefits, like for a customer, when somebody will go off script? What do you think that the customer feels when they notice that someone is actually listening to them?

When you get a brand to actually respond to you in a very human kind of way, it feels special. You get that moment that's like, "Wow, this brand, they're listening. Wow, they are listening to me. Cheetos cares what I think about their product." You know? It's a really nice moment, and the brand can kind of use that goodwill feeling to keep them as a customer.

How to human

As someone who knows how to interview people could you share advice on how to warm someone up in a stressful situation?

I feel like the best customer service conversations I have are just with people who sound confident and sound happy, which is a very difficult thing to do when that's your job. You're constantly dealing with people who are angry, and mad at you all the time.

    Watch as Veronica explains this not-so-secret relationship to the Relate Live San Francisco audience in her Day 2 keynote—Making fans in the moment of failure: Hearing your customers on social media.

Doing a tiny bit of 'get to know you talk' is OK, while they're looking up information, just making you feel comfortable, and not talking about the disastrous thing that's happening right then. Maybe just, "Oh, we're going to help you today. I'm just looking up your information, how is your day today?" Sometimes that can actually calm people down, even while they know that you're looking for something, instead of just being like, "I'm looking up your information," and then just sit there.

I wanted to go back to talking about empathy. You have a very personal story about the lack of empathy online, and you talk about how important empathy is online, from person-to-person. How can we scale empathy from one person to an entire brand?

Well, it’s tough. I really liked what Adidas did for Valentine’s Day. They had an image on Instagram of two women seemingly embracing on a street. You can only see them up to their knees because it's about the shoes. It was very kind. They got a lot of flack for it from more conservative fans though. But they stood up for it. Adidas was like, "No, we believe that love comes in all shapes, and sizes, and kinds, and this is what we stand for." I think that touched a lot of people. It's interesting,

I guess maybe brands always have, but we are seeing it more via social media and their online public personas. Now consumers are starting to perceive brands as having opinions, and being more person-like in what they believe. And in turn, brands are seeming to perceive their users, fans, and the average person with more empathy.

Brands are showing who’s behind the brand.

Yes, more and more we're seeing them pick a side. I mean, look at the whole Chick-fil-A debacle, or the Hobby Lobby controversy. Then on the other side we have Campbell's Soup, and we have Adidas, and we have Nike, and all these, and all these brands standing up for social justice.

Yeah, it's definitely a sign of our shifting, modern times. I think it's curious that this line has been drawn in the sand, It's strange who chooses to support what.

Brands with personalities

There’s a new economy of the conscientious consumer, someone who only wants to spend money on a company that aligns with their life values, and their humanitarian values.

Well in a way, that's always been the case. Brand advertising campaigns have always catered toward lifestyle choices, or things that people feel are important, whether it be the nuclear family or whether it be whatever, but now it feels a lot more personal.

Why do you think it feels more personal now?

I think because you have the ability to be a lot more personal with a brand, because there is this extended conversation happening, and so you feel more like you're relating to brands on a very personal basis. We align ourselves with brands in different ways. I'm an Apple person. That is part of my personality. I align with their goals. I align with what they're all about, and that's just blossoming everywhere.

It does feel more personal now, because there is an extended conversation going, and that's why it's even more important for brands to know what they think, and to be able to relate on a personal level. If it's feeling very canned or stagnant, then that brand's missing out on an important person.

I was an Audi person for years, and years, and years. Even though it wasn't a strong part of my identity, it was something I liked. I would talk to other people about Audi, and say, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to have an Audi for my whole life." Now I don't know if that's true anymore, because their reputation has been so tarnished by the VW diesel debacle. I can't relate to it in the same way anymore.

When your reputation as a brand has been tarnished, and they lose people who have identified with them, can they get them back through empathetically responding to the situation?

Oh, totally. There was an entire This American Life where they had a whole conversation about the VW situation. They referenced the Jack In The Box ad campaign that essentially brought them back from the brink of collapse after they had the E. coli poisoning situation that killed three people back in the '90s.

Jack in The Box did an ad campaign that was like, "We're sorry. We fucked up. This is how we want to fix it. This is how we want to make it better," and that worked. It worked incredibly successfully. There’s a possibility for brands who really screw the pooch to use empathy to understand what their customers are feeling, respond to what they hear, and make it better.

”There’s a possibility for brands who really screw the pooch to use empathy to understand what their customers are feeling, respond to what they hear, and make it better.” - Veronica Belmont

Social media isn’t going away anytime soon. And that’s a good thing. Brands shouldn’t look at these channels as a thing to fear but as an opportunity to better connect with customers. With a little bit of common sense, engagement, and genuine honesty brands can make fans even in moments of failure.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.