Having a good brand experience is the key to ensuring brand loyalty but a bad experience can take a lifetime to forget, according to Tunde Cockshott, creative consultant for Amaze, who here explains how social media has the potential to enhance customer experience but also increases the opportunity for bad experiences if approached the wrong way. This article is copyright 2014 The Best Customer Guide.

This could arguably be one of the biggest challenges facing retailers, particularly as customers are becoming more inclined to voice their complaints online. With that in mind, I ask: just how important is social media to a retailer's digital strategy? And who are the winners and losers in the social media debate?

In short, social media should be at the heart of every retail strategy. Not just as a method of engagement, but also as an active data collection and sales channel. Research by Vision Critical has found that 40% of social media users have made a purchase either online or in store after sharing or 'favouriting' an item on social media and half of social media related purchases happen within a week of sharing or 'favouriting' an item. Retailers should therefore be monitoring what people share on social channels to gain insights into consumer behaviour and purchase patterns.

A good example of retailers using social media is Ikea. Ikea has been on Pinterest since 2011 and in three years has gained over 10,000 followers. It uses Pinterest to present existing products and offer a sneak peak at new ones, run competitions, inspire purchases through demonstration videos and demonstrate functionality via animated gifs. Looking specifically at Pinterest, research by the Harvard Business Review has found that 36% of pinners said the act of pinning influenced their ultimate decision to purchase. Social validation, product discovery, additional information and a memory jogger were also cited as reasons why Pinterest affected their decision.

Social Customer Service
To effectively use social media in the context of customer service a retailer has to promote the communication channels, but also listen for positive and negative comments within those social channels.

On Facebook pages, brands should clearly state the hours of business, and provide links to demonstrate alternative ways consumers can reach the brand. Marks and Spencer is a good example of this; it lists its Twitter details as well as its email and phone numbers and FAQs. Some brands also allow their staff to sign messages, creating a personal link that can help deflate an irate customer. It also means consumers can try to continue a conversation with the same service agent each time.

Response times via social media platforms are also important crucial For instance, a difficult situation will be made worse by a slow or non-existent response. SocialBakers' February report into UK brands, for example, showed that ASOS was a top-performing brand with an average Facebook response time of 142min and a response rate of 96%.

To really succeed in customer service an important element that is often overlooked is scalability. When a crisis strikes and the social channels are aligned with a brand for the wrong reason, brands need to have a customer service team in place, which can respond rapidly and pull in support from related departments. Best Buy, Dell and other leading brands, for example, all have large customer service teams. Best Buy also has a social media policy that its internally trained customer service teams apply in all interactions. Social media customer service is a powerful way to have one-to-one engagement with a consumer. In an increasingly online world this ability should be seen as a positive opportunity, not only to resolve a problem but also to demonstrate brand values and build relationships.

The customer process
A recent study by Vogue Teen into over a thousand young women, aged between 13 and 29, highlighted how deeply embedded social media is into the American youth market. Vogue Teen found that there was a three-part process that was used prior to purchase. Stage one was inspiration, with Instagram being considered the number one platform through which to seek fashion inspiration. It then found that consumers turn to YouTube as a reference for how and where to find the product. Finally, before purchase, shoppers were found to engage in comparison shopping on social media. They look for additional product images on Pinterest (48%), read reviews and recommendations on YouTube (43%), and seek out sales and deals on Facebook (36%) too.

While fashion is a distinct sector, what this study shows is that the primary challenge is to ensure brands are active in sectors where consumers are seeking inspiration or information. Social media is a community shaped shop window. Brands need to feed their customer base with traditional marketing images but also offer real life visuals and videos too.

The real winners and losers
KLM is a good example of a brand that provides 24/7 customer service support and displays live response times for both Facebook and Twitter. When I visited, it was 41 minutes for a response on Facebook and 21 minutes for a response on Twitter. For a disgruntled traveller, knowing how long they will have to wait before they will get a response is a valuable form of reassurance. Travel is a time-critical business, and retail sectors may not see the need for such speedy responses. However, a fast response is more likely to see a user respond positively to a brand, and they are also more likely to share this experience with others.

Speedy responses are something Next also does really well and it rates very highly. Last year it was named as the top performing UK retailer for social media customer service with an average Facebook response time of just 28 minutes. Next, along with Marks and Spencer is also making good use of Pinterest.

Those retailers who could improve are the ones we do not hear about. While retail has been the sector to most fully embrace social media, last year BT found only between 25% and 45% of retailers actively engage with customers though social channels which demonstrates that there is clearly a long way to go for retailers to fully make use of this power communication and engagement tool..

"As we have seen in sectors such as travel and fashion, social media does give retailers the opportunity to really enhance customer experience. When shopping, the experience is as important as the purchase, which has always been the case," concluded Cockshott. "The challenge for retailers lies in successfully maintaining and developing this experience when it is transferred online, and in ensuring their brands continually meet the demands of customers - because a failure to do so could be disastrous."