How far has social customer care come since 2009? Industry experts weigh in.
Social customer service has come a long way since I first wrote about it in Pipeline eight years ago (“The Impact of Word of Mouth in the Web 2.0 World,” June 2009). There have been huge leaps forward in awareness, mindset and technology, despite some lingering challenges that businesses as yet have failed to address effectively. Sometimes it’s useful to take a look at the past to see how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go.
Take Twitter, for instance. I joined the social network in April 2009 purely as a short-term experiment. It had launched two years earlier, and I wanted to understand what it was and how I could use it. Much of what I saw at the time were tweets about what individuals were wearing, eating or looking at, or who they were hanging out with, about to meet with or had just met with. Needless to say, the postings seemed pretty random and not at all useful. I was also reasonably sure that no one really wanted to know whether I was standing in line at Starbucks, nor would want to see a photo of what my Caffè Latte looked like. To be honest, I never would have imagined that, eight years later, I’d still be on Twitter, much less posting on a regular basis.
In 2009, less than half of U.S. adults participated in social networks. It was new territory for businesses, as well. Many companies didn’t have Twitter accounts and those that did primarily used them to send out promotional tweets from marketing staff. Still, there was a handful of early adopters who quickly recognized the value of social media as a customer service channel.
Best Buy embraced Twitter early on by encouraging consumers to pose tech questions to its Twelpforce, which was staffed by Best Buy employees from various functions who volunteered to answer inquiries that came in through the “Ask Twelpforce” feed. Each response was tagged #twelpforce, which allowed the company to track the number of inquiries, average response time and how frequently individual Twelpforce members contributed (see “Getting Social with Customers,” March 2010).
Another trailblazer in providing social customer service was Comcast, whose digital customer care initiative was led by Frank Eliason. In early 2008, Eliason established a team whose role was to reach out proactively to disgruntled customers through blogs, forums, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter (see “Inside View: Comcast Digital Care,” August 2009).
With Twitter, Eliason recognized that the channel’s immediacy was also one of its key benefits for the contact center. It acted as an early warning system that allowed the cable TV and internet service provider to get ahead of potential customer service problems. For instance, by monitoring the feed, the Digital Care team knew about outages that occurred within minutes and could update the IVR and inform the contact center well before the call volume began to spike.
Eliason’s social customer service approach was also unique in that all members of his Digital Care team came from contact center and service functions within Comcast. It was a move that most businesses would not have considered at the time. Social media generally belonged to the marketing department, and many execs were reluctant to allow frontline service staff to interact directly with customers in such a public forum.
Fast Forward to 2017: The Current Landscape
That was then, but what about now? How far have businesses advanced when it comes to providing customer service via social channels? Since his days at Comcast, Eliason has gone on to develop social, digital and CX strategies for Citibank, published the best-seller @YourService and is now an independent consultant helping companies to develop strategic initiatives for navigating the changing digital landscape.
Eliason says that a critical change over the past eight years has been the recognition by business leaders that social media offers valuable data for driving innovation across functions to deliver an optimal customer experience. “To gain the greatest value, we have to stop looking at our businesses internally from within various silos,” he says. “This is not how our customers see our organizations. Instead of competing with other internal business units, we should work to create the greatest company and products possible.”
Integration across functions is an area for improvement and should be a priority item, according to reputation management and social service expert Daniel Lemin, author of Manipurated, and head of consulting at Convince & Convert, a digital marketing and customer experience strategy firm. “Most companies today provide at least some form of social customer care. It may differ from one company to the next, but it’s common for businesses to be active at least on Facebook and Twitter. It’s an improvement to the customer experience, but more work remains to be done. In some cases, the individuals assigned to respond to customers on social media are not in customer service roles. They might work for an agency or another non-service function at the company, creating a gap in the customer experience.”
Part of the problem is that many business leaders still view social as a marketing function and not a customer service channel—and much of the early technology to monitor social media helped to facilitate that view, says Tim Montgomery. “We used to preach that we need to provide customers with their choice of channels through which to contact the business, and companies started building products around new channels. Social is different. We’re starting to see companies rethink the way they offer channels. The idea now is to meet the customer where they are—in their social worlds,” he says. Montgomery is the founder of the consulting firm Alamo Cloud Solutions and a board member of HelpSocial, an integrated platform for customer care and social media. “Once companies realize that it’s more profitable and cost-effective to meet the customer where they are, we’ll start to see more investment in tools to help bridge that gap,” he says.
“The tech is still evolving,” adds HelpSocial CEO and Co-founder Matt Wilbanks. “It’s still mostly dominated by marketing platforms, but larger brands are realizing the value of integrating the capabilities needed with their customer service departments. The biggest impact on the approach today is probably the leadership back of the programs. With that support, teams are able to hire more people, invest more in training and work to optimize processes with better technology.”
Social is a highly visible platform, which makes it evident to consumers when companies don’t have a social service strategy in place. For instance, some businesses with active service-related profiles on social media use it as an entry point for making contact with customers and then send them back to more traditional channels like phone, email and chat to get their complaints resolved. It’s a frustrating cycle for customers, who tend to turn to social channels after experiencing a service failure in another channel.
Fortunately, many companies are now recognizing the importance of the user experience, both from a customer and agent perspective, says social customer care consultant and trainer Guy Stephens, although he adds that there is a long way to go. “Having a true user lens is not easy,” he says. “Taking a service design approach has enabled companies to understand that a process or system is not an experience.”
Stephens points out that the public nature of social media has forced companies to adopt a different mindset about where, how and how quickly knowledge is being shared—which, for him, has been one of the most profound changes that has taken place over the years. “Companies need to be bolder and more courageous in what they do,” he notes. “Social customer care decentralized customer service, and until knowledge management undergoes this same decentralization, customer service, in spite of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, will still be somewhat constrained.
“Companies need to decide what type of customer service they want to provide,” he adds. “When designing customer care with social in mind, it’s really thinking about what a service ecosystem of Blockchain, AI, Google, messaging, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, etc., looks like. Don’t necessarily think of the platform that is called Twitter or Facebook, but think about the unique characteristics of that type of communication because that is the world of your future advocates, detractors, buyers, complainers. Are you geared up for that both technologically and culturally, or are you still in a world of five-year IT programs, inbound email and telephone calls?”
Still Some Lingering Issues for Centers to Overcome
While companies have had varying degrees of success connecting with customers via social channels, there are still a few critical issues that are preventing contact centers from fully embracing social customer service.
The Ownership Debate
Who owns social media has been a hot debate within organizations for more than a decade. Surprisingly, the fight over ownership is still an issue within companies, which is distracting them from delivering a customer-centric experience, says Eliason. “The biggest challenge is the same challenge that has always been present. Customers have never desired social customer service; they want companies to get it right in the first place,” he stresses. “Instead of jumping to some digital channel, build an entirely different experience that puts the customer first. This will get customers talking about your brand and allow them to do the marketing for you.”
An underlying contributor to the ownership debate is that other functions like PR, marketing, communications and legal simply don’t view social as a customer channel, says Montgomery, adding that many companies have left social support out of their channel lineup.
Neglecting the social channel is a risky move in an age of empowered, highly vocal customers—especially since it is one that is so visible to so many. Consumers don’t know about, or care about, the internal conflicts a company may be having over who responds via social and how—they just want a timely and appropriate response to their issue.
“Consumers have higher expectations of responsiveness now than ever before,” says Lemin. “But where most companies fail to impress isn’t on the speed of their response. In fact, it’s on the willingness of the company to simply answer their customers. Research from Jay Baer’s Hug Your Haters shows just how wide this gap really is: About one-third of customer complaints are ignored. And furthermore, most businesses think they’re doing a good job: 80% of companies say they provide superior customer service. Only 8% of customers agree.”
Internal View of Customer Service Needs an Upgrade
Another obstacle that lies in the path of social’s integration into the contact center may have to do with how senior leaders view the customer service function within their companies.
“In the Industrial Age, customer service was often considered an operational expense; an overhead item that negatively impacted profits,” explains Mark Babbitt, CEO and founder of YouTern, president of WorqIQ, and co-author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. “In the Social Age, customer service—perhaps for the first time ever—represents a chance to connect with our customers in real time. One human being at a time, we have an opportunity to turn less-than-satisfied (and increasingly vocal) customers into brand ambassadors.
“This opportunity, however, is also our biggest challenge,” he says. “How do contact centers transition from transactional to human-centered customer service? How do they train existing team members to empathize with the person on the other end of the line? Just as important, how do we hire people who genuinely care—not just about the brand’s position and policies, but what the customer is feeling at that moment.”
Focus on the User Experience
When communicating via email, customers will accept, even expect, some amount of scripted responses and 24- to 48-hour response times. Not so with social, where users value genuine, human communication and real-time interaction.
“The user experience is still key and, for me, where companies and vendors have not got it right (which is not the same thing as ‘got it wrong’) from a customer service perspective is that they’ve essentially tried to force-fit social technologies like Twitter and Facebook onto legacy models, and in a way, ended up treating these social channels as if they were inbound email,” says Stephens.
“I use the word ‘user’ deliberately,” he adds. “Companies need to consider the agent as a valid user, and really think about what the agent experience looks like. Are you going to tie the agent to a legacy system or a set way of doing things, or are you going to try to move the agent experience to something that is far more ‘of the moment’—agents having the necessary tools to create resolutions on the fly. This can’t happen without an accompanying shift in mindset. An ‘agile’ approach to dealing with customers, by necessity, requires an agile approach in mindset. This runs counter to how customer service traditionally has been done.”
Moving Forward: Advice from the Experts
There have been significant changes in the social media world over the past eight years, for sure. New networking sites have emerged, and others have disappeared. But it’s safe to say that social media will continue to expand and evolve—and that customers will increasingly turn to social channels to get the attention of the companies with which they do business.
What can you do to ensure that your center delivers a quality customer experience via social channels? Our social customer service experts weigh in:
Start with who you are as a company. Consider: How does your customer view your business? What are your key differentiators that will make customers want to talk positively about your brand? Stopping thinking in terms of channels, but take the deeper view of your customer. Once you understand what your company is about, learn how to take it to new heights utilizing digital, social or any other means of communication. Too often, we strive to become another company or something we’re not instead of focusing on what we’re best at. For some companies, it may be a theme such as efficiency, but for others, it may be about the relationship.
When I look back at the early days of social media, it was not about brands like Comcast; it was much more human. If we want to see long-term success in a world filled with new technologies such as AI, we need to bring back the human aspects to the relationship as well. For some reason, being human is more scary to businesses than rushing to the next hot technology.
Our traditional contact center processes work well in the social channel if we consider it to be a real channel, like chat or email. There are some really cool products available that can monitor all aspects of social—your brand, your customer demographics, your competition, etc. These tools can integrate with all of your current routing and call center support technologies—this is where the contact center can help. Actively monitoring and responding in real-time will help companies to save customers that otherwise would have left (i.e., they don’t call or email… just share their complaint with others online). This is where social shifts from a cost to a real revenue driver in the contact center. It only takes a couple of examples of success to get senior managers excited about investing more in social.
The unfortunate thing is that social is usually treated as a siloed channel outside the contact center. This causes problems with maintaining a consistent customer experience across all products and channels. The businesses that are doing very well with their overall customer experience are integrating social in the contact center and putting the strategy in place so that multiple teams and departments can all work in social at the same time, without stepping on each other’s toes.
Look through the eyes of your user. Don’t make assumptions based on outdated knowledge passed down in a half-forgotten web of corporate myths. By really understanding the world from the user’s point of view, you are far more likely to be empathetic to their needs, behaviors and motivations.
Be bold. Don’t be held back by business cases and old thinking. This can be a lonely and frustrating battle. Believe in yourself, but don’t forget you need to bring others with you on the journey.
For those people championing the social customer care banner, protect them, give them the space to be bold and allow them the necessity to fail. Not everything will work.
Share the successes with everyone.
Be open. If your starting point is openness, this fundamentally changes how you see everything. You suddenly think about possibilities and working with others. Charlene Li (Altimeter Group) has written a lot about open leadership; she is well worth a read.
Speed matters, but focus first on addressing all of your customers—both praise and complaints. It doesn’t have to be lightning fast, but it does need to be consistent. If a company only provides customer service on social media during certain hours of the day, be sure to let customers know about that to avoid disappointment or even possible outrage.
Hire for the culture you want one year from now. At the same time, let attrition be your best friend. In other words, set high standards for your agents in the areas of emotional intelligence (EQ) and workplace intelligence (WQ). Specifically: Attract, hire and retain those agents who are empathetic, take a balanced approach to every conversation and treat each contact as a chance to build a trusting, mutually beneficial human-to-human relationship.
Once these standards are set, and exemplary performance is recognized and rewarded, you’ll not only deliver a quality customer experience—you’ll create an organizational culture and workplace climate that continues to attract top talent and the best customers. At the same time, you’ll enable less-than-stellar agents to take their Industrial Age talents elsewhere.