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Training Agents for Social Customer Care

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Training Agents for Social Customer Care

Training Agents for Social Customer Care

Guidelines and pointers for developing an effective social service training program.

As corporate social media strategies continue to evolve, so too have management’s views about who is best-suited to handle the customer complaints and issues that surface via social channels. Initially, many companies turned to their marketing teams and external social media specialists, believing that the one-to-many aspect of social media interactions required the expertise of those skilled at influencing others via written communications.

More recently, though, companies have come to realize that the contact center is the ideal touchpoint for social customer service contacts. After all, the best staff to handle service-related issues are those who have experience dealing with complaints, who understand the organization’s customer care philosophy and protocols, who have a sense of urgency for handling customers’ issues, and who are already a good fit for the company’s culture.

However, the skills required to provide social customer care are vastly different from those that drive success in a traditional contact center job—and even agents who are active on their personal social networking sites may not be well-suited for the role.

“Just because someone is a whiz on Twitter or Facebook, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she would make a great social customer service agent,” says Jim Iyoob, executive VP of Customer Experience and Operational Excellence for contact center and technology solution provider Etech Global Services. “The type of communication is not the same—it’s providing customer care and service versus pushing out information.”

Selecting the Ideal Candidates for Social Service Training

If your company is just beginning to integrate social media channels into the contact center, consider selecting candidates from your current staff to train for social customer care rather than recruiting new-hires with social media skills, suggests Elaine Carr, training & development manager at ICMI (International Customer Management Institute). “Your existing agents are more familiar with the company, and they’re more likely to be able to handle the unexpected,” she points out.

So which of your agents will make the best candidates for social customer care? “A social agent has to be a thought leader,” says Iyoob. “While traditional call center agents are subject to strict guidelines about what they can and cannot say, social agents don’t have scripts. They have to be able to articulate their message to the customer in 140 characters or less, and it has to be timely, relevant, personal and provide a path to resolution. The social agent has to be more of a thinker versus someone who just processes transactions.”

Having a positive outlook is also critical, says Carr. “It’s not easy to respond to an angry comment in a way that is positive and not defensive,” she says. “While everyone can get better at it with practice, if an individual doesn’t have that basic outlook to begin with, it’s very difficult to train it.”

Good writing skills are another fundamental requirement. Even though writing skills can be taught, it’s probably not how you want to spend your call center training time or budget. Some of the other core requirements that are critical for providing social customer service include: Product and policy knowledge, communications savvy (i.e., individuals who are comfortable talking to customers in a public space and who understand the issues and risks), brand knowledge, decision making and reasoning, ability to work autonomously, a customer-driven attitude and the ability to multitask.

Developing a Training Program

Once you’ve selected the best candidates for your social channels, it’s important to provide them with clear interaction guidelines and help them to hone their skills.

The open nature of social media conversations means that contact center leaders will need to think through their social customer service strategy separately from their engagement strategies for other channels, Carr says. One of the key differences for frontline agents is learning how to define the customer’s need. For instance, customers often don’t take their requests and complaints directly to the company. Instead, they may post a complaint as a comment to their followers. Or those who do begin a conversation directly with the company may not be clear about what they want.

A well-thought-out social media strategy will act as the foundation to build your social service training program, Carr says. Your program should be based on a social playbook or handbook that sets out what the company is trying to accomplish, a plan for when to respond and how, key roles and responsibilities, how to integrate social contacts into the contact center’s workflow, guidelines on tone, an escalation process, as well as social media monitoring and reporting processes and tools.

In addition, your social playbook will help to determine training goals and how your training program should be structured. The following are five common components of social customer care training to include.

Social Media Guidelines

A good way to kick off your training program is to provide trainees with a basic understanding of how social media works and the differences for engagement among the various social networks (e.g., posts on Facebook are not limited to a word or character count while, on Twitter, tweets are restricted to 140 characters).

Even if your agents are already active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, they now need to look at social media from the business’ standpoint, and not just sharing information with friends and family, explains Carr.

“Understanding social media in this context, along with the social media policy and the process guidelines calls for a lot of game playing and role playing,” she says. “Conduct exercises in writing social media replies. Focus on specific situations and keeping an informal, positive tone.”

Practical Pointer: To test your trainees’ understanding of the differences among social networks, present them with an example situation and have them write a response to the customer for each of the social channels in which your company is active (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc).

Situation Guidelines

In addition to understanding the basic principles of each social network, provide your social service agents with guidelines on how to handle the various types of situations they are likely to encounter.

You’ll have to do some homework beforehand to research the types of situations (e.g., complaints, questions, compliments) that you want your CSRs to respond to as well as how you want them to respond. Start by tracking the conversations that people have about your brand online, says Iyoob. “These are great questions to ask and seek to answer as your contact center begins to establish a social media channel,” he says. “Doing your best to answer these questions will help establish a plan for dealing with these issues when they arise.”

Plan also to spend a significant amount of time to provide a clear understanding of all regulatory restrictions, and guidelines about what action to take if there is even a small risk that a restriction might be encountered (such as what to say to a banking customer requesting financial advice over Twitter), says social media speaker, trainer and consultant Pat Perdue, chief customer experience designer at Socialcity.

“Agents have to be comfortable to reply in voice, and quickly,” he explains. “To do so they need to be 100% sure of where the boundaries are. The same holds true for customer identities and sensitive customer information. Agents need to be aware of when it’s OK to continue the conversation over the public forum, and when they need to take the conversation to a more secure environment, such as over the telephone. The risk to customers’ personal information being divulged is a huge area of focus for many industries who can otherwise benefit from social media (banking and pharma are two good examples). A misstep in this area could leave the company exposed to embarrassment at best, and potential legal action at worst” (see “Social Media Customer Care Agents,” Pipeline, August 2013).

Practical Pointer: To give trainees a good understanding of your company’s social media workflow, Carr recommends a physical activity. Break trainees into small groups. Provide each group with construction paper and yarn, and ask them to construct an interaction flowchart on a classroom wall. Groups can use the construction paper for the flowchart decision points and the yarn to connect them. Give each group different types of situations. “The combination of participating in an active exercise while consulting with the other group members to think through how the flow should go, where the decisions have to be made, what the decisions are, how each changes the flow and what inputs you need will significantly increase your agents’ understanding and retention,” she says.

Brand Identity

Because of the highly visible, one-to-many aspect of social media, CSRs will need to learn how to converse on social channels in a way that aligns with and supports the brand identity. Ideally, your marketing and advertising staff should participate in this part of the training, says Perdue.

Even if your training class consists of your current service staff, Iyoob recommends setting aside one to three days of training to focus on the brand—so that agents can learn about the company, the culture, beliefs, vision and mission. “If you want them to represent the brand, they should go through the training just like a new-hire would to learn about the company,” he says.

Conduct role-playing exercises to help them incorporate what they’ve learned into social customer service responses that are timely, relevant and personal. “We will provide trainees with tweets that we’ve collected from our listening tools, and then we have them write their responses on paper in 140 characters or less.” At Etech, agents spend at least one to three days practicing with mock sessions before they go live to engage with customers.

Practical Pointer: Provide your agents with examples of what good and bad responses look like. “Look at what your own company has done in the past in social media, but also at what other companies are doing to see what your agents can learn from them,” says Carr. A useful classroom exercise is to examine the biggest mistakes made in social media in the past year, she adds. Have the class review the conversations and come up with ideas on how to improve the company’s social customer service delivery.

Positive Tone and Rapport with Customers

A scripted response is a death knell in social customer service, says Carr. Social media is a personal medium, so agents will need to learn how to respond in a way that sounds genuine and not like a robot.

At Etech, an important component of social service training program is teaching agents how to mirror the style of the person with whom they’re interacting. While that may not be easy to do from a single tweet or brief post, Iyoob says that customers’ social media profiles can provide agents with some hints. For instance, what type of influence do they have? Is this person an introvert or extrovert? Are they fun, passionate or do they present a more formal and professional profile?

Provide trainees with lots of examples followed by lots of practice, Carr adds. “Building rapport is the type of topic where trainees will learn more from examples than bulleted steps or tips on how to do it,” she says. Use both good and bad examples of responses to customers’ posts and tweets in your training sessions. Carr recommends having CSRs rewrite the less positive company responses into more positive experiences.

Practical Pointer: Boingo Wireless places a priority on authenticity when providing social customer care, and strives to ensure that tweets and posts sound genuine. While many companies find it helpful in the beginning to provide agents with a script, Boingo provides its reps with a simple outline with bullet points. This way, they understand the key details that they need to communicate but can personalize the message (see “Social Media Customer Care,” Pipeline, February 2013).

When and How to Escalate Issues

A critical component of service training is teaching agents when and how to escalate customer issues. Social customer service is no different. Whether it’s an irate customer, a potential public relations disaster or even threatening language, agents need to know when a situation needs to be handled offline by a manager or other business unit, what steps to take, who is alerted and who is responsible for which actions. Iyoob adds that the supervisor or manager who handles escalated issues must have a direct connection with the corporate communications and brand management teams.

Don’t Forget the Time Element

Keep in mind that speed is important to customers who interact on social media. “If there is going to be a response, customers expect it to be fast—15 minutes to an hour at most,” says Carr. “If you take four hours to respond, they’re not paying attention to you any more, and you’ve disappointed them again.”

The ability to respond to issues quickly and with the right tone, style and message has to be built into the training process, she says. “Agents don’t have to respond quickly on the first day, but by the end of the training, there has to be that time pressure to come out with a good response quickly. That’s critical.”

Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash is the Editor of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog. She is a veteran business journalist with 25 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.

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