Getting the most from social media in customer service

By Stephen Withers
Thursday, 14 June, 2012


Social media is increasingly a part of Australian companies’ customer service efforts. However, many struggle to get the most out of their social media strategy, while others have more costly mistakes, inadvertantly engendering ill will from customers.

A Telsyte survey found that between 13 and 17% of staff time on public social networks is spent on customer feedback and interaction, suggesting companies have been quick to recognise the need for a social media presence that also serves as a conduit for customer service and expectations.

Telsyte senior analyst Rodney Gedda observed, “Companies are happy to market their wares through social channels, but they also take the user commentary seriously.” The use of social media by businesses is still growing and Gedda suggests we will “see social media play a deeper role in how companies do business this year onward”.

Social media adoption is relatively mature in Australia, according to Robert Allman, General Manager, Customer Interactive Solutions at Dimension Data. It has become a significant part of corporate and individual behaviour: “Social media is now at scale,” he said. Research shows plenty of people are ready to engage with potential suppliers via social media as part of their prepurchase process and to voice criticisms or explain the benefits of a product or service.

Organisations therefore need to use those channels, but to do that they need to understand which ones their customers are using. Furthermore, they should identify a clear value proposition for working with and retaining customers through social media channels and manage expectations over those various channels while applying relevant staff skills to each of them.

Robert Lattuca, Asia Pacific Vice President of Strategic Solutions at Genesys, says most organisations are challenged not by the technology needed to accommodate social media, but by organisational issues.

“That’s really hampering a lot of organisations,” he said, pointing to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report ‘Getting closer to the customer’, which noted the importance of a holistic approach, addressing the root causes of problems that lead to negative comments on social media and giving one person responsibility for all customer communication channels.

A broader view

While it is important to treat social media strategically rather than ‘flavour of the month’, within that broader framework you do need a social media strategy that sets out what you’re going to do, who is going to do it and what other resources are going to be needed, said Stephen Lord, General Manager, Client Services and Marketing at Next Digital. That strategy can be applied to ensure consistently good experiences, avoiding potentially brand-damaging fumbles.

Response times are compressed when dealing with social media. A quick acknowledgement - certainly within the hour - is expected, with a full response within a few hours. Failing to respond quickly will result in an even more dissatisfied customer, the risk the matter will cascade as more people pick up the incident and an increased strain on the staff.

“It’s a dangerous precedent to put all your efforts into managing on a reactive basis,” said Allman. Organisations tend to assume that social media problems that have affected others won’t happen to them, whereas they actually need to develop a social media strategy, give someone the responsibility and the resources needed for implementation, and to monitor social media. Service providers have been doing this, he said, but behaviour has been more sporadic in other industry verticals.

One problem is that different functions within a business (eg, marketing, sales, product and customer service) see social media as their turf, leading to a fractured or uncoordinated approach, said Allman. Larger organisations typically put social media into the contact centre or customer services organisation, as they already have appropriate processes in place.

Lattuca notes that marketing tends to be concerned with product awareness and containing the risk associated with negative messages rather than with customer service. Can this conflict be overcome? “We think that’s pretty doable,” he said. “They handle it with voice … [but] social media seems to scare everybody.” Technology can be applied to help measure the sentiment of a message and direct it to an appropriate person within the organisation, he said.

Michel van Woudenberg, Vice President of CRM at Oracle Asia Pacific, took up this theme, saying that for established businesses, social media is just another communications channel that needs to be handled within customer service processes. One particular problem he identifies is the risk of alienating customers if you fail to match their online and real-world identities, as they will use multiple - and even all available - channels during the course of one extended interaction, such as obtaining after-sales service.

(That raises the issue of how you can find out customers’ online identities. van Woudenberg points out that a Google search can often yield this information and the Facebook API gives access to customer information as permitted by the user. If that seems too creepy, you can always ask the person to identify themselves during an online interaction and then save their username in the CRM for future use.)

If the entire ‘conversation’ isn’t available to the person communicating with the customer at a particular time, that customer is likely to become irritated.

Consequently, van Woudenberg said, it is important to invest in the customer experience. This means putting the business’s house in order before adding social media: if you are already failing to meet customers’ service expectations, throwing social media into the mix will likely make things worse.

Although he wouldn’t be drawn on names, van Woudenberg said one bank spinoff and some retailers in Australia are doing good jobs of integrating social media and customer service. (Lattuca mentioned NAB subsidiary UBank along with iiNet as examples of businesses that understand how to do this.) Contrary to some of the views that have been aired recently, “Customers don’t just buy on price,” said van Woudenberg.

There’s broad agreement that customer service needs to be consistent - at least in terms of outcomes - across channels in order to avoid ‘forum shopping’. Lattuca recommended clear statements of what you are prepared to do on each channel, otherwise it is “an invitation for confusion”.

“Multichannel doesn’t mean every channel can do everything,” he explained.

Different strokes

Smaller organisations won’t be able to invest as heavily as their larger counterparts, suggested Allman, but they still need to be prepared to treat social media “as a critical channel of communication”. Smaller and nimbler organisations including some e-tailers are already developing a positive presence in social media, growing their following and increasing the attachment of their customers.

While Twitter, Facebook and (particularly in a B2B context) LinkedIn are usually regarded as the critical social media channels, Lord pointed out that “blogs and forums are really important” because they can be used as the focus of self-sustaining customer communities that provide peer support, with ‘customer advocates’ doing much of the work on your behalf at practically no cost.

Examples include Apple, Google and Atlassian, but he warned that it requires a relatively open culture with a willingness to tolerate complaints and to engage in an “authentic” dialogue. Apple seems to provide a counter-example: it is notoriously secretive, negative comments have reportedly been deleted and its employees play no visible role on the Apple Support Communities site as it is intended for peer support.

Incorporating social media into a customer service strategy can be easier when you’re starting from scratch, so a young company can provide a good example of what you should be aiming to achieve. Peter James, Chairman and co-founder of cloud provider Ninefold, says his company was launched online, using Twitter and blogs to draw attention. “We’ve never used ‘above the line’ [marketing or communications activities],” he said. Ninefold’s first recruit was a social media expert: “Social media is in our DNA.”

The company’s business is largely self-service, so Ninefold has little direct contact with most customers, who range from small developers to international businesses. It has no traditional sales teams or account managers: “If the customer wants it, it can be a very low-touch model,” James observed. Instead, once customers have signed up, 80% of the subsequent contact is through a variety of online channels: “Our customers live online, [so] they interact with us online.

“We will engage with people using any channel that suits them,” he said, whether that is Twitter, live chat, email, phone or anything else. “Whatever way they contact us, that’s the way we’ll interact with them.” So Ninefold’s support staff monitor Twitter and other channels such as LinkedIn groups. Given Ninefold is a B2B operator, it’s little surprise that Facebook is rarely used.

“Our philosophy is to be transparent,” said James, and advises other businesses to follow suit: “People are looking for honesty.” Some businesses see social media as a threat (eg, those that ban Facebook), but they should see it as a way people communicate.

One of James’s opinions may perplex managers at established organisations. He believes that social media can’t be an add-on, especially in a round-the-clock business. Rather, you need to involve people that ‘live’ social media. So his advice is to hire or engage someone to lead your social media effort that understands the field and is a reasonably good fit with the existing corporate culture and then “get out there and iterate”.

Lord has a slightly different perspective, pointing out that the people actually doing the work must have the experience necessary to quickly address any issues raised by customers, and when they can’t, they need access to colleagues that are primed to provide the answers quickly. People with appropriate experience in that particular business can give a faster turnaround, so it’s not just a question of using people with social media skills, he said.

“You’ve got to have people with the right touch,” said James, suggesting that traditional PR or marketing staff might not be suitable for these roles. Allman goes even further, pointing out that even existing contact centre agents may not be suitable. Even those that are good at responding to emails may struggle to get a message across in 140 characters and in real time.

Organisations need to look for staff they can trust to respond appropriately, applying product and industry knowledge along with an understanding of relevant in-house processes, in order to close issues promptly with outcomes that satisfy the customers involved. Apart from avoiding public rants, this can avoid the escalation to more-expensive channels such as in-store staff.

“It’s simple when you’ve got the right people and they know what they’re doing,” said James, who added that one of the advantages of hiring someone that’s already active in social media is that they may bring their existing - and sometimes quite large - following.

Ninefold’s social media monitoring is linked to the monitoring of its IT systems. If Ninefold is mentioned in social media, it will be brought to someone’s attention. But if social media alerts coincide with technology alerts, they are treated as urgent regardless of the time of day. Similarly, sudden floods of mentions or messages from known customers get almost immediate attention, even on holiday weekends.

The bad and the ugly

When asked about the ‘squeaky wheel’ problem - rewarding people for complaining loudly and publicly, which any parent knows is a recipe for continuing problems - James observed: “The world of brand management has changed fundamentally.” You are going to get public comments and you need to accept that some of them will be negative. So you need to engage with people via their chosen medium, being open and honest in the process. People want to know that they’ve been heard and that their problem has been addressed.

Dealing with malicious messages is part of living in the online world. It’s important to have appropriate strategies in place, but a solid brand combined with a good culture will help, he suggested. “People are going to complain anyway,” said Lord, and if you don’t respond to public criticism the issue can cascade.

“Brand protection is a key area,” said Allman, as significant costs can be incurred if an issue snowballs. And having to bring in additional staff to deal with a flood of negative comment involves very immediate costs. Part of the problem is that people have come to trust the collective opinions of strangers (as expressed through social media) when they make purchasing decisions, or consider whether or not they should stay with a provider.

Gedda agreed: “You have to take the good with the bad and don’t expect a social or technological paradigm shift to cure all your company cancers.”

But van Woudenberg warned that sending a stock reply in an attempt to respond quickly to an aggrieved customer risks making things worse. Instead, staff need to be trained to respond promptly and thoroughly, treating the incident as a ‘case’ just as if the customer had complained via a more traditional medium, and using the same underlying CRM system to obtain and record information about the customer and the issue. It’s not unusual for businesses to take care of their best customers in special ways - banks and airlines provide examples of these practices - and that can be applied to social media situations.

Allman agreed that differential service is legitimate and suggested that how influential a person is on social media is a justifiable criterion. “We can indicate the ‘clout score’,” said Lattuca, but Genesys doesn’t recommend that organisations break their usual customer service strategies to accommodate such individuals just for that reason.

Social media “seems easier to milk” to personal gain, he said. “It is a characterisation of [social media] and that demographic that they can amplify their messages quickly,” but “you can’t let [social media] dictate the way you do customer service.” That said, “Getting something sorted out immediately is effective,” so it makes sense to use Twitter to resolve an issue raised via Twitter.

Still, it can be appropriate to try to shift a conversation from a public space into a private one, said Allman, especially where more complex or customer-specific matters are concerned. Lattuca noted this is being done by some banks, which monitor Twitter for leads (“Looking for a good deal on a $1m home loan”) or negative feedback and then prefer to handle the issue or close the deal over the phone or another private channel.

Feedback via social media is quick and gives an organisation a clearer view of the problems people are encountering. This provides an opportunity for faster improvement of products or services. “[Social media] is also a business improvement opportunity,” said Lord, and this can help justify the cost of staffing a team to monitor and respond to social media.

A final word of warning for organisations new to social media: “[Make] sure you listen first, before going out to directly engage,” said Lord, as that will help you talk in the right way and in the right places.

Disclosure: The writer is a NAB shareholder.

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