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How should brands tackle the social customer service dichotomy?

21st Apr 2016

Just over four years ago, social customer service was mostly a paradoxical world, where consumers reached out to brands on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, and the brands largely ignored what they said.

Statistics from the time back this up: A study by A.T. Kearney found that, of 2011’s top brands in the US, 56% did not respond to a single customer comment on their Facebook Page, despite 62% of customers stating they’d used social media for customer service issues. Brands failed to respond to 71% of customer complaints on Twitter. 55% of consumers expected a response the same day to a complaint, yet only 29% received one.   


With stats like these, it’s hardly surprising that the penny eventually dropped, and Mashable reported that by early 2012, 80% of companies were expressing an interest in using social media for customer service. The subsequent four years have seen most top businesses clamber to get a customer support presence on social networks – predominantly Twitter and Facebook, but increasingly across any network where there’s clear consumer demand.

At first, many were coerced into thinking that this was largely to satisfy the requirements of digital natives and millennials, however current statistics suggest this isn’t the case.

Dimelo data highlights that, yes, the younger generations are embracing new channels and tools such as social networks and instant messaging. But this phenomenon is not limited to the youth; in fact, it also holds true for 40% of people aged 35 to 44.

Customer service

As a result, large brands like KLM are taking to other networks, including LinkedIn, in order to try and offer a more holistic customer service support function and appease every demographic of user. Such is the level of proliferation that even brands like Apple, with a history of being protective and insular about their service approach, have succumbed to offering 24/7 support on a platform as turbulent and tricky to manage as Twitter.

Bridging the gap 

So how has the shift changed the dichotomy between user and brand that existed in 2011? Lauren Stewart, marketing director for Conversocial, believes customers quickly became savvy to the rapid increase in brands providing this new level of social service:

“Armed with the knowledge of their own choice when it comes to communicating with brands, along with the power and ease of holding them accountable on social media, leverage has shifted squarely to the consumer. 

“What used to be a very private one to one conversation with a brand became a public one, which can rapidly escalate should a brand not deal with the query in a timely and efficient manner, giving consumers the ability to make this conversation a very public conversation with more than one consumer at a time.”

Brands, in return, have tried their hardest to keep up. A 2016 Eptica study, for instance, highlighted that social network queries are now answered more readily than email in most businesses, with Twitter (48% success rate) and Facebook (44%) more accurate and faster at delivering responses. However, the rate of response is still failing to match increasing consumer expectation. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) people turn to social media before any other channel when a complicated problem arises and perhaps surprisingly, 14% turn to it first in a crisis – like when a flight is cancelled. And while Social Baker 2015 data highlighted that average response times on Twitter dropped from 8 hours 37 minutes in 2014 to 5 hours 27 minutes in 2015, consumer expectations are for this to drop further still, to less than an hour.

What used to be a very private one to one conversation with a brand became a public one

Dr. Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures for BT’s global innovation division, says the rush to have a service presence on social networks has left many businesses short sighted about what they’re able to offer.

“I always compare social media service strategy to a dance floor. If you were at a party, you might want to stand and watch the dance floor to figure out who is dancing, what kind of dancing they are doing and who you fancy dancing with. Then, when you are feeling brave, you step on and start to boogie. If you’ve done your observation right, you don’t do embarrassing “dad dancing” and you don’t get slapped in the face.

“This is social customer service strategy in a nutshell. Understanding how and why customers want to be served over social channels and how they fit alongside other channels is vital. Getting onto the dance floor “because everyone else is” is not a great strategy.”

Cost commitment

Part of the issue is resources. Dimelo’s recent contact centre study highlighted that just 3% of company investment in customer support is earmarked for social media, despite platforms accounting for an approximated 17% of the communication channels used by consumers.

The dilemma is where to shift the resources from. Telephone is still seen as the most popular method for consumers looking to contact a brand with a query, and this is transferred into where most businesses currently apply their resources, with 77% of service budgets going to telephone support, despite the demand actually only equating to 22% across all channels.  

The inbound enquiries continue to mount up. In the Sprout Social Q1 2016 Index, top brands were hit with an average of 2,742 incoming messages per day across social networks. How to respond and resolve so many issues is part of the challenge, especially on a platform such as Twitter that offers just 140 characters in which to make a response. Not to mention actually picking up on the query in the first place, which isn’t always easy.

Despite this, many brands are upbeat about the channel: “For me, customer service is just the beginning of what can be a long and fruitful relationship with a customer,” says Sabrina Rodriguez, global social media manager for Travelex. “Social is by far and away the most important customer channel when it comes to being able to build those relationships, as it’s the only channel where it’s totally okay to continue a conversation beyond a mere transaction or query.

“There’s nothing stopping brands from continuing that conversation and being truly social. You can then open the door to engaging that customer in future marketing campaigns, product feedback, influencer activities, promotions and more.  It’s also a fantastic opportunity to build some of your best brand advocates. A motto I never tire of repeating in my job: ‘Every complaint is an opportunity’. In fact, the more emotionally charged a customer is when they first come to us, the more drastic that U-turn can be in turns of converting that emotion into a positive one.”     

Travelex’s approach isn’t always the norm, and many brands have had to adopt the social customer service approach of ‘taking queries off platform’ in a bid to control a conversation which for now, seems to be driving the response rate up.


However, some experts believe this approach is merely distorting what’s realistic within the confines of the medium. Twitter’s recent announcement that it is considering relaxing its Tweet character limit to 10,000 was met with praise by some, but others, such as Ryan Holmes of Time Magazine, have stated that too many people now simply have idealistic expectations from brands on social – regardless of the complex or often trivial nature of their complaints.

The more astute organisations will already be looking to understand the financial correlation between a negative Tweet, and a customer's lifecycle value

He cited cases involving celebrities as examples of complaints often being escalated in the public eye, creating unrealistic expectations of what brands were capable of doing with every case.

“Among the more high-profile of recent tiffs: actor Seth Rogen going toe-to-toe with Cathay Pacific airline, which had barred his pet Cavalier King Charles Spaniel from boarding a flight,” he wrote.

“Though the airline responded quickly and respectfully…a full-scale Twitter rant ensued. Before it was over, Rogen’s tweets were shared thousands of times, ultimately attracting notice from the Washington Post and news sites around the world.”

IBM’s social customer care consultant, Guy Stephens argued as far back as 2014 that large organisations should actively shift their focus away from speed of response to establishing what it is the consumer actually needs.

“The more astute organisations will already be trying to understand the unique characteristics and subtleties of these emerging platforms – individually and collectively – within the overall (and inevitable) digitisation of the broader service play. The more astute organisations will already be looking to understand the financial correlation between a negative Tweet, and a customer's lifecycle value (not lifetime value!) within the context of the moment in which that Tweet is sent. The more astute organisations will be trying to identify new customer microsegments based on context and behaviour.

“We need to genuinely shift the impetus of the conversation to our customers. We need to study their language, their words, their actions, their behaviours. They are the ones who know. They are the ones who act on instinct; it all comes naturally to them. They are the ones who have always told us the answers openly, directly, without prejudice. We listened (well sometimes), but we just weren't prepared to hear.”

Tech factor

Brands are increasingly turning to technology for assistance in this realm, with social listening tools and social analytics software helping customer service teams to better understand the sentiment of their customer’s social posts in order to create a more hierarchical approach to responses.

Recent research from Software Advice found, that by doing this, many were unearthing a mode of work that meant they were able to attach a level of importance to those contacting them via social networks.

What US consumers are asking brands over social media  (Software Advice)

Social customer

“For companies to succeed, they need to learn to socialise,” says Craig Borowski, market research associate for Software Advice.

“Software helps companies become more social by filtering and categorising posts and questions on social media…[they] can gauge the sentiment and urgency of posts and questions and determine how the company should prioritise responses.They help companies know when quick, scripted responses will suffice, and when more carefully considered, “social” responses are in order.”

However, as the cliché goes, technology is merely the enabler. And Nicola Millard adds that social customer service can only ever work if it forms a component of a wider, omnichannel strategy devised by a brand:

“Inconsistent strategies, no indications of what customers can or can’t expect in terms of service levels, multiple disconnected branded streams who don’t (or can’t) pass customers to the right place to get their issue addressed or a lack of signposting as to which channel is the most likely to get customers to their goal will create an omnishambles.

“What does become very apparent on social media is which questions and issues companies are unwilling or unable to respond to. Process flaws that probably exist quietly in other channels become the source of very public frustration on social media.  Customers often want some of these fundamental problems solved rather than an apology with no action – saying sorry isn’t enough - and they can often rapidly find allies in other customers who have had similar experiences or with the ladies and gentlemen of the press.”

With the dichotomy seemingly far from being resolved, how to formulate a strategy, how to build a team and how to measure success are all components MyCustomer will cover in coming weeks, as we aim to place further spotlight on the world of social customer service.

Replies (1)

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By Edu7mota
21st Apr 2016 18:44

At the core, the customer service team needs to have a focus to discover the root cause of the issue. Social media, and every other channel are simply tools to enhance the customer experience.

The worst interaction, is the one where the customer says everything is ok, turns around and post on twitter how the agent was unable to help them.

Organization can not treat social media as the solution or the answer to be more competitive when there is a lack of motivation to create a great customer experience interaction.

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