How to build a social media customer service strategy

20th Jun 2013

Gone are the days when the social media customer support ‘team’ consisted of the tea boy toiling away on the brand’s Facebook page with little guidance.

These days, social media is a far more serious business, with brands far more prepared to staff up and resource a coordinated social media response.

But that still doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a robust social media customer service strategy underpinning the whole operation. And indeed in many organisations, this is still lacking.

“Businesses need a well-planned social customer support strategy because people are going use their social channels in this way, whether the business likes it or not,” says Neil Major, strategy director at Yomego. “Thus if you start with the assumption that any public facing channel will be used this way, you can plan accordingly. Tactically responses in the other hand will just lead to constant firefighting – and the chance of things going wrong, with the negative attention that can bring.”

“Your customers are already talking about you on social channels, so you need to agree what to do with those conversations,” says Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration. “If you don’t have a developed strategy on this, you could waste a huge amount of time listening to the wrong things.”

The development of a strategy also ensures consistency with the other service channels that a customer could use – something that is increasingly important given the channel-agnostic nature of the modern consumer.

“While it’s critical to react to positive and negative posts made over social channels, customers also have real questions around service, promotions and product information that require thoughtful answers consistent with the overall service strategy,” notes Wes O’Brien, CEO of CrowdEngineering.

“Tactical responses to service questions on Facebook, Twitter and forums often leave the process of service and achievement of service goals  (i.e. tracking first call resolution, customer satisfaction scores and customer effort scores) to chance. A tactical approach underutilises the significant investment most companies have previously made in their customer service organisation, fails to promote a proactive service environment, and can often lead to frustrating customer experiences when service needs are not met.”

Listening and purpose

So where should organisations start? How can they lay the groundwork for a robust social media customer service strategy? A good place to begin is by listening to what your customers are saying, and where they are saying it.

“You need to know what it is being said about you and your competitors, where it is being said, and who is saying it,” suggests Jay Cooper, COO of BLOOM Worldwide. “This will give you an overview of where you are and enable you to develop objectives and strategy around your customer needs and expectations. It will also give you a good idea of the training and processes that you need to develop for your staff. There's no point spending thousands of pounds on a robust Twitter customer support strategy, and then finding out all your customers expect to interact with you on Amazon.”

Major adds: “You need to know what people are saying so that you can create an effective strategy. You should also look at your other channels to assess the most common likely issues. Listening first will allow you to work out what issues you have and what you can say about them.”

Listening provides useful steer to help you plan your strategy and get an idea about the levels of resourcing required. It will also help you establish the goals that you hope to achieve – the next step in the strategy building process. “

“Agree what you want to achieve,” advises Littleton. “Is it reduced cost, better resolution time or a better user experience? Agree whether you want to include customer service in your main social feeds, or split them out (like ASOS does with ASOS Here to Help).”

Securing buy-in and establishing responsibilities

Having listened to your customers to establish a need for social customer service, and also drawn together the goals of the project, it’s now time to secure senior buy-in. As this can sometimes be a tough nut to crack, it is worth ensuring that you have an influential figure heading up the project in the first place.

“In order to develop a sound social customer support strategy you need a lead figure at the helm,” explains Peter Heffring, CEO and founder of Expion. “This needs to be someone who firstly understands social media but are also deeply passionate about it. Without this person there won’t be any internal buy in, at any level. Brands need an evangelist internally to inspire action on social.”

And senior buy-in is essential.

“Social media customer support will extend across the entire business and impact on the work of multiple functions. Without senior buy in, the different business functions may operate in silos with different agendas, creating a disconnect and an inconsistent customer service experience,” says Heffring.

“For example the digital team may have adopted a sound social customer service strategy while the legal team is reluctant to use social media as a channel to communicate with customers.  If those at the top have not bought into the value of a clearly defined social media strategy, it will fail.”

He continues: “Once everybody is on board you must define everyone’s roles and responsibilities and confirm the amount of resource the company is willing to commit to the social media customer support channel. The importance of training all stakeholders cannot be underestimated. Training will ensure that all stakeholders are skilled up to the same level and are delivering a consistent message to customers.”

Resources and integration

The issue of resources can be a big concern for businesses, who worry about the level of investment they’ll need to build a successful social media customer support strategy. But Littleton has the following advice to ensure that you’re prepared for the volume of tweets and posts without committing too much investment up front.

“Initially, it is likely to be small, but will increase as you build awareness of your social customer service channel,” she says. “Planning resource is the most important thing. Customers want a response on Twitter within about 15 minutes (that doesn’t have to be a resolution, just an acknowledgement) and on Facebook within an hour. If you’re likely to get a high volume of Tweets, consider a dedicated channel (as ASOS does) so your feeds don’t get clogged up with posts that aren’t relevant to the majority of your followers.”

Social media thought leader Steven Van Bellegham emphasises that the initial ‘listening’ phase will have given you an idea of the resource levels required, but highlights that because of the nature of social, and how quickly things can escalate, it is worth considering how you’ll be able to scale in the event of emergency.

“In order to understand how big or how small everything should be, the best place to start is by observing current online observations. It will give you an idea of the amount of conversations you will have to deal with,” he says. “Next to the internal structure, it is interesting to consider external back up as well. In case of a crisis, the internal group can sometimes not handle all requests in time. If you have external support ready at that time, you score points among your clients.”

When considering which parts of the organisation will be involved in social media customer service, even if these are resources that will only be used on a contingency basis, it is important to plan how communication is supported between teams. Integration will be a key part of the strategy.

“Effective internal communication is vital, but frequently organisations have their client communications teams set-up in competition to one another, i.e. the performance of the call centre are measure against the social media team and as such communication between those teams is significantly impaired,” says Sean Burton of Seren. “Ultimately, the customer see the business as a whole and doesn’t want to have to know which team are dealing with their query – they just want it resolved in as efficient manner as possible.”

And this integration also needs to extend to metrics and KPIs. “Customer service should be equally good over any channel,” says Littleton. “Make sure your social media and customer service team are working closely together, and set policies and guidelines that work over all channels.”


Once you’ve outlined the issues you want to resolve, you have secured budget and it is time to develop the strategy, here is a checklist of things to think about, as recommended by Dominic Sparkes, CEO and co-founder of Tempero:

  • Outline who should provide the support - In-house or agency
  • If in-house, are you recruiting or up-skilling?
  • What is their remit – standard response, tailored, bespoke, what training is needed?
  • List all the guidelines, scripts and workflows that need creating
  • Are your agents using existing tech or new tools?  This needs work
  • If you have the people, tech and process – how are you training them?
  • What support is the team getting?
  • What are the KPIs you need to hit - You will need a way of measuring that 

Heffring has listed the most common mistakes made during the strategy building process. Ensure that you avoid the following pitfalls:

  • Lack of senior buy in – When introducing any new processes or concepts into an organisation, you must secure senior buy in. Without this buy in, the new process is unlikely to become part of the company culture and will ultimately fail.
  • No training provided – You can not expect your employees and stakeholders to implement a new strategy without training and guidance. You must equip your workforce with the training required to deliver exceptional customer service via social media channels.  
  • Poor planning – You need to ensure your team is equipped for all eventualities. For example, if you are a car manufacturer and one of your models has been recalled due to faulty brakes, you need to make your team aware of these issues and upscale accordingly to meet customer concerns.
  • Lack of process – All programmes need clear processes. If these processes are followed all customers will have the same customer experience.
  • Lack of goals and measures – Without laying out what you expect the programme to deliver, it will not succeed in the long term.
  • Inability to interpret the data and action it for business purposes – Social media can provide hugely valuable customer insights as well as other business intelligence. If you are not able to interpret this data for business purposes, the data is redundant and a missed opportunity for businesses.

“This is an exciting and transformational time for customer service,” concludes O’Brien. “While many of their elders still reach for the phone, Gen-Y customers simply don’t dial in to call centres. With an estimated one in three social media users preferring social over phone support, companies need to offer robust and quality support choices for those ‘connected’ customers sooner than later.”

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By inigomiguel1015
10th Jul 2013 13:11

It is worth considering how you’ll be able to scale in the event of emergency. - Scott Safadi

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