How you structure social customer support could shape your service future

1st Jul 2013

Love it or loathe it, consumers are turning to social channel for customer supportand brands are increasingly expected to provide effective social service to ensure satisfaction. 

The good news is that the rewards of a successful social customer support operation can be big - according to Conversocial’s latest report, social customer service creates greater satisfaction, increased brand loyalty and a requisite rise in lifetime customer value. 

The bad news, however, is that if the customer is unsatisfied with the response - or indeed there is no response at all - it occurs in a public environment. This raises the stakes considerably, as this is still a very new area for the vast majority of businesses.

In particular, as demonstrated by the MyCustomer community, organisations are still unsure how social should integrate with the rest of their service operations.

Specifically there is the question of whether there should be a team dedicated to dealing with all social channels and their interactions and engagements, or whether social media should be another set of channels dealt within the contact centre team. 

Seamless and scalable support

What’s clear is that firms cannot succeed at social media customer service by simply bolting social technologies onto a suboptimal contact centre. Similarly, treating social media as an isolated point solution is also not appropriate. There are structural considerations that need to be taken into account, if organisations are to deploy social technologies in a way that extends present capabilities and improves the customer experience.

“You have to think about the omnichannel interaction,” says Forrester analyst Kate Leggett. “You can’t just bolt on social to you organisation without thinking about and maturing the foundations of your customer service operations. And that means content that is aligned across all channels; being able to support omnichannel interactions; empowering agents or customer-facing personnel with the right view of customer and product data across all the channels.”

“For instance, if you don’t have mature search capabilities that can search across different content types, if you don’t have your business processes worked out between channels so you can jump from channel to channel, the customers experience on the social channels is going to be very fractured leading to customer dissatisfaction.

“If a customer has a query, and they visit a discussion form to ask a question, you need to make sure that the discussion forum isn’t an island by itself. Therefore, if there is no response to the customer’s question, you want to take that enquiry and escalate it to a contact centre agent so that the customer has their question resolved, whether it is via social or traditional channels.”

Another important structural consideration for social media support is how to ensure it will be scalable.

"One of the aspects of social customer service which is not true of traditional service is that if things go horribly wrong - i.e. it goes viral - then you have a real issue of how you scale to meet that demand," highlights Martin Hill-Wilson, social business strategist and director at Brainfood Consulting. "As most people know, having an issue in social is a matter of when rather than if, so you really need to be prepared to know how you're going to respond when volumes on social multiply by a factor of ten or a factor of 100 if it's really bad. So what do you do? And the answer to that is you need to be able to scale from your initial social team up to the whole customer service team and then beyond that possibly to virtual points of connection - people who have got some experience but aren't necessarily plugged in full-time. And that is one of the resourcing issues that people are still thinking through at this moment in time."

Hub vs integration

So how are most businesses currently structuring their social service operations? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there are differences depending on the maturity of the organisation, the type of business they are and the volume of service that they currently receive. But the two most common approaches, according to Laurence Buchanan, director of digital transformation & CRM at Ernst & Young Advisory, are to set up a separate hub, a team that manages social across the organisation, or else drive social media into day-to-day business operations.

“Most people today have taken the hub approach because it's happened too quickly, social is still too new,” he explains, “so they've set up a separate team and taken 10 or so people out of the call centre and trained them up. They’ve created playbooks and manuals and policy guides and they've tried to identify where the integration points are to the second layer support, for example, or to other channels.”

But it is the holistic and integrated approach that both Buchanan and Leggett expect to proliferate in the longer term.

“It really needs to be integrated across the existing business operations, although it’s not necessarily easy to do in a quick period of time because it requires updates to skills, process, and IT systems to get it working” says Buchanan. “But you can’t view social as a silo.

“You have to take a joined-up view of you other service channels in the first instance. That brings with it a few demands – you need common processes, common policies, common procedures, a common language and common cultural ways of working across different channels so that it is a joined-up experience for customers. You also need to get a handle on all of the rogue apps and social media sites that your company controls but were never really designed for service – this means doing an audit of what social presence you have today, whether it is used, and if so is it being used for service and who owns it, etc.”

With recent research by Altimeter Group suggesting that the average organisation with 1,000+ employees could have as many as 170+ different siloed disconnected social media accounts set up, it can be a matter of some urgency to ensure that these rogue pockets of social media are brought under control.

A paradigm shift?

Buchanan also suggests that brands should be looking at how they can use the social data and user generated content about their service and products from their sites, forums and communities to prevent problems.

“There is a paradigm shift here from thinking about service as reactive fire-fighting and the operational efficiency of that (such as how many tweets we have answered per hour) to thinking about how you can transform the way you do service altogether – prevent service requests before they even become requests and help customers fix their own and each other’s problems in a better way.

“The best examples are gif gaff and Now TV from Sky - the service model is geared around a peer-to-peer support model and the idea of trying to be proactive about identifying problems and fixing them at the source. Lots of businesses are really embracing this and insight and analytics and thinking about the paradigm shift for service.”

IBM's social customer care consultant Guy Stephens is another that believes that social media support could be the catalyst for a much bigger organisational change. 

“What people tend not to do when they look towards the future is to change the fundamental paradigm or model that is customer service. The technologies will change but the underlying way it happens and the framework/model will stay the same,” he says. “My sense is that, over time, that model will change as well so that if we look at it from an organisation point of view, we have customer service, marketing, sales and HR, recognising that they need to work together. It's OK to work across department and the walls between them are becoming more vague. There are, for example, lots of instances where marketing and customer service are coming closer together and recognising that there are opportunities for up-sell and cross-sell within customer service. So it's becoming increasingly difficult to define where one departments stops and another starts." 

And Stephens points to the example of consumer electronics retailer Best Buy, which has an operational model that places employees and customers in direct contact with each other via its @Twelpforce, @BestBuySupport and @GeekSquad Twitter handles. "When you have employees and customers in direct contact with each other via Twitter, you start to see the organisation as a whole becoming the customer service interface," he notes. This, of course, is a model that has tantalising potential for the issues of social scalability and seamless knowledge management. 

As Hill-Wilson says: "It's not just the people who are located in the call centre that should be answering. If you think in more flexible terms around where the expertise is to answer queries, you may well be allowing others to notice a particular request or routing queries directly to someone in, for instance, R&D or any other department that has expertise to help you out."

Nonetheless, Stephens acknowledges that talk of “paradigm shifts” in customer service is premature when many organisations either keep social media in a silo, or try to simply bolt it onto existing operations.

“The way we look at the different social technologies is that they’ll help us with the way we do social customer care. But what businesses tend not to do is to change the fundamental model of service – the technology will change but the underlying framework will stay the same,” he says.

“We’ve got to be careful – we often want to take a hammer to the system we’ve already got because we see something better, rather than accepting that we’ve got to where we are because that’s the way we’ve evolved, rightly or wrongly. But we do now have the opportunity here to do something different.”

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By jeromepineau
01st Jul 2013 13:18

The dichotomy in many cases is quite clear: on one hand, customer service is the most logical entity to "socialize" since it's where the brand to customer rubber meets the road. On the other hand, most enterprises have a customer-averse culture notwithstanding the pretty speeches and "customer-centric" marketing.

In my experience the most efficient, natural way to roll out social to the whole org (meaning implementing social business, which is a change management challenge) is to do it via customer service -- Marketing is the least logical driver to be using, even if that's where the budgets are typically. But winning combos (customer worship+social business desire) are few and far between in most companies today.

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