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Outsourcing social customer service: Business sense or business suicide?

20th May 2015
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The emergence of social media changed not just customer service, but the way we fundamentally do business.

Transforming access to brands and the expectations of consumers, it has made customer service a highly visible interaction – taking customer concerns from the shop floor and putting them front and centre on a potentially global stage.

Get it right and you can earn huge kudos and shift your NPS score markedly. But get it wrong and an issue can quickly gain momentum online and become a serious problem. What’s more, the interactions are logged and visible every time someone searches for your brand online in the future.

Social customer service is not a fad. Social media enquiries are set to account for up to 11.5% of interactions in contact centres this year, according to data from Business Systems, and in a survey from West Interactive, 17% of people stated that they expect to be able to use social media for customer service enquiries.  

The shift to text based digital comms is underlined by the rise of customer support web chats. Research by ContactBabel suggests that between 2013 and 2014 250 million web chats were conducted – an increase of 60%. The figure sounds impressive, and if you shift the lens to look at the increase since 2011, the growth becomes a phenomenal 300%.

The stakes are incredibly high for businesses. NewVoiceMedia estimates that UK firms lose a combined £12 billion each year because consumers are unhappy with the service they experience and switch to a competitor as a direct result.

Service pressure

Due to this pressure, companies are increasingly looking to external specialist support to help them meet customer expectations. Research released by Arvato found that multichannel customer service was now a common thread in 62% of outsourced service contracts in 2014, compared with 40% in 2013. From our experience, there is a strong correlation between customer service and ability to communicate, particularly in Europe.

The statistics might surprise some people following last year’s much trumpeted onshoring of 1,000 call centre jobs by EE. However, the increasing reliance on digital comms and social customer service helps bypass any customer prejudices that may be stirred by a foreign accent at the end of the phone. From that perspective it facilitates a much purer transaction that is judged by the strength of the support and the ability to resolve the problem.

The challenge it presents brands and heads of customer service is that it makes the interactions much more visible and accountable. There is less ‘margin for error’ in communication: errors of presentation or nuance are becoming a bigger problem than simple errors of grammar or understanding. The penalty is, at best, damage to reputation. At worst there may be legal consequences.

There is also a permanence attached to written communications that is simply not shared by verbal conversations and telephony support as a result. A quick screen grab of an inappropriate or incorrect comment can easily be captured and shared on social media or online forums. This permanence puts pressure on even the best non-native English speakers.

As a result can you truly trust a third party to represent your brand on social media, or are you better off getting the support in-house even if the resource comes from another country where English is not the first language?

It is a tough question, but there is a simple equation to delivering exceptional social customer service. Firstly, all customer facing employees need to understand the brand values of the company they are representing – that is fundamental. Secondly, they have to have had the right language training internally and reached a pre-determined standard. Failure to adhere to either of these two points will lead to a poor experience and ultimately drive customers to the competition.

In this digital age every employee, outsourced or not, is a brand ambassador. Your company’s Digital presence – everything that it proactively uploads on to social media and everything that references your company that customers share – means your employees’ communication skills are fundamental to building and protecting your business’ reputation. How you keep and nurture the talented communicators who create your firms’ digital footprint, and how you train and empower them to respond to the conversations online about you, wherever it happens, is increasingly a source of differentiation.

Are you speaking my language?

The most effective way for firms to regain control of their brand and reputation is through training, and specifically strengthening employees’ English language skills. If you are outsourcing your social customer service understanding what training is in place to upskill the people representing your brand, and how that training is conducted, is essential. But rather worryingly on this point, research we conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit highlighted a considerable gap between aspiration and execution.

There is a clear and strong desire to improve English language skills from 96% of the firms surveyed in emerging economy respondents. Yet the research also found that less than half (46%) of organisations are currently supporting and encouraging employees to learn English.

The challenge for employers is time. The training deficiency can only be addressed through adopting a flexible approach to learning that incentivises employees to learn. Where training has been offered it has been dominated by classroom teaching, but over two-thirds of respondents in our research (70%) demonstrated a strong desire to introduce flexible formats.

For employees set to be emerged in the front line of social customer service it makes sense to move away from traditional classroom teaching towards more flexible digital learning options, that more closely matches how they will be working. English is the lingua franca for business, and the internet is making that fact even more pronounced as 55% of all content is in English.

Essentially, people want to learn English in the same way that they will be using it at work. Our research underlined this fact, finding that 87% of respondents from emerging economies are looking to digital learning. While the classroom remains important for 61% of the sample, the balance has clearly shifted to online or digital resources and this in part reflects the changing skill requirements.

Getting it right

The increased visibility and permanence of customer service on social media is a game changer. Organizations must understand that successful social customer service can only be delivered if the company and its representatives can express and represent themselves in English across many different types of media. Developing appropriate English language skills amongst your customer service teams for this hyper-connected environment, regardless of whether they are in-house employees based in other countries or outsourced, is fundamental.

The type of training and the way it is delivered is likely to be a key determinant of whether your social customer team are successful or not. Wherever possible, training should be delivered digitally and offer greater flexibility outside of a classroom. Only then can real change be affected.

Social customer service offers a fantastic opportunity to transform businesses. But with increased consumer expectations and visibility of communications it can be an unforgiving place. Are you ready for the social revolution?

Peter Burman is president of Education First Corporate Solutions.

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