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Social customer service: In-house or outsourced?

5th May 2016
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Outsourcing is often deemed incongruous to customer service. In recent years, the business world has felt the full force of a growing public stigma associated with outsourcing, especially in relation to contact centres. The reaction has been to bring customer service jobs home – with many brands going to great lengths to make their customers aware that service is no longer seen as a cost-saving exercise farmed out to distant shores.  

In September 2015, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the growth in contact centre jobs in Britain was almost three times greater than for overall employment in the previous four years.

In Q4 of 2015, for instance, customer service jobs rose by 35.9% compared with the same period in 2014.

A January 2015 report from ContactBabel stated that 4% of the UK’s workforce is now employed in contact centres, highlighting just how important the sector is to the national job market.

With vast amounts of resource being dedicated to home-sourced service, the argument for outsourcing seems to have dissipated. But in 2014 a new contact centre trend started to emerge:

Social evolution graph

By 2015 there was a 30% year-on-year growth in the volume of social media messages related to customer care. Social was said to account for around 11.5% of all interactions in contact centres. The dynamics of the customer interaction have shifted via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, yet as we previously reported, businesses are struggling to find the resources for the transition: just 3% of company investment in customer support is earmarked for social media, despite platforms accounting for approximately 17% of the communication channels used by consumers.

Going external  

With so much at stake, is outsourcing social media an option? In 2014 it appeared that way. Research released by Arvato found that multichannel customer service was a common thread in 62% of outsourced service contracts in 2014, compared with 40% in 2013.

Then the RAF went to press to announce it would be outsourcing its Facebook and Twitter feeds to better cope with the “24x7 nature of social media”, and it seemed the stigma associated with other aspects of the call centre might not be relevant for social. However, in the subsequent period, taking this route has come with several caveats:

“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,” says Peter Burman, president, corporate solutions at EF Education First. “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 with 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.”

As with all outsourcing, the outsourcer will need to be seamlessly connected into the sales, marketing and service organisation...the worst thing you can do is give one answer on one channel and a different one on another.

Brands have fallen foul of social media’s perils with unique regularity in recent years, and on occasion outsourcing has been at the heart of a brand’s failings. Perhaps the highest profile example of this was Eurostar, which, in the wake of a crisis involving some broken-down trains, was exposed as having outsourced its Twitter feeds to marketing agencies without the capabilities required to deal with a flurry of complaints. 

Dr. Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures for BT’s global innovation division believes that the public nature of social media is the very reason brands need to tread carefully when considering outsourcing their requirements. Instead, she recommends getting to grips with the scale of the challenge, in-house:

“Firstly, a business needs to decide whether 24/7 service is actually demanded by your customers. This is likely to be the case for global businesses because it’s always five o’clock somewhere. If there is demand, it would make sense to equip those already offering 24/7 customer service over phone or email with the capacity to deal with social media.

“Then an assessment of the skill level needs to be made. As with all outsourcing, the outsourcer will need to be seamlessly connected into the sales, marketing and service organisation. As it isn’t uncommon for customers to phone, email and tweet about the same issue to get the quickest possible service, the worst thing you can do is give one answer on one channel and a different one on another. This will at best cause confusion and at worst generate negative social comment as the left hand and right hand seem to be disconnected. Customers don't see channels, they only see brands.”

Response resolution

Millard states that the main advantage of outsourcing social customer support is the guaranteed response rate an outsourcer can bring. Given that Social Baker 2015 data highlighted that average response times by brands on Twitter was 5 hours 27 minutes in 2015, yet consumer expectations were for it to be under an hour, this is understandable.

A number of brands and agencies now offer assistance in ‘hybrid’ response assistance, making customer service agents available to help manage seasonal demand or sudden social spikes when required. Yet getting a fast response and getting a problem resolved are two separate issues, as Burman adds:

“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.”

Analytics ease

Outsourcing may be a cautionary tale, only undertaken based on establishing trust with your outsourcer and a process for linking outsourced channels with those in-house. However, there is one area where external technical nous can help:    

“A big part of what an outsourcer should be doing in this space is analytics and there’s a lot of investment going towards technology to assist social monitoring,” says Christopher Cullen, a consultant for Echo Managed Services, an outsourcing provider.

“A measured approach is important from the outsourcer’s point of view: checking with clients what the purpose is for each act of analysis. Starting with the customer service angle, you find it’s easier to ask “what’s the benefit to the business and the customer in analysis at certain points?””

“Let analytics tools do the heavy lifting,” Millard adds. “Social monitoring tools can scan relevant feeds and arrange for questions to be directed to an available person with the appropriate skills to answer.”

More often than not, however, resources remain the deciding factor regarding any outsourcing decision a business makes. Yet, with data from Dimelo highlighting that 77% of all customer service budgets currently go to telephone support despite the demand actually only equating to 22% across all channels, consultant and customer experience expert, Michel Falcon believes this particular argument doesn’t add up.  

“I question when a company says they have no budget or little resources to offer round-the-clock social customer service. After all, if they have a budget for traditional marketing tactics – ones like print, radio etc. – they have the opportunity to take a portion of their yearly marketing budget to service social channels.

"It really comes down to prioritising your efforts and understanding the opportunity cost of serving your customers in the channels that they want to be served in. A company must speak for themselves and protect the brand with their own resources. After all, no agency is going to care for your brand reputation and customers as much as you do.”   

Replies (2)

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By PaulineAshenden
11th May 2016 13:19

Social media does present a unique customer service channel, due to its speed and highly visible nature. However, whether it is outsourced or kept in house it is vital that it is connected and consistent with other channels – and that customers are actually receiving fast, accurate answers. Recent Eptica research found that just 48% of tweets to top UK brands were successfully answered, pointing to a bigger problem with social media service aside from who is responsible for activities.

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By tarundeep.singh
22nd Feb 2017 10:38

It is in the best interest of a brand to do what's best for business. Although outsourcing may seem as a stigma but no one can deny the fact that it is a cost-effective solution and at the same time quality is never compromised. Over the years, social media outsourcing has seen a surge considering the number of benefits associated with it. Many companies have started outsourcing their social media management to reputed outsourcers.

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