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Social customer support: Lessons from the social leaders

8th Jul 2013
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According to a report on Mashable, a massive 80% of companies plan to use social media for customer service. But, as this recent interchange between the @Cineworld representative and a disgruntled customer revealed, if you don’t get it right, it’s a very public problem.

There’s an increasing amount of pressure on the channels though. Latest surveys reveal higher than ever levels of expectation – customers expect responses at least within the day on Facebook, and give it just 30 minutes on Twitter. To work properly, social customer service needs to be swift, channel-appropriate and – importantly – consistent: remember that consumers will be able to see how other people’s complaints are treated.

Social Bakers has just released Q1 2013 of its Socially Devoted series, which measured the performance of response to questions posted on Facebook and Twitter pages. Its metrics attest to both the increase in size of social care and the improvement in brand responses: during Q1 2013, the volume of questions asked by fans increased by 30%. Also in this quarter, brands managed to answer almost 50% more questions than in Q4 2012. Since June 2012, the average industry response rate has increased from 30% to 60% in Q1 2013.

In this article, we want to give even more practical examples of how some of the most responsive brands are performing in the social customer care channels.  Have they got separate Twitter channels? How have they directed users on their Facebook pages? What tone of voice are they using?  Do they work 24/7?

We chose some of SocialBakers’ top performing retail brands in the UK sector and examined a recent crop of consumer interactions for BootsUKNextOnlineMarks and Spencer and Tesco to see what they are doing – and what lessons could be applied to other brands. To see whether there is a difference in US versus UK approaches, we also added Best Buy to the mix, the only US retailer to appear in SocialBaker’s top US brands, and arguably the shining star of US retail social customer service.

Note that SocialBakers measures both the speed and the quantity of the responses – obviously, it’s easier to respond when the volume is lower, which is what makes the Best Buy, Tesco and Next performances on very busy pages, particularly impressive.

Customer care on Facebook pages

Brands can help themselves a great deal in the information they give in the ‘About Us’ section, on tabs and in the set-up of their Facebook page.

  • Hours of business – as far as we could see, no brands were responding to messages overnight although it’s likely that the pages were still being moderated and monitored for crisis issues during this period. SocialBakers’ response times are an average, definitely made longer by the overnight pauses. None of the brands published the period during which fans could expect a response to posts, and it’s worth considering doing this in order to set expectations. Note that Tesco and BestBuy’s Twitter accounts were very clear about their working hours.
  • Other contact channels – can your customer reach you by phone? Email?  On your website?  Do you have a separate customer care Twitter account?  Marks and Spencer probably did the best job here: alongside Twitter, the phone and email links led to webforms with FAQs, so that customers had a good chance of helping themselves first. Tesco has a separate tab to its customer service: ‘Here to Help’ leads to phone lines and email contact forms which gather the necessary information to speed up the query resolution. Best Buy use ‘About Us’ to try to direct users with customer service queries to its forums at Best Buy Unboxed  but interestingly, don’t point to any of its excellent Twitter customer service accounts.
  • Community rules – Best Buy, Boots and Tesco all publish their ‘house rules’ outlining the behaviour they expect on the page, and also the service which their customers can expect from them. We recommend this for all Facebook pages. Setting clear rules on conduct, languages responded to, and ownership of content can save a lot of trouble later on.
  • Languages and regions  – do you have different Facebook accounts for different regions? If so, and if you’re not set up as a Global page, then it would be good to take a leaf out of Marks and Spencer’s book, and have an app directing customers to the correct page for their country. Will you respond to posts in other languages? You could make this clear in your guidelines.
  • Facebook ‘replies’   – eModeration has written a lot about the Facebook reply (or ‘thread comments’) feature in recent weeks, concluding that it’s great for engagement, but frankly, unless you’re set up with an enabled management tool, then it’s a challenge to moderate and manage. (Although it’s a lot easier if you’re using our simple guide!) Looking at customer service though, replies definitely make the service smoother, provided that no content is being missed.  Of the pages we looked at, they were split about 50/50 between those who had enabled replies and those who hadn’t.  On July 10 this year, replies will be enabled by default: make sure you’re prepared.
  • Signed messages  – Best Buy, Tesco, M&S and Boots customer care staff sign their Facebook responses, Kiddicare and Next don’t.  There are arguments against doing so, but it’s undeniable that when an agent signs their message it personalises the service.  Sensing the person behind the message can deflate anger; it increases engagement and is always useful for the customer to know when they are ‘talking’ to the same or a different care agent.

Customer care on Twitter

30% of the Interbrand top 100 brands already have a dedicated customer service feed on Twitter. Keeping customer service separate avoids the awkwardness of pushing out positive brand messages through the same door as apologies for poor performance and product issues.

So, how do our chosen retailers approach Twitter?


Of the brands we looked at, only Boots didn’t run a Twitter service at all, but @BootsUKOfficial instead redirected to email, phone or Facebook via autoresponses: could this possibly be a resource issue?

Best Buy

In contrast, Best Buy have three customer service channels, @BestBuySupport (retail support) and@Twelpforce /@geeksquad (technical support), which are clearly signposted.

As well as having agents sign the @BestBuySupport tweets with their initials, Best Buy goes one further in @Twelpforce and @Geeksquad  the agents on these accounts have their own Twitter profiles. John Bernier, who co-created the Twelpforce account, said in a 2010 interview with Fast Company, “Because the system was designed to tie each response to an individual employee, each Twelpforce rep could feel a personal sense of pride in their participation.”

Best Buy was an early adopter of social customer service, launching a presence on Twitter and Facebook in 2008 and starting up Best Buy Unboxed, the retailer’s online community.  Later in 2009, Best Buy enabled its BlueShirts  and Geek Squad Agents to join the conversation and tweet through the single @Twelpforce Twitter handle.  

Best Buy prides itself on involving so many of its 180,000+ employees in customer service.  The “Be smart. Be respectful. Be human” from the title of this article comes from Best Buy’s social media policy . Their community connectors must have a minimum of six months internal customer service experience first, and the core requirement is strong writing skills.

The agents receive 4 weeks consumer relations training on how to deal with questions and complaints in public (so very different from private email, phone or even face-to-face encounters). This is followed by intensive training on the technical attributes and social norms of the different platforms  and finally a period on ‘training wheels’, where all posts go through an approval process prior to posting. By and large, it shows. Once the overnight backlog is dealt with, Best Buy responses are speedy and helpful, with a good mix of efficiency and friendliness. Agents search for keywords on Twitter and respond in a flash:


The UK-owned clothes retailer runs @NextOfficial as its brand marketing account, which directs through to@NextHelp for customer service issues, primarily tracking orders for NextOnline.  @NextHelp delivers a fast, friendly and efficient service, collecting customer details via private DM (PM in Facebook) and taking the occasional opportunity to reach out with off-script messages…


Tesco runs Tesco Customer Care with @UKTesco, at the vanguard of Twitter care as it cheerily announces the opening hours each day …

… and responds to customers’ tweets with a human face …

Twitter is about speed, directness, personality, efficiency and humour. Twitter customer care is about catching the balls as they come flying past and making a save. 

Marks & Spencer

Marks and Spencer is really impressive: it strikes a great balance between being informal and disrespectful (pay attention, Cineworld!), is caring and thorough, and unafraid of going off-script, as with this consumer’s complaint about an errant M&S lorry

Lessons to learn

Coping with an issue

Boots was recently hit by a targeted campaign from Let Toys Be Toys – For Girls and Boys, protesting against the brand’s segregation of toys into boy vs girl, (pink and blue, science vs dolls – you get the idea). Twenty-four hours into the protest, with outrage mounting exponentially on its page, Boots seemed to have difficulty in coping with the volume and finding a message which would placate its angry fans.

At the time we checked, most of the more recent messages hadn’t had responses at all, suggesting that the agents have simply given up trying to stem the tide. Boots really should have had a more constructive response – maybe even an action plan –  from the Toys & Games department by this stage.

Scalability and tools

It’s essential that your customer service teams have the scalability to cope with sudden peaks in volume and that they are linked to the departments from whom they need answers quickly.

Choosing an appropriate management tool will help.  Zendesk, for example, connects with Facebook and Twitter, and HootSuite is great for team organisation and message assignments.

Making connections

Customers expect recognition – even across different social networks. Using a good tool keeps track of the interactions with a customer and  – as ZenDesk does – can link a contacts’ email, Google, Twitter, Facebook and phone number.

Being human

Social customer service offers more than efficient resolution – it allows for real human interaction between the agent and the customer, and that is its trump card (and occasional downfall).

You have to wonder though, whether the accessibility and responsiveness of social customer care means that, for some, reaching out to a social customer care agent just fills an empty minute or provides some company on a lonely day? Either way, it’s all part of effective relationship-building.

Tia Fisher is the marketing manager at eModeration and chief voice of the @eModeration Twitter account. A version of this feature originally appeared on the eModeration blog. 

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