The cost of doing business: The truth about social customer service

6th Jun 2013

Impractical. Over-hyped. Crappy results. What's going wrong in social customer service and why should you care?

Frank Eliason blazed the trail for social media customer support some years ago now, demonstrating how social platforms had the potential to usher in a new age of customer service.

And with ground-breaking social support case studies emerging around the likes of Dave Carroll and giffgaff shortly afterwards, momentum quickly gathered within the emerging field.

But some five years later a growing number of commentators are voicing their disappointment that the revolution has never materialised, including a recent feature on by IBM’s Guy Stephens.

So what has happened? Was social media customer support a flash in the pan? Did our initial excitement blind us to the fundamental impracticalities of providing customer support on social platforms? Do customers even really want to receive support on social media?

“It has been a question of reality vs hype,” explains thinkJar’s Esteban Kolsky. “Hype was that ‘this is going to solve all of your problems’ and the reality is that it’s just an extra set of channels. And when reality hits hype, it usually slows down because then we have to figure out what to do with it. And when we try to figure out what to do with it we find it’s not everything we thought. Some are disappointed, some try to find a way to make it work, some sit around and say ‘maybe next time’. There were some early adopters that have had decent results. There were some early adopters that had crappy results. And the majority of the adopters in the second wave don’t know what to do with it. So that’s where we are.”

And yet despite this, reports estimate that as many as 80% of companies still plan to use social media for customer service.

The likes of Twitter and Facebook are not a natural fit for customer support - “You can only do so many messages in one day on Twitter and Facebook has some privacy issues and performance issues because it is constantly changes the API and the way they work,” says Kolsky. So why is there still so much enthusiasm for social media customer support from businesses?

“The number of minutes spent online is dominated by social compared to any other online activity; about one in two people have a Facebook account, and Twitter has grown to around 12 million in the UK – everyone’s social behaviour continues to develop and mature,” says Martin Hill-Wilson, social business strategist and Director at Brainfood Consulting. “Brands are responding in like terms. So if social media service has become ‘quieter’ it is because brands have not got a lot to brag about yet as they’re still trying to catch up with the fact that customers are leading the way.”

The cost of doing business

Having just researched and written a book on the topic of social media customer service, Hill-Wilson has found many organisations that are find that social contact is knocking back the level of live voice and email, and are therefore growing their teams of social agents, one such example being supermarket giant Tesco which has ramped up from 4 to 40 in 18 months.

And while social platforms aren’t naturally geared towards customer service, businesses need to follow the lead of their customers. Quite simply, Facebook and Twitter are “the cost of doing business in today’s world” says Hill-Wilson, with one in three users now preferring to contact brands using social media rather than the telephone according to Nielsen’s social media report.

“Facebook and Twitter aren’t necessarily more cost-effective forms of communication, particularly if in most cases they are going to direct message or private message in order to take people out of those public forums,” he says. “A lot of people say that once you’re organised on Twitter it can be more productive – for instance, if you are a business that has a lot of service requests that are best communicated as a visual response then you could build up videos on YouTube and then tweet bookmarks to help customers, that would be very efficient – but it is often a more clumsy form of communication. And particularly if brands are pushing people back into the contact centre, bearing in mind that a lot of customers have just come from the call centre which is why they’ve gone to social, that whole interaction loop can be very inefficient and much more expensive.”

Certainly there is huge scope for improvement in this field. Despite the fact that customers have made the decision that they want to conduct brand conversations in the social arena, there are still a great many businesses that are either barely responsive or not present at all.

Research from Social Bakers has round that the industry average of customer response to social media enquiries is only 55%, while on Twitter the global average is a response rate of only 32%. And even those that do reply, do not necessarily do so in a timely fashion – the industry benchmark for a response on Twitter is 357 minutes, a shockingly long time compared to for instance a call centre. But even that pales in comparison to the average response time on Facebook, which is a whopping 819 minutes.

Questions to ask

Part of the problem is that brands are taking an outmoded view of the social sphere. An Interbrand study of top brands using social media found that many companies resource their social channels according to the traditional 9-5 working day, something that is totally at odds with the permanently active world of social.

But there are also a great many other challenges that brands are experiencing that are undermining efforts to support the social customer.

A survey of practitioners by thinkJar last year identified a number of common issues including:

  • Justifying and validating investment in social media customer service programmes (“Organisations may be doing it to satisfy customers, but they can’t isolate the customer satisfaction for the people that were served only on the social channel,” co-author of the report Mitch Lieberman told
  • Creating definitions of what constitutes a successful programme, thereby making it difficult to benchmark and measure performance.
  • Finding the right balance between social customer service and more “traditional” channels.
  • Integration problems around data and process (Lieberman said: “Part of the cause of the data silo is adding a data field so that you recognise that @mjayliebs is Mitch Lieberman, for example. It is not rocket science, but it is also a question of whether customers want the company to know. Businesses are experimenting with that in B2B, but you aren’t talking about banking transactions or health claims – if you get the wrong person you have egg on your face, but if you give the wrong healthcare data to the wrong person you might have a bigger problem.”)

And there are plenty of other questions that organisations need to answer if they are to remove roadblocks to social customer service. For instance, a common bone of contention is who has ownership of social.

“There is no clear organisational buyer for social,” notes Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “The contact centre manager rarely owns social customer service. Social customer service is a job function that sits between marketing and customer service. Sometimes it is owned by marketing, sometimes it is owned by customer service. It is slowly moving into customer service but it hasn’t quite made it there. So I think that is one issue that we’re dealing with – who owns social customer service within the company?”

Elsewhere, there is the small question of how to manage social at scale.

“One of the aspects of social customer service that is not true of traditional is that if things go horribly wrong – i.e. viral – then you have a real issue of how to scale to meet that demand,” says Hill-Wilson. “You really need to be prepared for how you’re going to respond when volumes on social multiply by a factor of 10 or 100, because as most people know, having an issue in social is a matter of when rather than if. So what do you do? And the answer is that you need to be able to scale from your initial social team up to the whole customer service team and then beyond that to possibly virtual points of connection – people who have got some experience but aren’t necessarily plugged in full-time. So that is one of the resourcing issues that people are thinking through at this time.”

And businesses also need to ask themselves whether the foundational elements are in place to ensure that they aren’t simply attempting to bolt social technologies onto a sub-optimal contact centre. “Social customer service is another communication channel that companies need to offer to their customers and so they have to be able to provide service level agreements (SLAs) like they would any other channel and then meet those expectations,” says Leggett. “From a customer’s point of view, we know these are channels that customers want to be engaging on, but customers aren’t always happy at the engagement they get on these channels. And a lot of this has to do with companies not following all the best practices to be able to adopt, and to be able to mature interactions on these channels.”

Here to stay

Leggett points to Forrester stats that highlight that Twitter usage for customer support has doubled in the last three years, while the percentage of consumers that have used online communities for support has leapt from 23% to 33% in the same time scale. “We know that these are channels that customers would like to be using,” she emphasises.

“But we have looked at average satisfaction ratings for social channels and they are mediocre,” says Leggett. “And the reason that they’re mediocre is nothing to do with technology, but because the business processes haven’t been firmly worked out on any of these channels and companies haven’t matured them.”

This paints a clear picture for organisations – improve their social media customer service or risk suffering in a very public domain.

“Nobody can hear you scream in the IVR – but this time around you’re killing your brand in public if you aren’t anything but excellent,” notes Hill-Wilson.

“That conversation is continuing to grow, it is getting more focused and more real. The pressure to do something about it definitely there and brands are getting used to it. It might not be as dramatic as it was a few years ago, because it hasn’t got the charismatic people involved in the case studies, it is just ordinary folks. But it is here to stay.”

So, it would seem we shouldn’t dismiss social media customer service, even if it isn’t the shiny new object of desire it once was. Now it’s time to muck in and get down to the dirty job of making it work. 

In the coming weeks will be posting a series of features examining best practices in social media customer service strategy building, processes and technology infrastructure. 

Replies (6)

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By guy1067
06th Jun 2013 11:00

How things change in a few weeks! When I wrote the article you refer to above I had fallen out of love with social customer care. I felt it hadn't moved on, the questions Esteban asked two years ago were still unanswered, and there seemed to be no prospect of them being answered either. The thrill and excitement that existed between 2008 - 2010 when I was for a time @guyatcarphone was a distant memory.

But, I'm falling back in love with it. Okay, love is a strong word to use for social customer care. But I'm starting to care again. The turning point for me was IBM's announcement of Watson at their Smarter Commerce Summit a couple of weeks ago. For me, Watson suddenly heralded the possibility that perhaps some of the questions that Esteban asked around automation and scale can begin to be answered. I genuinely feel now, that we're actually about to embark on a new phase of growth, when the customer service model (and by extension the business model) itself will begin to be looked at.

My hope is that organisations can look beyond the numbers (the numbers have become in some sense cliches - Facebook - third largest continent, you get the picture), and understand that actually, this type of communication - immediate, transparent, visible, at scale - is not going away. Why would I as an individual give up this type of communication? Whether Twitter or Facebook are clunky customer service channels is a moot point and not the issue, but a distraction. 

Organisations need to refocus their efforts, genuinely understand how their customers communicate, understand their role in a customer service model that continues to push for a greater degree of decentralisation. And what's the ROI: survival. Let's try to promise each other that we won't be having these same discussions in five years time.


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By Neil Davey
07th Jun 2013 13:07

Thanks for your comments, Guy - glad to hear that you're feeling re-energised about social media service once more!

Interesting that you mention Watson - we briefly covered some implications that it might have for service, but perhaps you could elaborate a little about why you think it could solve some of social customer support's issues?

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By Rbacal
09th Jun 2013 19:57

First, I don't think Frank Eliason's (and Comcast) social media efforts in customer service bore any fruit from a business perspective, given that Comcast is still one of the most reviled companies in terms of customer service.

Second, the projections (and research) on social media use by customers is, by and large, misleading. The reason there's an increase is simple. Customers, having experienced horrid customer service in email, phone, etc, are willing to try ANYTHING to get their problems resolved. Our data, albeit unscientific, suggests that when you ask a slightly different question about customer preferences, only a tiny fraction (about 3 percent) of customers actually PREFER social.

There's an explanation in video The Horrifying Myth About Customer Service and Social Media Channels  

Social media is not well suited for customer service, since most contacts via social will require extra steps to resolve the customer's issue, either because of the limits of the platform (i.e. Twitter), or the public nature of it.

Finally, companies that provide poor customer service via "traditional methods" will fail at social, because the problem has never been a technological one. Add to this that social media as a customer service tool "doesn't scale", and we have a recipe for disaster.

See Eight Reasons Why Social Media Negatively Affects Customer Service and The Customer Experience



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By Rbacal
09th Jun 2013 20:01

Guy, as you know, I've been speaking out about the relative ineffectiveness of social media as a  customer service tool, for a good many years, and I don't see much to change my mind.

When you mention Watson, the question I have to ask is this: Is it social media you are "falling in love with", or is it Watson? 

Watson is platform independent, and it's Watson that might be a breakthrough. If it "works" to provide answers, it's not the channel per se. After all, it could be used on phone, or email, or any channel, if we're looking at artificial intelligence.

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By guy1067
10th Jun 2013 13:41

Robert, good to hear from you. We haven't sparred for awhile! Although I think we've always shared fairly similar thinking about it.

You ask an interesting question about whether I'm falling back in love with social media or Watson. I think falling in love with either would be a sad state of affairs. Let me perhaps use another word instead of love: excited. What I am excited about again, is what Watson represents perhaps.

I agree, that social is a clunky customer service channel, but in some ways that's neither here nor there. The best channel is face to face, but that's not practical, so everything from the outset is a compromise. As a customer I just want you to answer my question in a reasonable amount of time. I don't care whether it's by IVR, online, email, Twitter. What I do ask, however, is that whichever channel(s) you include in your customer service mix, you think about me. That you don't think about process efficiency, because if you think about process efficiency that isn't thinking about whether your goal is to resolve the issue I have.

There's still a lot of work to be done, even at just getting the basics right. But I think what excites me is that perhaps we're beginning to move away from discussing the why and wherefores of Twitter or Facebook, and starting to perhaps look at the model itself. Could Watson disrupt the customer service model and take us somewhere different? That's what excites me.

I thought social might do that, but I sense that social customer care is being subsumed into 'traditional' customer service'. I'm hopeful Watson will shake it all up again!

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By guy1067
10th Jun 2013 13:57

Robert, I agree with you that in spite of social customer care, the problems still remain. Organisations are still to fix the underlying issues that have always been there - social as sticking plaster! I remember us having a similar exchange three years ago at least.

I remember my idealism that suddenly we had the 'pixie dust' that would cure all. that hasn't eventuated, and instead it's simply become another channel. The same things customers were complaining about three years ago they're still complaining about today, only faster.

I'm still optimistic that it will change, that the underlying model of service or engagement (interaction?) will change. But I'm also realistic enough to know that we could still be having this same exchange in another three years time.

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