Social customer service

The perils and problems of integrating social into your contact centre

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16th May 2016
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When social media first lit a fire under organisations, there were no case studies to learn from, no best practices to follow and no cautionary tales to forewarn. When it came to strategies and structures, organisations were heading into unchartered territory.

The initial model for social media customer support was forged by trailblazers such as Frank Eliason at Comcast. Sensing the significance of Twitter as a customer touchpoint, and acting without a company mandate, Eliason grasped the nettle and set up Twitter handle (@comcastcares) to interact with Comcast customers active on the microblogging site.

His reasoning: “If I heard a customer on the street yelling for help, I would want to help them. Why is social media that different?”

Eliason subsequently provided us with one of the earliest case studies of how organisations could use social networks to listen and respond to customer issues in real-time, inspiring  the first wave of social customer support, with brands setting up dedicated teams to address social media, or indeed outsourcing their social requirements entirely.

This was successful to a point. In the early days, the novelty of receiving a reply from a brand could often take the sting out of some customer complaints over social media, while certain service queries could even be addressed there and then, although most support cases needed to be escalated to another channel to ultimately be resolved. And there were other benefits of this focused approach, relating to costs and training.

Al Hopper, co-founder and director of operations at SocialPath Solutions, explains: “Most companies do not have the ability to build an internal social media management platform so they have to pay for one. This is most often done via software as a service (SaaS) providers that charge monthly subscriptions and additional costs per user. The more users you want using your SaaS account, the more you have to pay. Keeping a smaller dedicated team mitigates this a little. From there, most brands select the best and brightest from all relevant departments to join the social media team. Doing this gives certain obvious advantages that any group of all-stars bring to any team, they are more often the most experienced, best trained, and most dedicated to the company. This makes it easier for other departments to feel better about giving access to the public-facing communications.”

But there were also notable limitations.

Social isolation

One issue of concern for those with a small dedicated social team was scalability.

"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 and co-author of ‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’ published by Wiley, available on Amazon. "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?”

As an isolated team, there was therefore always the danger that they could be swamped by social activity, whereas integration with the wider service team would provide some flex and scalability if the worst should happen.

One of the aspects of social customer service which is not true of traditional service is that if things go horribly wrong then you have a real issue of how you scale to meet that demand.

The lack of integration with the bigger service picture has also become an increasingly big issue as the demand for joined-up, seamless experiences across multiple channels has grown. And for isolated teams, ensuring there is continuity of context and intent across channels and commonality of answers is a major problem.

“The biggest challenge of a dedicated team is they often operate in a void,” says Hopper. “As policies and products change over time, unless the training is kept current, the social media team has to spend more time reaching out to those other departments to get issues resolved. This slows everything down and can lead to frustrated customers and agents.”

Simon Robic, social product manager at iAdvize, adds: “The problem with different teams is that depending on the channel, the quality or speed of service may differ and customers may be put in contact with teams that are primarily responsible for marketing rather than customer service. By merging teams, brands will be able to tackle the ubiquity challenge which they are faced with and provide a better unified quality of service across all channels.”

Social integration

With this in mind, organisations have increasingly sought to explore how social media customer support can be integrated into the company’s wider contact centre structure, with advisors providing customer assistance across multiple channels. Not only is this helpful for flexing to meet volumes, but it also ensures a more consistent experience and, from an advisor’s point of view, provides variety to the traditional contact centre role.

However, while this sounds simple enough, the reality is somewhat more convoluted. There are numerous challenges to integrating social media into the existing contact centre set-up, and depending on whether the organisation is employing multi-disciplined advisors to work across social and traditional channels, or parachuting a social team in, these obstacles can vary from company to company.

“The first obstacle that comes to mind is the software behind integrating social media,” says Hopper. “Many existing CRM tools many larger companies use now are 10 or more years old. I know this to be true for some financial services brands, as an example. This means they were written before social media even entered the customer service conversation. Either companies will have to spend money on updating their legacy CRM or find a new software bundle capable of patching the missing information, which just kicks the inevitable spend down the road.”

Indeed, just as it has become apparent that treating social media as an isolated point solution has its flaws, so it is has also become clear that firms cannot succeed at social media customer support by simply bolting social technologies onto a suboptimal contact centre. To give a true seamless experience, advisors need to be able to see notes and interaction history of each customer across all channels, and that means the CRM must be joined up across all channels.

You can’t just bolt on social to your organisation without thinking about and maturing the foundations of your customer service operations.

“You have to think about the omnichannel interaction,” says Forrester analyst Kate Leggett. “You can’t just bolt on social to your 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 customer’s experience on the social channels is going to be very fractured leading to customer dissatisfaction.”

Social skills

Aside from finding the right technology that can bridge gaps between legacy CRMs and new customer information, there are also challenges related to training and skills.

“The success of a multi-skilled advisor approach will depend on a number of factors, such as the digital skills they possess, their personality and how easily they can flex between the different demands and styles of each channel,” says Carolyn Blunt, MD of contact centre training consultancy Real Results and co-author of ‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’ published by Wiley, available on Amazon. "The culture of the organisation needs to be a supportive and encouraging one for this to work and forgive genuine mistakes. It can be helpful to work in rotations as well, so two hours on voice, two hours on email, two hours on social, etc. This helps the advisor to ‘get into the swing’ and be in tune with the channel so you don’t end up with kisses and smiley faces on emails or ‘kind regards’ on your tweets!”

Hopper adds:  “Training goes back to the way social media support isn’t always pretty. Some service issues need more than 140 characters to write and often need some additional follow up before a resolution can be given. This means agents have to learn how to write more succinctly and more clearly at the same time. Often agents have to learn how to have several streams of thought in order to handle more than one customer conversation at the same time and over time. It is very possible for the best phone agent to be unable to keep up with the speed of social media, whether that is because of the number of conversations happening or simply typing speed not being fast enough.”

To encourage integration I always suggest training voice teams on the importance of social and how it works for customer service, NPS and loyalty.

In light of this, an increasing number of organisations have dedicated social experts working within the contact centres – though this too can create its own difficulties.

Martin Hill-Wilson notes: “Certainly many of the centres I visit have combined social within a digital team, which tends to mean chat and SMS. However, the issue of multi-skilling remains the same. A stable, learning-orientated contact centre will probably be offering advisors a chance to evolve their communication skills. The very best will be able to engage across all types of voice, video and text - although these will be rare and the cream of the crop. More likely will be text-based advisors able to manage email, chat and social.”

Indeed, if service leaders aren’t careful, the creation of a social team within the contact centre can suffer the same process issues that blighted dedicated social teams.

“There can be clashes between processes at times,” warns Blunt. “For example, if a customer describes a problem on the telephone to an advisor, that advisor may not think it is a very big issue and may not be quick enough to refund or replace the item. However, once that customer then escalates to social and starts tweeting photographs of a faulty product then the social team may want to organise an immediate refund or replacement.

“The voice advisors may feel undermined or disagree with the decision to ‘pander’ to a customer who was savvy enough to escalate on social. I would want to empower the social team to do what they think is needed but also have them work closely with the team managers of voice advisors so that the need to escalate to social is removed in the first place. Tackling any cultural issues around customer complaints in other channels is often a good starting point before adding social.

“To encourage integration I always suggest training voice teams on the importance of social and how it works for customer service, NPS and loyalty. The voice teams can then help to harvest positive sentiment by encouraging satisfied customers to leave reviews, tweet pictures or write a post.”

Irrespective of whether multi-skilled advisors are being deployed, or a digital/social team, one issue that often raises its head is the application of traditional contact centre metrics to social activity.

“There are existing key performance indicators such as first contact resolution, average handle time (AHT), after call work, staff productivity, just to name a few, that do not cleanly work for social media,” says Hopper. “Contact centre leaders have to think differently when managing social media customer service to either give new definitions to these existing KPIs or they have to be a little creative to create new ones that fit their particular business.”

Indeed, Martin Hill-Wilson has seen these problems up close. “I recently came across two situations in which the contact centre leadership failed to nurture the social team handed over to them by sticking with an AHT)/efficiency agenda,” he notes.

Social structure

All these obstacles have to be overcome before social media customer service can be fully integrated into the contact centre – and clearly some will take more time and effort than others. But there are some useful additional structural steps that organisations can take to make the integration process less painful.

“Often the advisors now report into a senior operational figure within the contact centre,” says Hill-Wilson. “They can also interface with a steering team style team if it’s a shared-ownership model. Whichever approach, it's a normal team-leader-to-advisor ratio.

Often advisors now report into a senior operational figure within the contact centre.

“In terms of additional roles, it also needs a continuous improvement capability - either linking into a centralised capability or developing a local one within the team. Someone needs to have a focus on fixing any service failures. Analytics is important and might be an additional role or added to someone's existing remit with the existing contact centre management information team.”

Blunt adds: “It is important to support quality across all channel interactions and provide coaching to affirm or adjust the responses being given by advisors. To this end, I always encourage social teams reporting into a line manager and being set out in a similar way to voice agents so that this access to one another and to coaching support is readily available.”

Overall, with organisations becoming more educated about the structures and processes required to make social media customer service a success, there is a growing feeling that the days of social media being dealt with by a separate dedicated team are coming to a close.

Robic concludes: “For a long time, having a specialised social media team separate from other client relationship teams was justifiable. Indeed, each social network had a very specific etiquette and those who speaking on behalf of the brand needed in-depth knowledge of these rules.

“However, with the advent of conversational commerce, the experience is increasingly unified and now, conversation on Twitter, Messenger and live chat are very similar. Teams that are trained to respond quickly, ensure customer satisfaction and generate value for the business can now answer customers on all channels. This results in a unified, high-quality user experience across all available brand channels.”

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