What are the key characteristics of a social media customer service agent?

9th May 2016
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Social media may be emerging as a permanent fixture in the service channel landscape, but it has some unique idiosyncrasies that set it apart from more traditional touchpoints. And the significance of these is such that the qualities required to successfully deliver support on social channels can be quite distinct from the skills historically associated with, for example, call centre agents.

So what is different, and what implications does this have for staffing your social media customer service roles?

“Customer service via social media is hugely different to traditional channels,” says Alex Dimmer, account supervisor from RSVP. “When a customer takes to social media they are doing so to have their complaint handled faster, and most importantly they are aware their voice will be heard and comments seen by others on the internet.  Handling a customer via email or telephone is easier for an agent, as your response will not be picked apart by the general public and other customers jumping on the bandwagon.”

Lisa Stacey is social media operational manager at Nationwide Building Society, heading up the social team at the financial services firm. Drawing on her experience, she notes: “It is a more engaging form of communication, being conversational rather than formal, covering a broad spectrum of queries from specific account enquires to what is your favourite flavour of crisps. The agents need to be able to adapt and think on their feet to keep up with the diverse nature of social media.  They also need not only an excellent knowledge of our product and services but an awareness of what is happening in the world as often they will receive messages relating to a breaking news story.”

So social agents not only need to possess the skills commonly associated with staff working on traditional service channels, but also a whole new set of qualities. Let’s examine the characteristics and strengths that social customer service agents need to have in their locker.

Social agents must be articulate

“Conversing on social media requires a completely different skill set compared with most other channels,” says Chris Cullen, head of sales and marketing at Echo Managed Services. “When engaging with customers via social media, advisors will be required to answer questions and participate in direct conversations with individual customers. But what must be remembered is that when communicating via social, tone of voice is completely lost, and so advisors must be able to convey an amazing customer experience with choice of words alone.

“With this in mind, advisors must be trained to have an awareness of the importance of the written word; what is being said and how it comes across. Occasionally, customer feedback might be deemed inappropriate and need to be removed. Advisors therefore must also be trained to be vigilant and possess the skills needed to effectively moderate this. Customers reading advisor responses will put their own interpretation on what’s written, whether intentional or not – an awareness of this is vital.”

Carolyn Blunt, managing director of contact centre training consultancy, Real Results and co-author of ‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’, adds: “They need to be able to correctly interpret toneless text and create well-written responses with excellent grammar and spelling. The restrictions of Twitter will force responses to be concise but even in Facebook I encourage the agents to write simply and powerfully. It saves time for both the agent and the customer.” 

Social agents must be agile problem-solvers

The content on social media can be extremely varied – some mentions of the brand may not require any action; some may be easy to respond to, while others may be more complicated and will need the agent to escalate the support case to another department. For this reason, social agents need to have the confidence and agility to quickly understand the context of the message and how to respond appropriately.

“When customers are upset, or have an urgent query, they want an answer immediately. If they are forced to wait 24 hours for a response, it is likely they will either attempt to contact the organisation via other channels, take their custom elsewhere, or form an unfavourable opinion of the brand or business,” says Cullen. “With this in mind, it is crucial that the customer service advisors responsible for handling enquiries are agile, able to think on their feet and empowered to respond promptly.”

Stacey adds: “They need to be confident and good communicators as they will need to speak to departments across the organisation to resolve a customer’s query. They require a good understanding of when to move a customer to a different channel, i.e. with complex queries it would be better to speak to the person.”

Social agents must be professional but personable

Social agents need to be able to conduct a conversation with customers that strikes a good balance between being affable and friendly, while at the same time still maintaining a professional tone that is appropriate to the organisation’s brand image.

Advisors must be trained to have an awareness of the importance of the written word; what is being said and how it comes across

“A customer service agent dealing with social media needs to be internet savvy, able to respond in a confident and (at times) witty manner whilst maintaining a professional tone,” says Dimmer. “Over the phone and in emails agents have the luxury to offer a lengthier explanation that most customer service agents are used to delivering. If you are responding to complaints or queries via social media, you are required to offer a succinct response that gets your point across but is always mindful that it is visible to the general public.”

Social agents must have empathy

Agents must be focused on making the customer happy, and every decision that the agent makes must be informed by this goal. On social media, this is particularly important, as the conversations often happen in public view.

“All the elements of bad customer service, such as being unhelpful, portraying a bad attitude, not listening to  the customer, not taking ownership of the customer’s issue,  or using a one-size-fits all approach, are still relevant to social media,” says Cullen. “It is important to understand that changing the communication channel does not change the need for the customer to come away feeling as if they have been treated with the utmost respect and given the attention that they deserve.

“What must be understood is that it is the people that make the real difference to the customer experience, and despite the digital nature of social channels, the human touch remains as critical as ever. With this in mind, it is important that advisors possess the empathy and communication skills to read and manage potentially difficult and high risk situations.”

Social agents must be resilient

Social media has become a popular platform for disgruntled customers to vent their spleens. Agents must have the ability to respond calmly and patiently – no matter how the customer is behaving. 

“They need to be resilient as they will get a number of customers who are not happy or in a difficult situation,” says Stacey. “Therefore, it is crucial the agent can bounce back from an interaction like this and be relaxed and friendly with the next customer.”

Where do you find these agents?

Given the qualities required to be a successful social agent are a blend of new skills and characteristics common in other service agents, organisations may ask themselves whether they should hire in new talent or promote existing agents.

The general consensus amongst experts is that brands are better off looking at their internal talent wherever possible. For instance, Martin Hill-Wilson, founder of Brainfood Consulting and Co-author of ‘Delivering Effective Social Customer Service’ published by Wiley, available on Amazon, says: “Promoting agents internally is best since they know the business. Only hire if there are no candidates or someone needs to set the standards for others to learn from.”

Simon Robic, social product manager at iAdvize, adds: “The most important thing is to have agents who can convey the values and culture of your brand. As these conversations can be viewed publicly, on Twitter and Facebook for example, they should go above and beyond to help with an enquiry and reflect your brand image in this public setting. Internal agents are probably the best placed to transmit these values and new agents will need some form of training in this area.”

Those who work at the coal face are in agreement. “In our view it is better to promote within provided they have the skills above, not everyone will have so you need an internal recruitment process to allow for you to filter the most appropriate people into social media,” notes Stacey. “The reason is that they need a really good broad knowledge of products and services and a network of contacts around the business to help support them. 

"A factor that needs to be considered is the technology. If it has the ability to route messages to specific agents then recruiting internally is not so important as you can put a new person on simple enquiries but if there is no routing capability then having an experienced agent is essential.”

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