Yorkshire tea

What Yorkshire Tea's Twitter row reveals about the skills required by social media service staff


As those behind the Yorkshire Tea Twitter feed have demonstrated this week, social media customer service requires a unique set of skills. 

26th Feb 2020

Friday 21st February should’ve been a relatively quiet day for the employees responsible for the Yorkshire Tea Twitter feed.

And then this happened:

The tweet – a seemingly inoffensive one in the grand scheme of things – from the UK government’s newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, resulted in a public backlash of monumental proportions. A full-blown Twitter pile-on.

Not towards Sunak, however. Towards Yorkshire Tea, and its team of unsuspecting customer service reps, for daring to be the brand held aloft by the chancellor in his Tweet.  

The team tried to wade through the responses as they streamed in, despite the increasing levels of spite and vitriol. But inevitably the weight of the situation left them no choice. They had to put out a plea to all Twitter users:

Human response

The declaration that there was a person behind the brand logo was a subtle but powerful one by Yorkshire Tea’s social media team. An outpouring of goodwill has subsequently followed which in turn has reopened a debate about what interactions should take place between brand and consumer, via social media.  

To an even greater degree, this debate has been further progressed as a result of a follow-up Tweet from Yorkshire Tea, trying to disarm one particularly angry respondent. 

Whatever side of the debate you sit on, and whatever your political stripes, what’s clear in the aftermath of this particular event is that being in charge of a brand’s social media customer service channels remains a very human, and complex challenge. Those in charge need a unique blend of skills and acumen in order to navigate through treacherous waters.

We asked a select group of experts to explain to us what customer service professionals – and their teams as a whole – require to succeed.

A very public forum

“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 a former social media operational manager at Nationwide Building Society, having headed 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.”

Choice of words

“Conversing on social media requires a completely different skill set compared with most other channels,” says Chris Cullen, a customer engagement business advisor.

“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, Ember 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 on Facebook I encourage the agents to write simply and powerfully. It saves time for both the agent and the customer.” 

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.”

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.

“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.”

Empathy is key

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.”

Resilient in facing criticism  

As the Yorkshire Tea example highlights, 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.”

What the Yorkshire Tea example also highlights is that resilience also comes in the form of knowing when a customer has overstepped the line, and feeling empowered enough to defuse a situation with a public response, when it is required.  


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