Can you outsource your social media without creating controversy?

24th Jul 2014

Wind back a few years, and outsourcing social media was a decision fraught with danger. Eurostar can vouch for that – in 2010 the Anglo-French train provider received widespread criticism after a malfunction in the Channel Tunnel led to trains breaking down and people taking to social to complain, only to find automated, outsourced responses from agents that hadn’t been skilled to cope with the problem.

Four years on, are things any different? It appears so. Last month, the RAF went to press to announce it would be outsourcing its Facebook and Twitter feeds to better cope with the “24x7 nature of social media”. There was no hullabaloo in response, and no attempts by social media users to antagonise those in charge of the accounts. Things moved on in serenity.

Social media is considered a vastly different landscape to 2010. Many customer service professionals accept it as a channel in its own right, and a point of contact for businesses to provide support as well as marketing. Despite this, there are businesses still regularly running into trouble; often caught out by the complexity, volatility and an unforgiving public. So, with a number of specialists now offering assistance in the field, is it time to reconsider the outsourcing approach?

Ovum’s principal analyst Peter Ryan believes so. Having recently co-authored the report ‘Business Trends 2014: Social Media CRM Outsourcing’, he sees a growing consensus from companies that social media should form part of their CRM process, yet this is often juxtaposed with a lack of understanding in how to successfully administer this in-house:

“For a while it seemed social was best handled out of the PR or marketing department, and then the view became clear that it needs to be treated like a proper customer interaction channel because consumers started complaining using a myriad of social networks.

“Now because of this myriad there is a big, big risk that if the interactions are handled incorrectly or generically because it has been almost automated by the CRM process, you could find yourself in a situation where a consumer will switch to another vendor because they don’t like how they are being dealt with. It’s public, and it’s something everybody can see, so it’s extremely unpredictable and requires a different level of attention.”

Investment needed

Ovum’s research has found that almost 60% of enterprises are now deploying social media as a contact channel. Yet for many businesses, asking customer service staff to monitor and maintain a brand’s integrity as part of their customer service remit (through as many as 21 ‘serious’ social networks, according to Adobe figures) is a daunting task.

Chris Cullen, a consultant for Echo Managed Services, an outsourcing provider, has seen firsthand the shift in focus among businesses from dealing with social media as an experiment to appreciating its potential value to retain and engage customers. However, he believes its ability to generate ROI for a business is still heavily disputed in some boardrooms, and is the main factor stifling the amount of investment being put towards it:    

“If a company wants to be successful with social it needs to put some serious resource behind it, which can deflect against non-core activities of the business, incurring overheads and all the rest of it; the justification process becomes a lot harder, especially as the channel becomes more prevalent. If you look at the consumer, whether they’re dealing with you on Twitter, email or the phone, their expectations across the channels are the same, so there’s definitely an argument that businesses should treat social the same as they treat the other channels.”

In this light, outsourcing can offer an attractive alternative. As Peter Ryan says, “If you’re in the hotel business, restaurant, financial services industry or telecommunications, you’re focused on driving revenue and value based on what your core value proposition is, and you want to make sure all your resources are marshalled towards that.” In these situations, having a social presence is both vital and extraneous at the same time, making the internal investment decision decidedly tricky.   

Keeping marketing separate

Many experts argue that in considering outsourcing social media as part of an overall business strategy, a discussion should be had as to how much of their previous output can be dedicated to outsourcing, and how much should be kept for in-house marketing.

External marketing agencies are en vogue in terms of creating a promotional voice for some businesses, yet their ability to act as a support service is largely unproven. “Agencies aren’t married up with the other voice and non-voice channels, so it’s very difficult for them to be placed with the responsibility of actually speaking to customers via social,” says Ryan.

Chris Cullen believes the act of delivering social customer service through an external source is something that marketing and customer service departments need strategise for and divvy up:

“Gone are the days when marketing acts in isolation – there needs to be an agreement between marketers and customer service teams as to who is in charge of which messages and responses,” Cullen states. “Social media starts with the customer. When brands use it as a broadcasting, marketing tool, well they can get themselves into trouble if they think that easily doubles up as a customer service tool as well.”

Analysis and monitoring

Unlike other channels such as phone and email, outsourcers are acutely aware that social customer service isn’t just about responding to queries; and that even from the customer service viewpoint the art of monitoring and analysis is just as important. This, both Chris Cullen and Peter Ryan believe, is where outsourcing social can really add value to a business:

“A big part of what an outsourcer should be doing in this space is analytics and there’s a lot of investment going towards technology to assist social monitoring,” Cullen states. “A measured approach is important from the outsourcer’s point of view: checking with clients what the purpose is for each act of analysis. Starting with the customer service angle, you find it’s easier to ask “what’s the benefit to the business and the customer in analysis at certain points?””

Ryan also sees this trend developing, citing a number of recent “tactical social acquisitions from outsourcers” as proof that their aim is to provide more in-depth knowledge as well response service:

“The value-add is going to be on the monitoring, the analytics; the delivery is really a small part of the equation. It doesn’t matter about the size of the organisation, it’s about knowing what to do in terms of developing a broader social media strategy; monitoring and analysing is the first part of it. To my mind, many companies are very much bought into the fact that this is very important and that consumers are now equally likely to look at social for a means of interaction as opposed to telephone or email. ”

Agent expertise

Of course, as with any other communication channel, one of the major risks of outsourcing social media is the agents in charge of interacting with the customers. Ryan suggests lessons have been learnt since Eurostar’s blip in 2010, and that the current climate gives businesses are far greater opportunity to ensure that their social media feeds are in the hands of better-equipped staff:

“The quality of talent recruitment is perhaps the most compelling reason for using this approach for social media delivery, as it allows outsourcers to source social media-savvy agents from a pool not limited to one metropolitan area, picking the best from across the country in which they are servicing consumers.”

Chris Cullen states that in many outsourcing companies, agents are given much more in-depth guidelines in how to deal with social media scenarios than they were four years ago:  

“Where social media differs is in the language, as social is far more chatty than say, email. I’d say it fits somewhere between email and calling in terms of the type of language required. Agents need to be able to engage in the right language that consumers are comfortable with, while protecting brand values and principles.

“There is a difference in how to do social and as much outsourcers like to cross-train agents, they appreciate there is a level of understanding agents need to match before they can go out into the social space. What agents write in social is permanent and can be reproduced, so as outsourcers we have to be very careful. As long as they have highly-trained agents with good writing skills though, I wouldn’t say it was a huge problem.”

Disclosure agreement?

Ultimately, if outsourcing agents really are much savvier in dealing with social media, whether companies have given their social feeds over to external delivery providers may be something we'll never know. Despite transparency from organisations such as the RAF, an inherent fear of revealing this fact is leading businesses into non-disclosure agreements. As Peter Ryan states, "there’s still a lot of resistance amongst clients to be identified in contracts because they worry they will be targeted within the channels."

Chris Cullen believes this will change over time, however, as social becomes more and more recognisable as a support channel. "Long-term, the way people interact is probably only going to shift further into the social channel, so it’s pretty important brands consider their  options in the same way they might have done with email, phone, all those years back. But as long as there’s clear guidelines, there’s no reason to think this will be a major problem; and no reason to suspect customers will look at social feeds as anything more than another channel."

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