Using social media channels for customer service is a key way to remain relevant to not only your customer’s needs but also their expectations.

If you’re a brand than you should be on social. If you’re on social then you should be exactly that... Social. Communicate openly with your customers no matter what their query and do so personally, quickly and offering resolution where possible.

I’ve recently been writing a great deal on social customer service. Check out this investigation into the current state of UK social response for 20 top retailers.

I also recently talked to IBM's managing consultant in social customer care Guy Stephens about his thoughts on delivering customer care through social...

Can you tell us what you feel are the benefits of providing social customer service? 

Using the channels your customers use is a good starting point, although it isn't enough. Is social educating, teaching, showing organisations how to provide a better version of customer service? Probably, but even if it's not it is forcing organisations to somehow remain relevant to their customers.

If social indicates what the future of customer service might look like, what channels might be used in the future and how customer service might/could be provided, then in my mind, there is a responsibility on organisations to understand what that future looks like. Not to do so, is to effectively say “we choose not to be relevant to our users”. 

Do you think customer care should extend across all social channels? 

My sense is that the idea of customer service will change, and we are in that period of change. I believe we will move away from a type of service that is very siloed and bounded to the idea of a 'channel' and move towards something that is about a more pervasive and responsive type of service layer. 

Channel will become less of a dictating factor, and response will be driven more by context (urgency, priority, understanding of behaviour etc. all rolled together). The overall experience will inextricably be part of the resolution as well. 

Do you think teams need specific training on how to deliver customer care on social? Do you think the same team should handle all enquiries regardless of channel? 

I think teams need to remember how to be empathetic. To be driven by resolving the issue in the best way possible for the customer, and not by the operational necessities of it. Customer service is currently very process driven. Look at all the metrics, it is about the process and not the resolution or the experience of the resolution. 

I think who covers 'customer service' will change as will what actually constitutes customer service. We've seen examples like BestBuy's Twelpforce, giffgaff's community, people simply helping each other via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc. We may see the frontline provide a far deeper service layer experience for all. The idea of frontline triage spreading across the entirety of the organisation. 

Is there an optimum time for responding? Is there a certain tone of voice, or adherence to personalisation that a CS team should adopt? 

In my opinion a customer doesn't care too much about response times as long as you keep them informed throughout. Putting that to one side, what social increasingly allows an organisation to do is understand the context in which something it happening to a customer.

That enables an organisation to understand the urgency, complexity, priority of a specific issue someone is having. However, what you need to remember is that my idea of urgent changes depending on the context, this differs again to the organisation's idea of urgent. 

If you look back over the various response surveys of the last four to five years, you can see that not much has really changed, apart from the fact that people expect a response on the social channels to be faster than those on traditional channels. It's not as simple an equation as big team = faster response time.

This also differs between social channels - people expect a faster response on Twitter than Facebook. There is a cultural aspect to this that we don't often take into account. For example, in the Middle East (and even in different countries within the ME it differs), people are increasingly using Instagram more than Facebook, Twitter in some instances to engage with organisations. 

Responding is also a two-step process: acknowledging the initial Tweet or Facebook message, and then resolving the issue. The resolution can take place in the normal way.

However, my belief is that we will move from the 'lipstick on the pig' approach we currently have towards something whereby we recognise the native functionality of the social channels and provide service that takes that native functionality into account. At the moment it is pretty much traditional customer service but on Twitter, Facebook etc.   

Do you find that customers mind being moved to a different channel for more sensitive, complicated enquiries? 

That's a reality of the current limitations of what we have. This is where the experience becomes very important ensuring that the move from one channel to another, one team to another etc. is handled seamlessly, creating what many refer to as a 'frictionless experience'. Organisations need to look at the underlying complexity of their existing processes. 

As for sensitivity, I think the goal posts are slowly shifting on this, as our thinking changes and we recognise that the underlying system or model has by necessity to change. I'm not saying we should all suddenly publish our bank account details; that stays private. But I think we have hidden behind things like data privacy for so long that we no longer really know where the lines of sensitivity lie.

I think it's time for a grown-up conversation again looking at data privacy/sensitivity etc. I think we are seeing a very slow shift from a time years ago when consumers were happy to forego privacy in return for the ability to buy items online. Convenience ruled, and apathy set in. We're now starting to understand the implications of that, and perhaps trying to reclaim our 'lost privacy' (all sounds very romantic and Proustean!). Bottom line: companies need to re-evaluate their underlying processes. Once again it's lipstick on a pig - social layer stuck on top of existing processes, instead of trying to understand the inherent nature of social channels and then designing a process from the bottom up. 

What is the ROI of providing social customer service

The ROI is your customers coming back to you one by one. 

Do you have any best practice tips for other companies wishing to improve their social CS? 

Design for social. Think about it from your customer's perspective.

Look at things like Snapchat and think about their underlying characteristics, and then design your service based on that. For example, an idea I've been toying with for a while is with regards to Snapchat.

If Snapchat is all about impermanence, can we apply that to the idea of the knowledge base? In my mind, once we set the knowledge base free we set customer service free. I'm not advocating that all knowledge disappears after 10 seconds. But the idea of impermanence genuinely forces you to make decisions, to prioritise, whereas permanence requires you to do nothing.

For more social customer care investigations, check out how 16 retail banks handle social customer care.

To learn more about social and all things digital come to our Festival of Marketing event in November. A two day celebration of the modern marketing industry, featuring speakers from brands including LEGO, Tesco, Barclays, FT.com and more.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 7 October, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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