Last week I took to Twitter posing as an ‘innocent’ customer and asked 20 of the UK’s top retail brands a variety of questions.

They were all pretty simple: “what time does my local branch shut?” “Can I return online purchased items to a high street branch?” “When will this item be back in stock?” Theoretically nothing any social media team couldn’t easily answer.

The purpose of this was to test the speed, responsive and helpfulness of these brands’ social customer service.

I also looked at whether each brand stated clearly that it was available for customer service, if it operated a separate customer service account from the main Twitter channel and whether it published its operating hours within its profile.

Before we get on with the ranking though, a little on the importance of social customer service…

Why you should be offering customer service on social?

In a report from last November it was claimed that 53% of customers who ask a brand a question on Twitter expect a response within one hour (with that percentage rising to 72% if it’s a complaint), therefore giving customer service over social is becoming a necessary part of any brand’s social media strategy.

Even if your brand’s Twitter channel wasn’t originally set up for customer service, it won’t stop someone from contacting you on it. Social channels have become the very public face of all brands and woe betide you if your channel ignores queries or complaints here. 

At best you’ll have one disgruntled customer who won’t shop with you again, at worst an unholy Twitter storm that will trend even if there are more important things happening in the news that day.

If you need further convincing, there’s plenty of persuasive stats here in what social customer service is really worth.

Best practice tips

The key to delivering great customer service on social is to be personal, empathetic and speedy in response. Even if you have to take a customer onto a different channel (due to sensitivity of information or length of reply), or you can’t answer the query without thorough investigation, it’s important to at least state that you’re looking into it as soon as you can.

This is also why it’s important that if you can’t operate a 24 hour customer service, your channel should state its operating hours clearly in the profile. 

If your customer service channel is separate from the main account, this should also be clearly stated. However if a customer contacts you on your non-customer service channel you shouldn’t just ignore them or fob them off with the right Twitter handle.

Tell them you’ve passed their query on to the customer service team, or better still… help the customer on that channel.

Top 20 social customer service brands

Let’s see how our test subjects did. I have ranked them according to a mixture of response time and helpfulness. If a brand contacted me in under a minute, but gave me an automatic, unpersonalised and information free response then they won’t automatically be number one. Similarly if the reply came 30 minutes later but was cheery, personal and answered my question perfectly, then that brand will be pretty near the top. 

This is largely based on my own opinions, so the usual caveats apply. These results are based on a single tweet, however I have also taken each retailer’s general commitment to customer care into account.

I conducted this test on Friday 19 September between 12:42pm and 1:05pm.

1. B&Q

Response time: 3 minutes

A personalised reply, containing the information I required and a personal sign-off delivered in three minutes, coupled with a devoted customer service channel, which is linked to on the main B&Q channel, with its lengthy operating hours (7am – 11pm) clearly stated in the profile means B&Q goes straight to the top of the chart.

2. New Look

Response time: 22 minutes

New Look links to its customer care channel from the main account and its lengthy hours are clearly stated. Most impressive was the level of personalised customer service offered to me… 

3. Next

Response time: 35 minutes

Next replied accurately, personally and in just over half an hour. Next also links to its separate customer service channel from the main Twitter account and impressively it operates 24 hours, seven days a week.

4. Tesco

Response time: 49 minutes

Tesco replied in just under 50 mins, which is just cutting under that 60 minute optimum, but the friendliness and thorough helpfulness of its tweets more than makes up for it. These also come from the main Twitter account which it uses for 24 hour customer service, although it doesn’t state as such.

5. Sainsbury’s

Response time: 42 minutes

Sainsbury’s get maximum points for friendliness, helpfulness and personalisation. It doesn’t operate a separate customer service channel but it does state its main account is available for customer care. It also replies 24 hours a day. Perhaps Sainsbury’s could mention this in its profile. 

6. ASOS

Response time: 18 minutes

Fairly quick response but perhaps not the news I wanted to hear. ASOS does link to its separate customer service channel on its main account page however and on checking back through its previous responses, it seems to operate 24 hours a day. Generally these tweets are pretty helpful. 

The follow up tweet said ‘crossed’ just in case you were wondering.

7. Topshop

Response time: 33 minutes

Topshop offered a reply in just over half an hour and answered my question accurately and mentioned me by name. Unfortunately the separate customer service channel isn’t mentioned on the main Twitter page nor are there operating hours listed.

8. House of Fraser

Response time: 6 minutes

House of Fraser doesn’t operate a separate customer service channel nor does it state that it’s there to help, but it did reply quickly and positively, with added T&Cs for my convenience.

9. H&M

Response time: 37 minutes

It took H&M 40 minutes to deliver this disappointing blow (although it can’t really help it). The customer service channel is linked to from the main Twitter account, it operates 24 hours, seven days a week and is multilingual.

10. Argos

Response time: 41 minutes

Argos replied in a friendly, concise, helpful manner. Unfortunately there is no link to the customer service channel on the main Twitter account. The channel does operate 24 hours a day though.

11. Debenhams

Response time: 43 minutes

Debenhams replied helpfully and with an enquiry such as this, fairly quickly. Debenhams doesn’t offer a separate customer service channel, but it does reply 24 hours a day.

12. River Island

Response time: 1 hour 21 mins

River Island came back to me with a disappointing tweet after 81 minutes. The separate customer service channel is linked on the main Twitter page, although there are no hours of service, and being as there aren’t many tweets here it’s difficult to gauge if it operates 24 hours.

13. John Lewis

Response time: 2 hours 24 mins

John Lewis was the slowest to reply but at least I got my answer. There’s no link to the separate customer service channel on the main Twitter page, and although the operating times are listed, they are rather limited.

14. Marks and Spencer

Response time: 2 hours 4 mins

Although it took more than two hours to reply, at least it was helpful, if not terribly personal. There is no separate customer service channel and the hours of service aren’t listed on the main Twitter account. It also looks as though it’s not 24 hours.

15. ASDA

Response time: 16 minutes

Asda runs a separate customer service channel, however it doesn’t mention it on its main Twitter profile. It also didn’t come up in a search on Twitter, I had to find it via Google. 

Although the reply from its service team came fairly quickly, it was a fairly generic reply that asked me to contact them by phone. My request was fairly basic so this is a disappointing response.

16. Currys

Response time: 54 minutes

In just under one hour came this thoroughly unimpressive reply. It didn’t answer my simple question, it just linked to a product page. Which is fine, if it had answered my question in the first place. In this case I just think “well I’m not buying from here now”. Bizarrely I’m also encouraged to check out The Carphone Warehouse Twitter account. Currys does operate separate customer service channel linked from the main account.

17. Amazon 

Response time: 26 minutes

Amazon replied quickly but it was a fairly ambiguous response and not at all personal. It could’ve done better by asking me for more details instead of directing me elsewhere. To its credit Amazon’s main channel does link to the help team who are able to help in a whole range of different languages. It doesn’t list hours of service though.

18, 19, 20

As I write this on Saturday afternoon, more than 24 hours after I tweeted them, I have still yet to hear from Halfords, Toys R US and Boots

In fact Boots is currently offering this rather bleak looking Twitter page…

Before we get too negative about this last handful of tweets, let’s remember that I actually did receive responses from 17 out of 20 brands within a few hours. This an encouraging sign for the current state of social customer service.

Let’s total up some more statistics…

Statistics:

  • Brands that responded: 85% (17/20)
  • Brands that responded within 30 minutes: 25% (5/20)
  • Brands that responded within one hour: 70% (14/20)
  • Brands with a separate customer service Twitter account or states that it will help on its main Twitter account: 70% (14/20)
  • Hours of customer service clearly labelled: 45% (9/20)
  • Responses with a personalised reply: 50% (10/20)
  • Responses that satisfied this particular customer: 65% (13/20)

What have we learnt?

  • B&Q rules.
  • If you run a separate customer service channel, you must link to it from the main channel.
  • If you don’t run a separate customer service channel, but do offer it via the main Twitter account than say so in your profile and tell people what time you operate.
  • If you don’t offer social customer service, it’s about time you did.
  • Fobbing people off by just directing them to the ‘correct channel’ is really annoying. 
  • It pays to be friendly. Even the comparatively slow responses were a pleasure to receive if the tone was personal and helpful.
  • An hour feels like the maximum amount of time you can get away with. Reply under 15 minutes though and you’re on to an absolute winner.
  • Remember that although there is a character limit, customers won’t mind replies being delivered to them over multiple tweets. This is a much better practice than removing all personality and friendliness in order to get down to a 140 character limit.
  • If any of these brands had clicked on my profile and looked at my ‘tweets and replies’ they would’ve seen through my ruse…

For a similar investigation in a different industry, 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.