Consumers are using social for customer service, even where brands are choosing not to engage.

In fact, social media interaction has been greeted with trepidation by the majority of brands, with only 26% of staff taking social seriously as a customer service tool.

In trying to work out why this is, think about one of the last fundamental shifts in communication brought about by technology: when the telephone became ubiquitous, brands were terrified what would happen when they allowed customers to actually speak to their business. 

How would companies continue to control the messaging of their brand when thousands of conversations were happening between consumers and junior staff members every day? 

Generally, the answer came in the form of heavy moderation. Teaching call center staff rigid scripts that could guide them through a variety of common questions seemed to provide the answer. 

Except, as consumers, we know that it sucked. The experience of waiting on hold, navigating menu systems, and talking to a robot-like representative who stuck to a script was frustrating enough to make anyone give up on the idea of good customer service altogether. 

The concerns that existed when phones were introduced are being played out again with social media, only this time the stakes are higher. An audience is actively listening, from the other side of a keyboard, tablet or mobile.

Despite the risks, social media customer service is an opportunity that should be embraced. Done well, brands can turn a threat into an opportunity. 

Why you should embrace social customer care 

It’s cheaper

Forbes reports that social media customer service costs around $1 per interaction, up to six times cheaper than phone support. 

Good social customer care can go beyond providing the same service for less money. Opportunities can come from customers directly asking for advice or recommendations. With social intelligence tools, brands can surface conversations and questions that are not aimed directly at them. 

KLM, market leaders in social customer care, has 150 social media customer service agents, and generates $250m annual revenue by managing new client bookings via social media. 

As KLM’s social media manager Gert-Wim ter Haar told Venturebeat: “Social is more and more becoming a profit center. It’s first about service, then brand and reputation, but also about commerce…we have to make money.” 

It’s happening anyway

According to research conducted by the Institute of Customer Service, between January 2014 and May 2015 there was an eightfold increase in customer complaints made on social media. 

The report states that customer motivation for using social includes convenience, cost, and the desire to make the conversation public. Those brands not embracing the shift not only alienate their customers, but risk damaging their reputation with prospects. 

Customers expect it

One survey asked consumers who have attempted to contact a brand’s customer support channel through social media how long they expect to wait for a response.  

32% said within 30 minutes. A further 10% expect a response within 60 minutes. The expectation doesn’t stop there: 57% of respondents expect the same service at night or on the weekend.

Evidence suggests that customer care over live chat drives the highest satisfaction rates, which also attests to this point.

If live chat is not possible, well-resourced social teams that can respond quickly can still provide a satisfying encounter.

Not responding can be dangerous

Gartner reports that the dissatisfaction stemming from failure to respond can lead to a 15% churn rate for existing customers. 

The ripple effect of social media is well documented. Angering current customers can also give a negative impression to prospects who are yet to have a first-hand experience with the brand. 

Customers become happier

McKinsey reports that the move to social can instigate a ‘paradigm shift in customer satisfaction’, and cites a mobile operator that reduced call center volume by 20% in eight months, while lowering costs and increasing its Net Promoter Score. 

Twitter also reports that companies using the platform for customer service see a 19% lift in customer satisfaction.

It’s not hard to understand why: connecting with customers where they already are in a quick, convenient, and human way greatly improves the customer experience. 

Implementing social customer service 

So how should brands implement social customer service? The threat of a rogue tweet can understandably make stakeholders nervous, but by considering a few key points first, existing teams should be able to transition without too much risk. 

Early adopters and consumer surveys have highlighted seven key areas that brands should keep in mind when developing their roadmap. 

1. Respond quickly 

According to an NM Incite survey, 33% of respondents would recommend a brand that offered a quick but ineffective response.

That was nearly double the number who would recommend a brand that offered a slow but effective solution. 

KLM understands the importance of this. The header image on its Twitter customer care channel is updated every five minutes with the expected wait time for a representative to answer a complaint.

This avoids having customers getting increasingly frustrated while waiting, and adds some transparency to the process. 

2. Empower your employees

We may be moving away from scripted telephone conversations, but guidelines are still needed to assist staff.

Having well trained, empowered employees that don’t have to stick to a rigid script will allow them to better serve the customer while sounding authentic and staying true to your brand. 

Brands need to invest in the knowledge of staff, ensuring employees are taught to think for themselves through the lens of the overarching customer strategy. That said, simple problem-solving frameworks should be used to assist staff. 

The correct tools need to be in place, including streamlined relationship management systems containing customer histories, and social listening and engagement tools to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. 

3. Humanize your brand

The age of the customer has increased conversations with brands. The days of broadcasting on mass-media to consumers that had little way of joining the conversation are long behind us. 

It’s also important to note that through a customer service representative is often one of the few times a customer speaks directly to the brand. This interaction therefore takes on more significance for the customer, as the individual they speak to is the brand in their eyes. 

Great customer care should be human, personal and empathetic. Many brands are embracing this by having agents append their messages with their name or initials.

This small touch is one aspect of a wider shift, with human responses becoming increasingly common – and necessary. 

4. Align activity with your audience

Increase efficiency and customer satisfaction by aligning staff hours with customer activity – be approachable, accessible and talk to them when they want to be talked to.

An analysis of brand and audience activity in a social intelligence platform can reveal this, both for hours of the day and days of the week. 

Not having enough staff when your audience are most active will lead to long wait times. Conversely, having too many staff during quieter periods is a waste of resources. 

5. Go above and beyond 

Going beyond what is expected can create brand advocates and provide some fantastic PR. A humanized brand with empowered employees is able to deliver customer service on a level unexpected by consumers. 

The examples often cited will have been seen by many: Morton’s Steakhouse delivering a porterhouse steak, Lego replacing a child’s lost toy, or Trader Joe’s delivering to an elderly man in bad weather. 

These stories are known because they go far beyond what is expected and spread through social and traditional media, becoming huge PR wins in the process.  

However, going beyond what is expected does not have to be as extreme as those examples. Small things matter. Listen, engage, deliver, delight. 

6. Use the right channel 

The right channel is whichever channel the customer chooses. Sometimes conversations will have to be taken offline or private, but this should only be done where necessary. 

For one thing, it can look to observers that you are trying to hide negative interactions, but also it is a further inconvenience to your customer, who chances are has already had a negative experience. 

7. Be on the lookout

All brands with social customer care teams will be monitoring their own channels, but opportunities exist (and are missed) to engage beyond this. Brandwatch research shows that dependent on the industry, up to 96% of brand conversations can happen outside brand-owned channels. 

Misspellings and untagged mentions will go unanswered without a tool to notify you about them, and while complaints will tend to be directed at the brand, someone having a moan might not. Where appropriate, brands can rectify otherwise missed opportunities.

Brands can go beyond putting out fires and listen for opportunities too. While only 7.5% of US sales come through ecommerce, research from PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that around 80% of consumers research products online before purchasing in-store.

Often consumers ask the collective brain of social media for advice and recommendations and social intelligence provides the opportunity for brands to join the conversation at the appropriate point. Forward thinking brands can jump into these conversations to not only aid customers but benefit from their efforts. 

In conclusion…

Implementing social customer service isn’t easy, but that almost gives you more reason to do it now. The majority of brands have not got this right yet, and that increases the opportunity for brands that choose to embrace it.

The brands that take advantage of this should embrace social customer carefully. They should do it well, and do it soon.

Surprise and delight your customers, and you’ll have a genuine differentiator from your competitors while they play catch up.

If you’re interested in learning more, why not sign up for Econsultancy’s Social Media Customer Service training course.