In recent years social customer service has endured crises and successes in equal measure. Here’s a quick evaluation of where we are today, with some pointers for the future.

Let’s start with the positive side of social customer service. In his recent two part blog post, my colleague Martin Hill-Wilson highlighted some solid statistics from Socialbakers that indicate that some of the UK’s largest brands are now very responsive to customer service enquiries:

Next (the UK clothing retailer) answers 93% of their Facebook customers against an industry average of 55%. While Vodafone manages to respond 77% of the time and thus comes out top on Twitter against a global benchmark of just 32%.

For an increasing number of people, social media is the first place they turn when they experience a problem. According to Nielson’s social media report 2012, 47% of social media users engage in social media care and 1 in 3 users prefer to contact brands using social media rather than the telephone.

Despite this, and Martin’s examples above, research by Gleanster shows that only 41% of companies actively respond to consumer complaints on social media.

What’s more, the average response time for enquiries through social media is over 24 hours. When you consider that 92% of consumers have switched business at least once in the last year because of poor customer service and this cost businesses £12bn, the evidence is clear: most companies need to improve their efforts.

In addition to responsiveness, there are questions about the quality of responses, with lazy writing and cost-cutting practices evident. Again, Martin Hill-Wilson cites one problem in particular:

Social customer service loses a major advantage when advisors are allowed to simply cut and paste their initial response. That was what we criticised call centres for.  This time the impact is even worse, since everyone else can easily assess the house style and so this formulaic approach looks even worse… The impact is to make the brand look unresponsive and uncaring.

Brands also face the challenge of combining their many communication needs through a single channel, or even a single Facebook Page.

A brief overview of the UK’s leading retailers’ Facebook Pages will show you two things: firstly, that most are actively using Facebook for marketing; and secondly, that their customers are predominantly using the channel to post support requests. The disconnect is, again, stark. 

One of the reasons for the slow progress with social customer service is funding. In most companies the Marketing department still controls the largest budget – and that is certainly the case globally.  

According to Genesys, we spend $500bn a year on marketing while just $50bn is spent on CRM and only $9bn on customer service. In a world in which social media can make or break brands, social customer service is still the poor relation.  

When you consider Gartner’s 80/20 rule, which suggests that 80% of your company’s future revenue will come from just 20% of your existing customers, and the quote (attributed to Lee Resources) that attracting new customers will cost your company 5 times more than keeping an existing customer, there is a strong case to suggest that good customer service should be more profitable than marketing. This is especially so in a word-of-mouth environment.

In any event, what’s clear is that, while many companies are starting to deliver a positive social customer service experience, we still have a long way to go. We need to invest in finding ways of supporting customers more effectively on the channel of their choice and ensuring a consistent customer service experience across all service channels.