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Social Listening in Practice: Customer Service

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This guide is an overview of social customer service, and provides:

  • Examples of best practices
  • Strategic considerations for brands to who are looking to review their customer service approach

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Social customer service

The rapid growth in digital in the past few decades means that we can all choose to buy our products and services from a global marketplace. As consumer choice increases, the competitive set for many businesses also widens.

And when it comes to differentiation of brands and products, perception of whether an organization provides a good customer experience can be a deciding factor for many of us.

Today, we simply expect more from the companies we interact with:

  • 64% of us expect to receive real-time customer service, regardless of channel
  • 78% consider a company’s customer service reputation important when choosing to buy

UK research showed that businesses were losing a staggering £12billion every year due to poor customer service. The same study highlighted that 93% had switched business at least once a year because of poor customer service. Critically, a third of 16 to 24 year-olds will post online if they are unhappy with service they receive.

However, the focus for many organizations has been reaching and acquiring new customers through social media, rather than servicing existing customers better.

Old service models and a focus on cost effectiveness rather than service excellence feel broken in a world where customers want to choose their preferred contact channels - and can make their complaints publicly heard. More than ever, it’s important to get your service right.

This guide is an overview of social customer service. It provides examples of best practice, as well as strategic considerations for brands and organizations undertaking a review of their customer service approach.

Good customer service makes good business sense

Think about the last time you purchased a holiday, insured something valuable or purchased a significant piece of home or business technology. You may have looked at ratings, reviews or asked friends, family or colleagues in your social networks whether they had any recommendations or advice. You almost certainly would have visited a brand/orgs web site and checked out their social media channels. Perhaps you chatted to a service agent via live webchat.

If you went on to purchase or needed service and the experience was a positive one, it’s highly likely that you would have recommended it to others. In fact research shows:

  • 75% of people would return to companies with excellent service
  • 56% would recommend those companies to family and friends
  • 33% will spend more with brands that provide excellent customer service

Many organizations are saving significant sums of money as a result of aligning their contact and customer service centers with digital and social channels. In 2013, the UK’s advertising agency trade body, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, quoted British Telecoms as saving £2m a year by adopting a more socialmedia based approach to customer service.

A NMIncite study highlighted that social customer care can save money. It costs less than $1 per interaction, whereas telephone care is typically at least $6 per call and e-mail care costs $2.50 to $5 per interaction. Gartner also identified efficiency gains, stating that customer service agents were able to handle multiple queries.

Their study showed that agents could manage between four and eight times more issues per hour than phone handling. This makes social a desirable and effective servicing channel.

Watch out - it’s a level playing field

These great benefits come with no small risk. When consumers experience below-par service, even if the organization is not at fault, they have the opportunity to use social channels to expose any failings.

The ‘visible public contract’ nature of social media channels, means that for many, they have become the go-to place for getting a brand response. Some even go as far as buying social advertising to make their feelings known.

As many of the customer service interactions have to take place in private and secure environments, the full picture is not always provided to the interested onlooker. Not every successful resolution or positive outcome via social customer care is made public by the customer

But for every 100 quietly resolved cases, there are the occasional conversations that are skillfully handled by community managers, social customer service agents or other representatives that are held up as PRable examples of social media management. Confident brands can quash a rant, play along with appropriate humor or take the sting out of a situation. These conversations can be recognized by customers, influencers and the media.

O2, one of the leading digital communications companies in the UK, is renowned for their humorous responses to the more ‘colorful’ tweets from customers and the public in general. Although O2’s approach is not without risk, it has seen improvements in customer satisfaction scores and has shifted the trend over the past few years from tweeted complaints to plaudits.

So what is social customer service?

The answer is staggeringly simple. It’s configuring customer service to include identification of praise, feedback and request for customer support on social media channels.

It’s about extending customer service beyond traditional channels such as phone and email. It means offering social customer service on the major social platforms – Twitter and Facebook. As well as being two of the largest social networks, these mature social platforms offer a mixture of public and private messaging, an essential element of servicing.

There will be times when customer service agents need to identify and verify customers, so the direct messaging functionality allows for an exchange of personal data to verify a customer.

Social listening and management tools have also been largely developed around the major platforms. Doing customer service at scale in social media means choosing the right blend of monitoring, management and measurement tools as well as getting the right processes in place.

Many organizations with established social customer service are also extending their customer service through region-specific social media platforms and visual networks, such as Instagram. Others are considering using OTT messaging services such as WhatsApp or Line. Omni-channel customer service is becoming increasingly important.

But, there is clearly a long way to go. Some organizations have successfully created and scaled their social customer service, others are struggling to adapt, break the silos and create a seamless customer experience. Communications, marketing, customer service and other teams all provide customer touch points, so it’s no small task. It’s early days, but there are clear rewards for those getting it right.

What are the implications for organizations?

We’ve stated that the focus for many organizations has been reaching and acquiring new customers through social media rather than servicing existing customers through it. But the tide is changing. Many organizations are re-calibrating and focusing increasingly on using social for customer retention, proof of the customer experience and increased advocacy through happy customers.

Organizations now have greater visibility of customer feedback and conversations. They can also identify and resolve queries before they become problems, if they have the right infrastructure in place to handle any issues.

At London2012, the social team were responsible for identifying customer experience tweets about the food and drink, signage, security, music, entertainment and announcements. They ensured that any useful feedback and emerging issues were triaged to the organizers, who were able to tweak the customer experience or rectify problems, often in real-time.

One impact of re-focusing on ‘social in’ and customer experience rather than ‘social out’ and marketing is that social has moved from a channel managed by marketing and/or communications, to one where a blend of teams and personnel are involved. At one end of the spectrum, there are organizations that have established social media command centers. Teams of specialists blend real-time analysis of segmentation of social data by location and language.

MoneyGram are an example of an organization with a command center –they triage incoming complaints and react appropriately to each individual concern in real time. Performing reactive engagement at scale requires businesses to have clear strategies and organized systems in place to strategically handle the large volumes of incoming complaints – the command center facilitates that process.

At the other end of the spectrum there is often a single person managing, scheduling, triaging or even handling a mix of outbound and inbound social media comments. Often, the sheer scale of the task - as audiences start to blend social channels and migrate to new platforms - and the risks of a “single point of fail”, is the catalyst for a review of the social media strategy.

The challenges to an organization will differ from business to business but can be summarized as:

  • A true omni-channel approach is not just opening up new channels for your customers. It is the design, delivery and management of consistent experiences and service levels through combinations of channels used in a customer journey. This takes coordination, time and investment.
  • Communication channels are changing and evolving rapidly. Text and video channels are experiencing current growth - Periscope, Instagram, Vine, WhatsApp, Line, Snapchat. It is likely that consumers will expect some of these to become servicing channels.
  • Organizations need to balance the instinct to cut costs against customer expectations. Adding channels can add to costs.
  • There is a requirement for good leadership and a holistic vision to brand and servicing. Organizations should aim for reducing demands for customer service by fixing things through listening more effectively and simplifying customer journeys to cut down unnecessary service requests.

Who does it well? Case Study/ Direct Line ‘The Fixers’

Many of us choose to speak to our insurance company only if we wish to ask a question about our cover or have a claim. Few of us wish to develop a ‘relationship’ with them through social media. But what if your insurer had ‘good-old-fashioned’ customer values? What if their staff did as much as they could to make your life easier when you need them most?

Direct Line was the first UK insurer to cut out insurance brokers and provide insurance directly to the customer in the 1980s. Over the past decade, price comparison websites have forced the UK insurance market to compete heavily on price. Direct Line needed to make clear the benefit of buying direct. This meant assuring customers that their insurance policies were not just competitive on price, but that they provide great cover and customer service.

In 2014 they developed a new brand proposition, with Harvey Keitel reprising his role of Pulp Fiction's Winston Wolf in their TV adverts. Wolf is a ‘fixer’ of the typical problems that customers have when they need to make a home or motor insurance claim.

To ensure success, the ‘fixer’ elements of the Winston Wolf character had to be embodied in real customer experience. Direct Line had to be believed as a company full of problemsolvers. Any gap could be exposed and potentially damaging to this brand proposition.

A a house burglary, pet illness or a car accident customers do not want to be passed from one person or service channel to another because of IT systems that don’t talk to each other, or a complex internal structure. Customers need to feel reassured that whoever they are ‘speaking’ to will take responsibility for their problem, will understand who you are and will fix it. An external and internal review provided real actionable insights for the organization.

Direct Line spent significant time and investment understanding how their customers wished to interact with them. They reviewed whether customers’ preferred contact channels were telephone, email, social media, webchat etc. They also considered whether channels and device use changed at different points in customer journeys.

It became clear that teams needed to align. Digital, marketing, communications, innovation, compliance, claims, customer service and other teams were all responsible for creating the customer experience and so were re-aligned around common customer goals. They also extended their social customer service hours to better match with customer needs.

Direct Line trialed and embedded social media monitoring, analysis and CRM systems into the workflow. A team of social customer service and claims specialists were trained and ‘stress-tested’ to ensure that they could deliver an end-to-end solution for customers.

This simply means that customer queries would be resolved as safely and speedily as possible through their channel or channels of choice – sounds simple, but legacy IT and CRM systems, compliance requirements and team structures can make this difficult for many organizations.

Each customer service related comment in social media is reviewed and contextualized - obviously in more detail than we can publish here - but broadly, the team check:

  • Is this a customer or a potential customer?
  • What category of tweet/post is it and what is the underlying emotion?

Complaint, claim, advocacy, observational comment, feedback etc.

Marketing and communications team members took responsibility for the publishing, promoting and engagement of useful, entertaining and preventative social content. This supports the customer and delivers the brand proposition. Social content included a dog-walking app, tips for ‘fixing’ overweight pets and advice for preparing for the worst of the British weather.

On Twitter, the team try to fix some of life’s every day problems through their #everydayfix campaign. This includes sending a free lunch or complimentary cosmetics to people who have forgotten their wallets or make-up bags.

Customer service level agreements (SLAs) were developed for Twitter and Facebook, procedures for identifying, handling and escalating problems were agreed and tested. The customer service and content teams are in constant contact, even though they operate in many locations. They produce shared reports and information about the DNA for customer service success. These highlight good customer resolutions as well as analyzing and updating procedures when the outcome is less positive.

Direct Line is a great example of why alignment and closing the feedback loop is critical. Social media analysis and wider qualitative research inform changes to procedures, channel choice and SLAs. The worst social media customer service accounts solely redirect to email addresses or are devoid of empathy. Direct Line focus on their customers as people. Their needs can be complex or immediate. They may be upset or frustrated, but they all want to be understood, given reassurance and have their problem fixed quickly.

Direct Line was awarded the Institute of Customer Service ‘Best Customer Satisfaction Strategy’ award and recognized by Harvard Business Review and Lady Geek as ‘The Most Empathetic Company on Twitter. (link: https://hbr.org/2015/04/the-best-and-worstcorporate-tweeters) This is testament to the hard work put in by the team to truly embody the ‘fixer’ ethos and to listen and talk to their customers appropriately, even in 140 characters.

Creating a social customer service strategy

Large, complex and highly regulated organizations, like Direct Line, and smaller businesses should go through a similar process when developing a strategy. Social listening and analysis tools like Brandwatch make it easier to gather and collate relevant external data than ever before. But that data still needs careful analysis to become genuinely valuable. It often needs evaluating alongside other information to offer the most useful insights.

Here is a 13-step approach to planning:

  1. Plan
  2. Audit – Internal and external
  3. Evaluation and contextualization
  4. Define Resource
  5. Define service hours
  6. Channel choice
  7. Governance
  8. Technology
  9. 9 Integration
  10. Testing/Training
  11. Measurement
  12. Evaluation and Reporting
  13. Scale

Let’s look at each of these stages in more detail.

Customer experience and customer service no longer applies to a single team or department. It’s critical that there is a shared mission to put the customer genuinely at the heart of an organization and to plan accordingly. Some of your customers won’t want to voice their complaint on social media and will prefer traditional channels such as telephone or email. For others, the idea of using their precious mobile minutes to listen to call center hold music is a personal hell. They prefer Twitter, Facebook or other channels to save them time, expense and effort – and they may also deflect from other service channels if they feel their needs are not being met.

Perhaps at this stage with all the relevant stakeholders in a room, instead of focusing on just social media, you re-evaluate all of your customer touchpoints, customer journeys and consider what the Omni-Channel customer experience looks like now and how it will evolve further in the future.

If that’s a little intimidating, then discuss:

  • What the situation is right now
  • Whether you are doing a good job servicing existing customers and showcasing this to your prospective customers
  • What could you do better? Where are your weaknesses and strengths?
  • What social customer service is in its broadest sense for your organization
  • Where it currently sits in the organization
  • What the wider impact of better social customer service is on brand reputation sentiment, retention, customer lifetime value, and advocacy
  • What a shift in contact channels might mean for your business
  • What your current service level agreements are
  • Will these need to change in new channels?
  • Whether there will be cost or timesavings, and what time period you can afford to test this over
  • Whether you can resolve service issues faster in social media
  • Will you need to invest in new technology? Training? Staff?
  • If the nature of contact will change in social media
  • What the potential impact and risk around privacy, compliance, data protection might be
  • Whether the public nature of these conversations deflect or help solve the issue for others
  • Who does social customer service well? What can we learn from them?

These are just some of the topics that should be discussed. The objective of this stage is to explore some common themes and to try to address the tougher questions and develop a broad set of aims and goals for social customer service, for example:

To improve loyalty and customer retention and increase visible advocacy.

Audit – Internal and external and evaluation and contextualization

Once you’ve established your broad aims or goals for social customer service and have established key areas of ‘pain’ and ‘progress’, then it’s time to research both internally and externally.

Internal research

Review your internal structure and culture. Are you ready for social customer service and doing this at scale? Any internal service gaps can be exposed quickly by customers in social, so it’s better to be aware of them at the very start, and consider all departmental and team interdependencies.

The reality is that most organizations are currently doing social customer service, whether it is structured or not, so how are you managing it and where are your weaknesses? In a highly regulated industry, you must bring compliance, information security and any other governance teams with you.

Gather as much detail as possible as you can related to how your organization benchmarks and measures brand metrics and customer experience. Is there a budget for doing this?

Do you need external consultancy for this process? Do you have the right teams and skills in place?

Once collected and analyzed by age, gender and CRM data or audience segments, you should have an understanding of your overall customer base and what a typical audience member from each segment is likely to expect from you in social. You can start to develop your social customer service strategy.

As well as direct competitor analysis researching the more innovative and advanced social servicing brands can provide some valuable insights. This is no small task, but good research will remove the guesswork and increase the chance of investment from the C-Suite and success for your customers.

Define resource and establish service hours

Your staff are your greatest asset

Research shows that organizations who focus on getting the most from their staff and increase in employee engagement levels with the company by 10%, results in the company’s customer service levels going up by 5%, and profits by 2%. This equates to an average increase in profit by up to £1,500 per employee per year. So, getting the people part of your strategy right is critical

There are four basic resourcing models that cover the majority of social media servicing. Once you’ve established your internal weaknesses and strengths as well as interdepartmental connections, you should consider which social customer resourcing model best matches your needs:

  1. Outsourced
  2. Marketing or communications led
  3. Customer service led
  4. Integrated team (multiple departments)

It could be that you have a roadmap to evolve from outsourcing to a fully integrated team over a period of time, or you may decide that it is a wholly customer service led area of your business. Either way, you will need to establish an operating model with the right level of leadership, resource, skills and training.

You also need to decide what your social customer service hours are. This will include any out of hours or ‘special hours’ provision. This will be determined again by many factors – for example, if you are a global organization and offer 24/7 service via other channels, then it’s relatively simple to extend this to social.

However, if your service model is more complex and you need to rely on partners outside your organization, who may not operate beyond a typical 9-5pm day, then you may have service gaps that are complicated to explain on social media. Your service hours should be clearly communicated on your social platforms.

Case Study/ KLM set expectations with published social media response times

KLM provide a best practice approach to service transparency. As well as communicating this effectively through their core service channels, they also update the expected customer response times every 5 minutes – managing expectations virtually in real-time.

Get the governance right

How you implement social care is affected by your organization’s tolerance for risk, and the regulatory environment that you operate in. Financial Services and Pharma companies, for example, have strict regulatory parameters that limit how and when to intervene with social care and what is determined as ‘promotion’.

The essential governance foundations of social customer servicing are:

  • A complaints handling process
  • Internal escalation models
  • Crises and issues management processes
  • Tone of voice/brand response guidelines
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Agent training and stress/crisis testing
  • Social CRM systems - for managing and logging engagement
  • Measurement frameworks

Define channels, technology and integrate

There are a number of factors that will affect your social channel choice and how it can potentially fit in an end-to-end customer service process. Again, there are some key questions that you will have asked at the research stage to inform this element of your strategy.

As well as considering whether your customers are using specific channels and for what purposes, you will need to balance this with key internal considerations:

  • Can we offer safe and compliant customer service on the channel?
  • Do we have the skills, tools and technology to deliver effective customer service on this platform?
  • Can we adequately measure and evaluate comparative cost and success of the channels?

Integration is not just restricted to tools and processes, but also teams. If a small team or a single department has managed your social outbound and inbound activity, then there may be a requirement for culture and team change. Teams who may not always necessarily work closely together may need to be more tightly integrated under the Customer Experience umbrella.

The Brandwatch ‘Reputation and Crisis Monitoring’ guide details a simple 4-step process in creating processes for managing reputation in social media. This is a great framework for creating a social customer service approach from scratch and creating processes and scenarios for agents managing social media customer service.

  1. Identification
  2. Evaluation
  3. Escalation
  4. Response

The issue scoring system and ‘escalation process’ detailed in that guide can also be adapted to help spot potential service issues, rank their relative importance and decide exactly who needs to know what is happening and how quickly they need to respond.

Testing and training

Once you have defined your resource and team model, your channels, your operating hours, a complaints handling process, internal escalation models, Crisis and issues management processes, tone of voice/brand response guidelines, Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and have set up and tested your social customer service management systems, then it’s time to gently ease your customer service agents into the crazy world of social media.

Most large organizations will formally train, or at the very least mentor, front-line staff until they are able to handle issues within agreed service and brand frameworks.

One of the most useful processes for large and complex teams or organizations is a simulation exercise, where scenarios are created in a non-public environment to stress test teams and processes. These training scenarios are hugely valuable in testing tone, messaging, technology and how well teams can work together under pressure. There will almost inevitably be some teething issues to work through, but it doesn’t take long before teams are working effectively together and are tightly integrated.

Learning doesn’t stop. There will be frequent issues and the occasional scenario that ensures that systems, messages and approaches are re-evaluated on a regular basis. It’s critical that frontline staff continue to learn from senior managers and use other elements of service and customer experience training through social channels.

Measure, evaluate and report

Frameworks around which to judge the success of social customer service vary depending on the nature of your business. Some common objectives with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound (SMART) objectives and associated KPIs include:

  • Respond to XX% of mentions on social media within X hours/ X minutes
  • Close/complete XX% of enquiries on social channels within X days/hours/minutes
  • Average ‘cost to serve’ customer service enquiries reduction by $XX or X% over a specified time period
  • Increase % of customers who ‘self-serve’
  • Compare % change in NPS/sentiment of people using social channels for customer service, with traditional service channels (phone, email etc.)

You should select a mixture of quantitative and qualitative metrics that can provide the required level of management information. For integrated teams, it’s important to track the impact of social servicing on brand metrics such as a change in positive sentiment or ‘intent statements’ expressed on social media. Tools like Brandwatch are perfect for tracking and measuring this over time and comparing against a competitive set.

Scale

In order to take a strategic approach to social media servicing at scale, it is necessary to move from focusing provision on 1-on-1 support to innovating solutions that can preempt service needs for large volumes of customers.

The aim of this is not to remove the need for all contact but to focus that need so that customers only require one-on-one support for more complex issues. This means creating a dynamic model of customer support.

A model that actively reviews complaints data to identify opportunities to anticipate the needs of a wider audience. It means considering innovative approaches to delivering service, e.g. via self-serve content, video support etc. Ultimately it means developing entirely new, value-added services around common customer pain-points that remove the need for support for these issues entirely. This approach allows you to efficiently service at scale and optimize your operations so that customers receive the most appropriate level of support for their needs.

Air France’s KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) are one of the most innovative companies with regard to customer service. They have scaled their social customer service and run a 24/7 operation with 130 employees fully focused on global social customer care.

Summary

Regardless of your business sector or the size of your organization, you must consider the benefits and impact of social customer service. Here is a simple checklist for handling customer service in social media:

  • Stop, get the right stakeholders together to collaborate around the customer experience
  • Choose the right listening and management tools
  • Be prepared – understand and identify your service issues and create crisis scenarios and responses
  • Create customer service management processes
  • Rehearse scenarios – the common, the uncomfortable and the worst case scenarios - and consider how these would be escalated and handled
  • Train your staff to give them confidence. Give them the room to develop specialist social media skills
  • Scale when value is proven.

We hope that this guide has helped you identify where you should focus any improvements.

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