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1 August 2022

Social customer service 101

How to get it right

As of April 2022, Facebook and Twitter had 2.936 billion and 436 million monthly active users, respectively. Studies have shown that one in three of these users prefers to engage with a business’s social media channels for customer service than reach out to a call centre or send an email. This growing preference for social customer service places new demands on organisations to deliver a truly omnichannel experience to customers or risk losing them.

What is social customer service?

Social customer service is defined as the operational servicing of customers through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Organisations make use of these platforms to reply to posts directed at or speaking about them by people using their products or services.

The types of posts that are considered “serviceable” include customer feedback, requests for additional information, customers looking to sign up, or customers looking to cancel. Conversations that present a risk to the brand should also be subject to consideration.

The objective of social customer service is the same as the objective of all customer service:

  • To protect and enhance the brand-customer relationship
  • To provide existing or potential customers with information and guidance
  • To take actions to alleviate problems customers are facing

Who does social customer service?

Depending on the organisation’s size and maturity in its adoption of social media technology, the team or department responsible for social customer service may differ. Often organisations who are early on in their journey with social media may place the function within the marketing team (under community management), whilst more advanced organisations may have a dedicated team responsible for social servicing, or even have incorporated social media into the traditional customer service channels alongside agents operating the call centre, email, live chat, or other channels.

It is not uncommon for large organisations like banks or telcos to have teams of anywhere from 5-50 people working in shifts to respond to incoming customer messages from social media alone. These agents usually record information and then rely on internal pathways to escalate issues within the business. These teams can also be outsourced to third-party service providers, as is sometimes the case with nightshift and weekend work.

Why is social customer service necessary?

When an organisation establishes a reliable social media servicing channel, customers are more likely to return in the future in a similar capacity. On face value, this may appear to elevate public negative sentiment when customers do share their complaint and request service assistance. In the past this has discouraged some organisations from pursuing social customer service. But the reality is that organisations need to meet customers where they are, or risk reputational damage.

Social media is the platform that customers are already actively using, and much like having a store front on a main street, having a brand presence on social media is inviting a line of communication between organisation and customer in that environment. Simply ignoring the customer will lead to increased frustration.

This is highly undesirable especially considering the common route that leads customers to social media in the first place. Customers use social media to deliberately apply public pressure to organisations to resolve their issues more quickly when traditional channels have failed them. This is essentially the “name and shame” phenomenon. Publicly ignoring disgruntled customers means that the organisation also stands to lose reputationally.

When is speaking to customers on social media not social customer service?

It is important to understand that not all interactions between a brand and a customer constitute social customer service. For example:

Community management is not social customer service.

Community management can be defined as a brand’s attempt to build relationships with its online audience. This typically includes building an online persona through activities like competitions, campaigns, and consumer engagements.

Historically, when social media service was just beginning to creep into big organisations, it was all lumped under marketing, and more specifically, community management. In some organisations that have not kept pace with scaling their social media customer service, the function still sits under community management.

Public relations is not social customer service.

Mitigating risk conversation online isn’t necessarily social customer service. Although, all risk conversations should first be considered for social customer service. Often brands may choose not to respond at all, or when it does formulate a response to a high-profile individual or even press sources levelling accusations at it (for example) it takes some time and careful consideration. Thus, the turnaround time in handling matters like that far exceed the quicker expected turnaround time on service-related matters.

What does good social customer service look like?

Like any traditional form of customer service, an organisation needs to tailor their approach according to their product or service offering and their customers’ needs. There are, however, a few common fundamentals when it comes to providing good social customer service.

Low customer effort

Universally, studies like this one have shown that good customer service comes from systems that allow customers to put in minimal effort in getting their queries resolved. In terms of social customer service, this means that customers shouldn’t have to:

  • Repeat information
  • Reach out multiple times
  • Switch to other channels
  • Wait for long periods to get answers
  • Speak to an automated system when they don’t want to

Twitter handles matter

On Twitter, it has been proven that clear communication strategy benefits from having a dedicated service handle (@Rb_Jacobs for example). This is because it allows the social customer service team to handle queries directly, as opposed to triaging between customer service and community management. Marketing efforts like campaigns and competitions can clutter up service lines, but also attract customer complaints from customers hoping to use the publicity of the competition post to escalate their complaint further.

What about self-service?

Bots with set menus are sometimes employed to respond to frequently asked questions. They’re attractive to organizations because they can be online 24/7 and require little human intervention. However, customers that have a hard time navigating the bot, or would rather speak to a human, often get more frustrated when forced to interact with an automated system. When using a bot it’s important for customers to be able to expedite the ‘talk to a human’ function should they choose not to interact with a set menu at all.

How is social customer service measured?

The aim of any social customer service metric is to accurately represent what actually happened in a customer interaction. However, there is no one metric that can be used to understand how social customer service is going in its entirety.

Good social customer service metrics therefore need to be used in combination to provide two key perspectives:

The customer

How much work did the customer need to put in to get the help that they needed? This includes (but is not limited to) response time, response rate, and sentiment shifts.

The business

How well did the business do at responding to customers? This includes breaking down response rate and time by priority and considering what response time was like during business hours only, but also performance metrics related to agents like average handling time.

Why does this matter?

Social customer service is unique because it exists in the digital public with the potential for public brand-customer interactions to reach millions of people. We’ve seen instances of out-of-touch customer service, or even just mistakes, go viral. This makes customer service on social media a much riskier endeavour than private call centres or emails.

Even if things don’t escalate to a viral event, social customer service still takes place in view of a customer’s followers. This means that on a day-to-day basis customers are informed about the quality of a brand’s service by what they can observe others going through on social media. This broadcasted effect means that ensuring quality social media customer service is much more important than traditional private channels.

But at the end of the day, social media customer service has the same underlying goal as traditional customer service - to protect and enhance the relationship between a customer and a brand. Measuring shifts in consumer sentiment is key to understanding whether this core goal has been achieved. Has the brand’s intervention on social media converted a poor customer experience into a better one?

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