Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have evolved to become more than emergent platforms for marketing and advertising. Increasingly, they are also valid and important channels through which consumers solicit and receive customer service. According to Nielsen's 2012 Social Media Report, nearly half of U.S. consumers use social media to ask questions, report satisfaction, or to complain—and a third of social media users prefer "social care" to the phone.
"Social care" is not a new concept, yet providing multi-channel support that includes social media can present real challenges for B2B and B2C companies both large and small—as well as opportunities to positively impact sales and customer loyalty. The reality is that customer service expectations are rising year over year and consumers are looking to brands to create a seamless experience that spans the showroom floor to the Facebook timeline. Simply having a social media presence is no longer enough; you need to be a social media rock star.
But how? In this guide we'll explore some best practices for providing great customer service through social media, whether you're just getting started or taking your social care to the next level.
BE WHERE YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE
One of the first challenges to providing great customer service over social media is determining where to focus time and resources. While marketing efforts may drive traffic to targeted social sites, customer service teams must meet their customers where they're already socializing. For most companies, Facebook and Twitter will be the primary focus for social care, but some brands may find that their customers also frequent Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, or other social sites.
To figure out where your customers are, search for mentions of your brand within popular social sites. Whether this is a first step toward creating a social media presence, or something your marketing department has already done, it is a mistake to leave dialogue about your brand solely to online commenters and the Google search algorithm.
If you find that customers aren't yet talking about your brand online, look for ways to include yourself in conversations relevant to your industry. The way to be welcomed into social conversations is to add something of value.
Because the consumer—not the brand—wields the most power over a brand's image on social media, the bottom line is that neglecting conversations that occur on sites like Facebook and Twitter can have staggering consequences. Conversocial reported that 88 percent of consumers are less likely to purchase from a company that leaves questions on social media unanswered.
LISTEN TO WHAT YOUR CUSTOMERS HAVE TO SAY
Many marketers are already familiar with social media monitoring tools that automate the process of searching for mentions of a brand name, or combing social media pages for specific keywords, but listening is equally important from a customer service perspective. What's more, many customers already believe that you are. When participants in a 2012 survey from Oracle were asked what was most important when visiting a company's social media page, 43 percent responded that they were looking for a direct response to their question, followed by 31 percent who expected direct access to customer service reps.
Depending on how much volume your brand's social media pages generate, it's important to collect and analyze customer activity so that you understand the kind of issues being raised over social media. Smaller companies may need to collect a week or month's worth of activity while larger companies can probably take a pulse over a shorter period of time.
Look at the information you've collected to determine:
- How many comments appear to be written in moments of frustration, perhaps after having a poor customer experience in person or online?
- How many are technical or account-specific questions?
- How many comments provide feedback, positive or negative?
- How many questions can be answered using links to existing help content?
- How many brand mentions require, or would benefit from, a response?
- What time of day are your customers most active on social media?
The answers to these questions will help you plan staffing and resources, define priority criteria, make decisions about self-service options, and determine whether you'll be able to handle the majority of issues directly through the social channel or require a process for directing social customers to another line of support.
There are tools that automate the process of calculating volume and time, and can generate reports to provide you with a complete picture of customer demand. You may learn, for example, that the hours your customers are most active on social media do not align with your actual support hours.
TRACK AND MANAGE VOLUME
The size of your company and industry vertical will affect your social metrics. Some companies will see a lot of what amounts to "noise" via social media, and their challenge will be to sift through the noise to find the top priority contacts that require a response. Other companies will find that the majority of their contacts are direct requests for customer service. Depending on the volume of social interactions your brand generates, and the size of your staff, your ability to keep track of social inquiries (and your responses) may be made easier by a customer service platform that can integrate with social media and turn posts, tweets, and direct or private messages into tickets. In this way, you can easily triage, track, and escalate issues behind the scenes, yet still respond to the customer in the space where they have contacted you.
As a best practice, it's not necessarily wise to simply turn every social media mention into a ticket, either because your company's social media pages are so heavily trafficked that the volume becomes unwieldy, or because every interaction does not require a response (sometimes customers are perfectly adept at responding to each other). Still, what an integrated, multi-channel customer service platform can provide is context. The more you can see about a customer's history, the better. Are there open or prior conversations with this customer? Who did they interact with, and what was the outcome? Have they had this same issue before? Have they already tried reaching customer support through traditional channels or was Facebook their first line of defense? If you already have user data stored, agents can eliminate back-and-forth questioning for basic (or private) contact data.
In the fast-paced world of social media, speed of response is critical. Treating social media tickets like any standard ticket isn't going to be enough because customers expect a faster response. So, how can you define priority criteria? There's no single way to do it, of course, but here are a few suggestions:
- Direct technical or account-related questions
- Complaints from dissatisfied customers
- Service or product requests that are urgent
- Issues (or outages) that affect many users or raise a potential PR crisis
Items that are second-tier in priority are often opportunities to be proactive. You might consider:
- Responding to general references to your products or services
- Thanking customers who provided positive feedback
- Touching base with those who have made comments about your brand or industry that weren't necessarily targeted at you or requiring a response
Smaller businesses without a need for a customer service platform might try one built specifically for social media ticket creation and management (rather than phone, email, and chat support) or, at the very least, utilize the private or direct messaging features of Facebook and Twitter to help create an archive of interactions with a customer.
REPEAT THIS MANTRA: TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE!
It's worth restating: speed of response is critical.
"Live help" typically refers to phone or chat support, yet in the customer's mind, social media is a gray area that more closely straddles the line between chat and email support. There is the potential for help to be instantaneous if social media is constantly monitored, but more likely, help will arrive hours later.
Several studies have found that the majority of customers expect a response over social media within the same day. That's pretty reasonable considering Edison Research reported that 42 percent of consumers who complained via social media expect a response within 60 minutes, and, according to the Oracle survey, more than half of Twitter users expect a response within two hours of tweeting at a company—both of which can be difficult service levels to meet, though some companies are beginning to.
One of the challenges to providing social care when you're not using the follow-the-sun model of support, is that tweets and timeline posts can languish overnight, driving your response time from just a few hours to 10-20 hours later.
As a best practice, always respond with immediacy—or with the promise of. This can be tricky without being able to send an email autoresponder, but one workaround is to prepare a boilerplate message catered to each social channel that lets the customer know you've seen their comment and that you're working on a resolution.
Speed isn't everything if you're not able to resolve the customer's issue. As a general guideline, if you can easily answer a question posed over social media in the space of a comment or tweet, and the answer can be public, then by all means, do it. But more important than providing an answer through the same channel it was asked, is providing a timely and correct answer. This might involve providing a first response over social media that moves the conversation to another channel of support.
SOCIAL CARE IS CARE. PERIOD.
The success of your social care efforts will depend, as ever, on the quality of care you provide, but you might want to pull out the kid gloves because providing great customer service over social media can require extra special handling. Agent responses must be timely, accurate, sensitive, brief, and friendly—a tall order.
Agents must respond quickly but not so fast that the issue isn't properly resolved. Agents must employ their soft skills to read into a customer's emotional state and properly determine when the informal nature of social media, such as the use of smiley faces or emojis, are appropriate for conveying friendliness and willingness to help, or when a more formal statement of empathy or apology might be required before addressing the customer's issue.
Then there is the issue of length. Can or should the issue be resolved publicly, within the limited real estate of a comment or tweet? Is the agent trained in, or capable of, drafting custom replies without errors? Popular myth suggests that the young and tech-savvy are best equipped to handle social media, but some large companies have reported success using seasoned customer service agents, trained specifically for social media.
In general, all tenets of excellent customer service apply to social media. A great response will:
- Correctly identify the customer's issue
- Provide links to additional information
- Close the loop (even to a "thank you" comment or tweet)
- Include a personal touch, such as signing off with the agent's first name or initials
- Be consistent across the organization, with regard to tone and response time
Active use of a site like Twitter can be an acquired taste—and a learned skill. Consider hosting a "Lunch and Learn" or equivalent to cross-train your staff on social media usage and etiquette. Often at smaller or newer companies, there is overlap between marketing and customer service, but as companies grow, shared skill sets, best practices, and communication guidelines tend to break down and become siloed. Cross-training will ensure that your teams learn from one another, and that your brand message and integrity are upheld at every point of customer interaction.
Once agents are trained at responding over social media, they have the potential to be more efficient, handling four to eight times the number of contacts received through social media as they can by phone, according to a report by Gartner. In addition to improved efficiency, it was also reported that providing excellent social care helps to foster a deeper emotional commitment to your brand, directly impacting your Net Promoter Score.
DETERMINE WHEN TO TAKE AN ISSUE "OFFLINE"
Providing a public response to a question or complaint can go a long way. According to Conversocial, 95.6 percent of consumers are affected by other customer comments on a brand's social pages, and so it follows that consumers will also be affected by your responses to questions they see raised over social media.
When you gain or lose customers based on customer service, it adds up in dollars. The good news is that, as reported by Bain and Company, social media users spend 21 percent more when they experience excellent customer service.
But the reality is that not every contact over social media can be easily resolved in a single exchange (or in less than 140 characters), particularly if the issue is very technical or when the customer has many grievances to air. It can also be hard to know at the outset whether the customer will keep a thread going, cluttering your Twitter feed with @replies, so customer service reps must become adept at determining when to take a conversation from a public page to a private message, or perhaps off social media altogether—as well as when to bring the exchange back into the public sphere.
Generally, agents should move a conversation "offline"—in this case, off a timeline or feed/stream/profile—when:
- there are many back and forth replies, perhaps because the customer needs to answer a series of questions, or
- sensitive personal data is required, such as email addresses, phone numbers, passwords, account or credit card numbers.
But how to do it? Sensitive information that can be quickly conveyed in writing may easily be sent in a private or direct message through the social media site. The following are based on a few real world examples of how one company used Twitter to request information, suggest another channel, and move a conversation into a private message:
@Customer My sincerest apologies! I would be happy to look into this for you. Can you please follow us and DM me with your order #? ^SB
@Customer So sorry for those emails! If you need help w/ your email settings, don't hesitate to LiveChat us [bit.ly/link] ^SB
@Customer Apologies for the inconvenience! I just reached out to you via Facebook Message. Be sure to check your "Other" folder. ^SB
One benefit to using a customer service platform that integrates both social and traditional channels is that you can use social media to let the customer know you'll send them the information they need by email, without having to request the customer's email address.
After an issue is resolved offline, it's important to return to the social channel and thank the customer for reaching out. Public interactions can be a double-edged sword, but the positive ones, when a customer has the chance to express gratitude for a great customer experience, is not the interaction to miss out on.
In our 2013 Omnichannel Customer Service Report we learned that customers default back to phone and email support in almost even numbers when they don't receive a response over social media. While that doesn't sound too bad, the report also found that 76 percent of conversations between customers and brands ended completely after the brand suggested the customer switch channels to either email or phone.
While building a social media support strategy, it's worth considering what might happen if you moved every social interaction "offline" or to another channel of support. Companies with limited staffing and resources might find that they must, and when done well, the customer will feel like they received a response over social media and had their issue resolved.
LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO MAKE LEMONADE
We're all familiar with that old adage, "When life gives you lemons..." The well-known implication is that it's possible to turn around a less-than-hoped-for situation with a change in attitude. This is particularly useful advice when providing customer service over social media, given consumers' proclivity to use social media to grab a brand's attention. A recent survey by the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University, in conjunction with Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, found that 50 percent of consumers will complain to a brand about a bad experience, and that 35 percent of Americans are using Facebook, in particular, to complain about a shopping experience.
When this happens, everything depends on your response. Receiving negative feedback is an open invitation to rectify your brand's image and, more important, your relationship with the customer. The customer must feel like they've been heard and that you're willing to do what it takes to make them happy.
The following are some other things customer service reps might do to proactively to engage customers:
- Respond even when the user hasn't directly tweeted at you or asked for help. Answering brand mentions or comments that don't require a response, but might benefit from one, shows you're paying attention.
- Promote your customers by retweeting a happily resolved support interaction, or by "liking" helpful interactions that occur between customers. It's kind of like giving your customers a hug.
- Give your customer service team a public face by introducing who's on duty and how long they'll be answering questions. Consider posting a team photo or an agent spotlight. It's nice to connect the face of the brand with the names behind it.
- If feasible, follow up a resolved interaction with, "How is everything?"
- Promote self-service. Think about introducing a support tip of the week and assigning it a clever, unique, and easy-to-remember hashtag, or designating someone to update your company's social media accounts when a new article has been added to your knowledge base or help center.
MIND YOUR P'S AND Q'S
Whatever the social channel, there are a few ways to (publicly!) stick your foot in your mouth. The following are a few social media don'ts:
- Don't neglect your customers. If you're going to provide customer service over social media, at minimum every direct support question should be answered.
- Don't delete (or hide) comments or posts. The only exception is when comments are clearly spam or in violation of posted community guidelines. Deleting a customer's negative comment in order to preserve your virtual image will only further enrage the customer and damage the relationship.
- Don't be defensive. It's important to remember that the customer, even when angry, has reached out to you. Thank them for bringing their issue to your attention, acknowledge their concern, and apologize for the trouble they are experiencing (even if you know it's self-wrought).
- Don't engage with a customer whose intent is to simply argue and publicly defame your brand. Sometimes your best defense is silence and, after a certain point, they'll damage their own credibility more than your brand's reputation.
- Don't overwhelm your customers with too much information, whether you're posting articles from a knowledge base or providing a too-lengthy response in a comment.
There are, of course, always a few exceptions to the rule, and here's one of them:
- Don't reply or respond to every customer in the event of mass issues or outages. When many customers are affected by a single issue, it's best to provide only public status updates that will reach everyone.
Regular monitoring of your company's social media pages combined with savvy use of the sites can elevate your customer service efforts from acceptable to exceptional. The better your social care, the more social traffic you can expect, and this is a good thing!
Looking for more information about using social media for customer service? Download our platform-specific tip sheets here:
Tips for Providing Great Customer Service on Facebook
Tips for Providing Great Customer Service on Twitter