Through social media, virtually anyone, anywhere in the world, can be heard. Unfortunately for many businesses, an individual's comments might not always be complimentary. This is prompting more companies to turn to social media than ever before.
Telephone and email still make up most customer service interactions—about 85 percent, according to ContactBabel's latest research, released in early December. Nonetheless, "despite very low levels of customer interactions via social media, the extremely high-profile nature of the channel and the possible magnifying effects of negative comments means that social media is viewed as being far more important than baseline interaction statistics would suggest," the firm said in its "Multichannel Inner Circle Guide" report.
ContactBabel and many other research firms expect social media customer contacts to double by 2015. One firm, RnR Market Research, cites a rising focus on customer engagement and a recognition of the value of sharing ideas in real time as two of the forces that are driving growth in social customer care. The business advantages, it says, include increased transparency, better communication of ideas and information, flexibility, and performance.
Donna Fluss, founder and president of DMG Consulting, contends that the time to start on social media—if you haven't already done so—is now, particularly as it becomes "a very comfortable way for a growing percentage of the population to communicate."
This is especially true among consumers from Generation X and Generation Y. Social media is used as the primary customer service channel by 36.4 percent of Gen Y consumers, only slightly behind email and text messaging; among Gen X, it's the preferred channel for 20.7 percent, according to Dimension Data.
It is becoming widely accepted, though, that social media's reach is expanding well beyond the younger generations. According to Pingdom, roughly 55 percent of Twitter users and 65 percent of Facebook users are over 35 years old.
Given this fact, experts agree that social customer care deserves much more attention than it is receiving at most companies today. Most organizations, they say, have not yet developed adequate procedures and policies for dealing with customer service interactions initiated on social media. "It's being undervalued," says Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal at Beagle Research.
ContactBabel, in its report, noted that "most companies are not fully geared up to providing customer service via social media with anywhere near the same quality as [they are] via telephony, or perhaps even email."
Even worse, "organizations are still not making the investments [in social customer care] that they should be," Fluss laments. "Organizations are just now starting to build out multichannel contact centers, and they're not quite sure what to do with social media."
To help organizations better manage social customer service, start with the following 10 tips:
#1: Choose the right channels
It's useful to note that social media is not limited to Twitter and Facebook. According to DMG's research, while 52.6 percent of companies use Facebook for customer service and 46.3 percent use Twitter, there are a number of other widely used channels as well, including LinkedIn (28.4 percent), YouTube (23.2 percent), Google+ (14.7 percent), Tumblr (5.3 percent), and Pinterest (3.2 percent). But those percentages could change at any moment, which is why Fluss and others recommend deciding which social media channels to support by asking customers what they want to use. "It should be their decision, not yours," Fluss states.
Additionally, customers are growing increasingly more sophisticated at seeking help themselves, with many preferring to look for solutions to their problems on their own before contacting a company. For that reason, companies should look to support customers with up-to-date knowledge bases that are readily available on their Web sites, and even consider putting product demos and tutorials on YouTube.
#2:Define your company's rules of engagement
"Social media can never be done haphazardly," Fluss says. "It needs to be a coordinated effort."
And that effort, most agree, should be handled by the contact center rather than the marketing department. According to DMG, marketers handle social media comments and feedback on a daily basis at 41.1 percent of companies. Corporate communications/public relations handles social media at 20 percent of firms, while customer service/contact center teams handle it at just 25.2 percent of firms.
That's far too few, Fluss maintains. "The vast majority of questions on social media are customer service questions that the customer care organization needs to answer," she says. "Only the contact center knows how to respond best to customer service questions. A marketing person can't look at social media posts twice a day and expect to serve customers adequately."
That's why Fluss and others have called for companies to form dedicated teams whose sole purpose is managing social media. "The ideal way to handle social media interactions is to build a social customer-care team using fully trained and knowledgeable customer service or contact center employees who know the company's servicing and operational policies and procedures and are comfortable interacting in social media channels," Fluss states.
Then it's also essential that the entire social media response team follow the same basic business rules. The last thing a company wants to do, especially on a channel as public as social media, is offer a refund to one customer and not to another with the exact same issue.
#3: Listen to customers first
Social media is requiring organizations to listen to customers and prospects more than ever before, but with so much activity on social media sites, it's not easy for organizations to filter the relevant and important customer feedback from the noise and chatter. "Enterprises need listening devices and strategies to identify, capture, and respond to social media comments that do require a response," Fluss states.
These tools, she adds, include text analytics and routing and queuing software. Additionally, Facebook and Twitter now offer search functionality, which when combined with hashtags and "@" mentions, make it easier for companies to monitor and manage conversations about them.
But that can be limiting, according to Ashley Verrill, a CRM analyst at Software Advice. "One common mistake I see organizations