• February 22, 2016
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Social Customer Service: The Hype Gives Way to Practice

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Over the past few years, video game giant Activision Publishing—publisher of the absurdly successful Call of Duty game franchise—has experienced a marked change in its customer service operations. Day to day, its customers still need help with the mechanics of game play and with understanding error codes. But those customers have increasingly shifted away from chat and voice channels and turned to social media to get support from the company. That trend has accelerated to the point where social media ranks as the company's most used agent-assisted channel.

Companies across all industries have given some thought to the importance of social customer service; the infamous "United Breaks Guitars" incident back in 2009, among other episodes, clearly showed social's ability to generate negative publicity. But customer service execs have started to explore the positive benefits of social customer service; it's no longer seen simply as a defensive posture from which to stem bad press.

Even though social customer service accounts for only a small percentage of overall customer service volumes today, the writing is on the wall—social service will soon be truly mainstream. For proof, look no further than the Millennials: According to Forrester data, more than half of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 who regularly go online have reached out to a company on Twitter to receive customer service in the past year.

So if you want to bring social customer service into the mainstream flow of your customer support organization, where should you start? The social support tools themselves provide two very different models for work distribution. Understanding each model—and what and who it's suited for—will give you a big head start on turning social media from a fringe channel to one of your top tools for driving great experiences.


Social customer service started when marketing organizations began using social media as a broadcast medium and customers began responding with questions and concerns. These social marketing teams, especially early on, rarely numbered more than a handful of staffers. The social service products built to serve these teams make sense in a marketing milieu: The tools monitor social networks and—either through an automated workflow or with the assistance of an employee or team in a traffic cop role—place actionable posts in a work bin or queue. Agents then pull items from the work bin.

This model makes sense when the social customer service organization remains small. The pure pull model creates an undifferentiated pool of work; all posts get lumped together regardless of urgency. Companies can, of course, create best practices such as "first in, first out." With or without those processes, smaller teams tend to be better at the collaboration required to ensure that all work gets handled in a timely manner. In addition, when social service remains the province of marketing or PR, those employees expect a good deal of freedom and agency, which the pull model provides.


As traditional customer service organizations assumed a greater role in providing social customer care, many tools began to use a work distribution model that mirrors contact center routing. These tools distribute individual pieces of work directly to specific teams or agents based on the content of the post and the skills of the agents. This model often makes sense when social volume rises, as the push model offers efficiency at scale.

A push-driven model works best when social service lives inside the contact center. Contact center managers understand how to forecast and schedule voice calls and emails, and this model replicates the workflow of those channels. A push model also becomes more critical as the volume of social traffic increases. Customer service teams have to prioritize incoming customer interactions; more important customers, for example, may receive first dibs on available agents. When social service volumes rise, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff makes service organizations more efficient and ensures that the company’s desired business outcomes drive service processes.

Ian Jacobs is a senior analyst at Forrester Research. He can be reached at ijacobs@forrester.com.

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