• December 1, 2015
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Social Media Is Now a Viable Support Channel

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One would think that because of the nature of their businesses, tech companies would have an advantage when it comes to social media, but that is far from the case. In fact, many tech companies are still in the early days of applying social media to customer service. John Ragsdale, vice president of research at the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), notes that only about 40 percent of companies in that industry offer social customer service.

One of the reasons tech companies are loath to try servicing customers on social media is the highly competitive business climate in which they operate. "Companies are so afraid of negative posts getting out that they do nothing," Ragsdale says. Another fear is that competitors will be able to see the posts and use them to gain a competitive advantage.

However, March says organizations shouldn't let this fear paralyze them. "Social media is very prevalent today, and your customers are using it, whether you want them to or not," March says, adding that companies can take conversations offline, if necessary.

That has been how computer data storage company EMC has handled its social customer interactions. "We have had issues where customers were upset," says Mark Browne, social engagement manager at EMC, which is based in New Jersey. "We take the conversation offline, solve [the problem], and then bring it back online with the resolution."

When dealing with very angry customers, Browne adds, it's better to have the negative discussions in channels that are under the company's control. "If not, they will happen on another channel that the company has no control over," he cautions.

For companies looking to do the same, a number of new initiatives involving both Facebook and Twitter will make it easier to take conversations offline for a while.

Earlier this year, Facebook launched Business on Messenger, a feature that enables companies and customers to communicate with one another via a chat-like interface. Business on Messenger, which is used regularly by more than 600 million people worldwide, is powered by Zendesk's Zopim chat offering.

The offering also enables customer service teams to manage multiple Facebook Messenger chats at once, collaborate with one another to solve customer issues more quickly and efficiently, and even access chat histories.

Facebook in August also added functionality to Pages that enables companies to respond to customer questions and complaints privately. Companies can now send private messages to customers by clicking "Message" and opening a private thread. The new thread will link to the original comment. Previously, such interactions had to take place in public, and there was no effective way to take a discussion private within the Facebook platform.

Facebook isn't the only social media company building out this capability. A host of emerging social messaging companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, are experimenting with similar ways to enable businesses to connect to their customers, and vice versa.


One of the issues that has hampered greater adoption of social media as a customer service channel is data security.

It was a legitimate concern in the early days of social media, when providers could not guarantee protection from hackers, even in direct messaging. Instead, when they needed to collect sensitive information, such as billing or credit card data, they redirected customers to other channels, such as the telephone or email, resulting in higher abandonment rates and lower satisfaction scores.

Those fears are abating today, as security has been greatly enhanced over social media channels.

Sparkcentral, for example, in October released Secure Authentication, a tool that enables companies to safely collect confidential customer information on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Using Secure Authentication, customer service agents can insert a link into a message; the link takes customers first to a screen where they confirm their identities by answering a series of questions.

T-Mobile, an early adopter of the Secure Authentication tool, has used it to authenticate more than 30,000 customers; according to Meg Christolini, head of product at Sparkcentral, companies in several other industries, including financial services, retail, and travel, have expressed interest in the product.

"Security shouldn't be an issue anymore," March says. "Social media is much more secure today."


Another problem for a lot of companies has been the internal power struggle over who owns the social media channel. This issue frequently places customer service, marketing, and IT at odds.

Ragsdale says customer service should control the social channel but warns against putting up silos to keep it there.

Hyatt's Moriarty agrees. "You can't pull it completely out of marketing," he says, "because if a customer is having a bad experience, it's just as much of a marketing issue."

Additionally, the information acquired through social media needs to be shared across the company, according to Ragsdale. "Make sure content is logged in to the customer record, because sales or marketing may need to know something when it tries to sell to that customer," he says.

Beyond that, "you need to make sure that all your systems are talking to one another," Moriarty adds. "You need to make sure that all information flows both ways between systems."

Here, too, is where most companies are still coming up short. Ragsdale's research found that only 31 percent of companies have integrated social media data into their CRM records.

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