The application of social media that appears to be gathering the most momentum is its use as a customer service channel. The cost efficiencies of dealing with problems using social media – monitoring customer comments on Twitter and Facebook – rather than a call centre, are compelling, especially at a time when most organisations are looking to cut operational costs . According to Ben Kay, EE’s head of digital strategy: “not only are social agents four times more efficient than telephone agents, but they also result in better Net Promoter Score ratings” (the critical metric for most customer service teams). It would appear that customers would far rather voice their complaints on social media than spend hours on hold in call centre hell, waiting to speak to a real person. The social customer service specialist, Conversocial, claims that 50% of us are already using social media for this purpose. The cost efficiencies of social customer service are also highlighted by a statistic from British Gas: according to Laura Price, the company’s social media manager, “Each view of a YouTube customer support video equates to an £80 saving on call centre costs”. Producing a simple YouTube video, explaining the solution to common customer problems, can generate massive cost savings.
Another growth area is the concept of mutual support, in which existing customers help new customers solve problems. This has been standard practice within the technology sector for years, but it is beginning to be used in other business sectors. According to the consultants at McKinsey, “Using customer communities to solve customer problems costs 10% of traditional call centres.” Not only does this approach save a huge amount of money, but it also flatters the people providing the advice: they feel good about being a source of expertise.
The innovative giffgaff business – O2’s experimental telecoms brand – has taken this collaborative model to a particularly sophisticated level, offering financial incentives – in the form of discounts that can be redeemed against the cost of calls – if members of the giffgaff community help other people resolve problems with their mobile phones. It is so successful, that according to giffgaff’s commercial manager, Vincent Boon, “Customer communities handle 85% of our customer support.” The cost savings that result from not having to operate an expensive call centre operation allow the company to offer some of the lowest call prices in the market.
Social customer service is not without its challenges. It turns the act of complaining and the resolution of those complaints into a public act: anyone can follow the interaction between customer and company. Some organisations will recoil from this level of public scrutiny, but the smart ones recognise that being seen to handle problems quickly and professionally, especially when done in a friendly manner, can enhance their reputation. Conversely, mishandling a customer complaint or adopting an inappropriate, over-officious and unfriendly tone of voice can have serious repercussions. The fashion and homeware retailer, Next, recently found itself in the middle of a social media storm when one of its social media team spotted a customer complaint on Twitter. The language used by the complainer was a touch fruity, although the Tweeter was not directly addressing her complaint to Next – i.e. she didn’t address her diatribe to @Next but to her personal followers. The Tweeted response from the person at Next was particularly clumsy: “We kindly ask you to remove your original tweet as the language used may offend other readers.” Another Twitter user, tracking the conversation, wasn’t impressed: “Dear @nextoffical Perhaps address/sort the complaint first before ticking customer … off for language?” A veritable Twitter-storm followed, summed up by another Tweet from an interested observer: “Bad delivery service, bad twitter management … is there anything Next can do well?”
The other big challenge posed by the rise of social customer service is the need for speed. Customers complaining on social media expect their enquiries to be dealt with within minutes. Research conducted by Social Habit (a US-based social media analyst) indicated that 67% of customers expect a response to their social media complaint within 24 hours, 42% within an hour and an impatient 32% within 30 minutes. This is a major challenge, given the tortuously slow nature of most organisational decision-making, in which front-line staff are often forced to seek the approval from multiple layers of management before responding to a customer complaint. It will also force organisations to operate their customer service function beyond traditional working hours: consumers will expect a rapid response to their complaint, even during evenings and weekends.
Within five years, social media will be the primary customer service channel for most organisations. The cost efficiencies are compelling and customers seem to prefer this way of complaining, so long as the subject of their complaint is able to respond quickly and sensitively. Traditional call centres will be replaced by teams monitoring streams of social media chatter, increasingly 24/7. The smart businesses are already experimenting with different monitoring systems and training their customer service teams to operate the technology. The social media-empowered customer has arrived.