ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Embracing Social Media in the Call Center: Best Practices

Just when call centers were starting to get their arms around the multichannel mix of phone, IVR, email and chat, somebody goes and piles another package on top.

A big one.

While many call center professionals are tired of the hype surrounding social media’s impact on customer care, there is no denying that our industry is facing a game changer. This is not to say that social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have turned call centers completely upside down, but such sites are altering the rules of customer contact enough where organizations that ignore these channels place their brand and customer loyalty at significant risk.  

We’re looking at much more than a passing fad, folks. A survey by Nielsen Online showed that social networks and blogs are now the fourth most popular online activity, even more popular than personal email. And users are not just “tweeting” and blogging about their everyday lives; they are sharing their customer experiences - often not very favorable ones - with the Web 2.0 world. In a recent study conducted by the Society of New Communications Research (SNCR), 59 percent of respondents said they regularly use social media to "vent" about their own customer care frustrations - a pretty frightening finding (to corporations) when you consider that 72 percent of respondents said they used social media to research a company's reputation for customer care before making a purchase, and 74 percent choose to do business with companies based on the customer care experiences shared by others online. 

Today’s customers "will not support companies with poor customer care reputations, and they will talk about all of this openly with others via multiple online vehicles," says Dr. Ganim Nora Barnes, senior fellow of the Society for New Communications Research. 

As the primary customer touchpoint for most organizations, the call center is the obvious choice for taking charge of and carrying out an enterprise’s social media strategy.  But experts agree that most centers have much to learn if they hope to harness the potential power of social media and drive customer advocacy rather than complaints online. 

“Contact centers must acquire an organizational skill set to tap into and respond to this powerful new channel,” say the authors of a recent whitepaper by CRM solutions provider RightNow Technologies. “Contact centers can embrace social media to get closer to customers, spot trends, identify influencers, and create customer advocates, but they must align with social media norms that reflect an understanding that their organization does not own these sites.”

The Rundown: Embracing Social Media in the Call Center

Executives: Social media is proving to be a game changer in business and customer support. Enterprises that ignore this new channel and the impact it has on customer advocacy do so at their own peril. Senior managers need to provide the call center with the support and resources it needs to continuously keep its finger on the pulse of customer sentiment within social networks, and to effectively engage customers and solve issues via the new media.  

Directors/Managers: Leaders in the call center are charged with defining the specific role the center plays in managing this critical new channel and developing new strategies and initiatives to ready itself for the emerging social media challenge. Such processes and programs as agent hiring, training, workforce management and quality assurance must be carefully analyzed - and altered, where necessary - to ensure success in the social media environment. And certainly new tools and platforms will need to be evaluated and implemented.  

Supervisors: The often unsung heroes in the call center, supervisors play an instrumental role in converting all the social media talk and strategy into action. This includes getting agents ready for the new role; helping agents to continually improve via coaching; and keeping staff engaged and motivated during this challenging transitional period. In addition, supervisors will be called upon to assist with such higher level processes as technology selection and customer satisfaction measurement and management as it relates to social media interactions.

Improving Your Call Center’s Social Life

So it’s pretty clear why call centers need to embrace social media in today’s Web 2.0 world. What doesn’t get talked about as nearly as much is how. Here are several best practices and key considerations to help managers slice through the hype and put a solid social media strategy into action.    

Select and train your team of social media specialists. Social media specialist is a new and coveted a position in the call center, and choosing the best qualified agents to manage online customer issues and complaints is critical. While some larger companies may find it necessary to create dedicated social media specialist positions, in most centers social media staff still handle contacts via the more traditional channels (i.e., phone, email, chat), as well.   
When forming your social media agent team, experts recommend selecting from your most experienced agents who have proven that they truly understand and respond appropriately to customer sentiment and needs. Keep in mind that not all experienced agents will possess social media savvy. Thus, top call centers have assessments in place to help identify the most qualified staff to serve on their social media team.

Even the most terrific “Tweeters” and proficient “Facebookers” among your staff will need to be trained on your corporate social media strategy as well as the call center’s specific policies and practices for social media-based customer interactions. As part of training, leading centers also review social media norms, and the specific culture and rules of each social media site in which agents will be interacting with customers. 

While they recognize the importance of specific social media training for agents, the best call centers continually tap their agents’ existing social media knowledge and expertise to improve processes, tools and training. Not only does such empowerment foster continual organizational improvement in a rapidly evolving medium, it enhances the level of agent engagement, commitment and, thus, performance.       

Invest in a social media monitoring/interaction application. Effective social media-based customer care - as does customer care via traditional contact channels - begins with “listening” to your customers. The difference, and the big challenge, is that there is a heck of a lot more “noise” to cut through when listening to customers in the social media realm, and those customers are not (necessarily) even “talking” to you. They are sharing their experiences, issues, complaints and, yes, sometimes praise, in a wide-open public environment with friends, family, colleagues and, really, anybody who will “listen."

The thing is, your organization needs to be listening more than anybody. 

Thanks to advances in social media technology, call centers can not only “hear” what’s being said, they can easily interact with online consumers - providing proactive service/support, as well as damage control before customer concerns and complaints “go viral." Typical social media monitoring applications feature advanced text analytics that can detect key words and phrases that are relevant to a particular company, and make sense out of unstructured, unfiltered information.  

Vendors that are leading the way in regard to social media applications for call centers include Salesforce.com, RightNow, Radian 6, Visible Technologies, Oracle and SAP. Salesforce.com's “Service Cloud” customer service application is able to connect directly to Facebook and Twitter. A call center agent can monitor conversations over these sites while simultaneously viewing data in a sales app that provides in-depth product/service information to help answer questions. The agent can then post those answers to Twitter, resolving the problem not only for the customer in question, but also for customers to whom the original customer is connected who might be experiencing similar issues. 

When interacting with customers on such sites, it’s critical to clearly reveal to customers that the agents are participating on behalf of your company, recommend the authors of the RightNow whitepaper. “Agents participating in social media should respond as a named individual with their organization affiliation disclosed, so it’s clear that the organization is listening to and responding to their customers, and that the agent isn’t accused of misleading the participants by not disclosing their employer.” 

Create a uniform corporate presence on key social media sites. Rather than just having agents enter into discussions or respond to complaints/issues that occur on sites like Twitter and Facebook, leading organizations have created a corporate pages or groups on popular social networks where agents can interact with customers. Some centers have even created personalized profiles featuring photos and brief bios of each social media agent, helping to give the organization a friendly, more organic online presence.   

Having a dedicated page or group gives customers the opportunity to easily interact with and share experiences with other customers. In fact, some companies find that customers often end up answering each other’s questions via the corporate page/site, thus helping to take some of the burden off of the call center’s agents and demonstrating sincere customer advocacy. 

In addition, having a formal social media presence enables your organization to non-invasively post company news, information, events and job openings that may be of interest to customers and that help to promote and strengthen your brand.  Some call centers even select senior agents and/or supervisors to write blogs that touch on key customer issues and concerns. In addition to posting these blogs on the corporate Twitter page, agents who interact with customers in the broader social media stratosphere can direct those customers to the blogs when applicable. 

Create your own company-hosted, customer-to-customer social networking communities. Excelling in customer support via social media requires more than just participating on popular sites. The most progressive organizations have created their own social networking communities outside the realm of Twitter, Facebook and the like. 

While corporations must recognize and respect the fact that they don’t rule the social web, creating a social network business platform specifically designed for customer-to-customer interaction and information sharing gives companies more control, and, more importantly, serves as a source of invaluable customer feedback - the type of feedback that cannot be captured via more traditional methods like post-contact customer surveys. Social media experts often point out how customers are more forthcoming and expressive when interacting with one another online than they are - or than they are able to be - when taking a company-issued survey.

Another benefit of hosting a customer community is that they tend to attract customer “experts” and advocates - users with a wealth of product/service knowledge. At companies like DirectTV, these active site contributors not only help other customers in the company-hosted community with their questions and issues, but also share key company news and information on other social sites where the company’s products/services are often discussed. 

“Because the top contributors in our community are also very much involved in other communities, it really [gives us] an opportunity to communicate to them about things that are upcoming that they then share out to other networks,” explains Charles Miller, director of Digital Care and Social Media Strategy for DirectTV. “So [our community] has moved from being just a customer support vehicle to being a valuable communication vehicle as well.” 

Call centers that want to create such a powerful social platform can do so using one of the many social business software (SBS) applications on the market. Solutions offered by such SBS leaders as Jive, Mzinga, and Awareness, for example, enable companies to respond - when appropriate - to customer comments and discussions, create collaborative documents and blogs, take user polls on key topics, track the most popular topics, and provide users with common categories to choose from, thus controlling and improving how content is organized.   

Smart organizations do not try to run the show with their company-sponsored social networking communities; rather, they serve as site moderators. Their call center carefully monitors and analyzes customer discussions, and actively participates only in instances where assistance is requested, or when it’s evident that the call center can easily cleared up a question or problem by sharing key information and/or documents. Invasive promotion and product-pushing by the company is a no-no, say experts, as it quickly drives users away, thus costing the company the immeasurable amount of valuable insight and feedback that can potentially be collected and shared.  

Invite social web users to email or chat -- or even call -- when appropriate. Not all customer issues and concerns should be handled publically. Pioneering call centers have discovered that social media sites can supplement, but certainly not replace, more traditional contact channels -- especially when a customer is “flaming” online about a problem, or when their issue is too complex to be effectively resolved via short responses from an agent on a social media site.

Most call centers that have successfully embraced social media have developed guidelines to help agents determine when they should extend an invitation for customers/site users to interact one-on-one via email, chat or phone. Naturally it’s more cost effective to move the conversation to the email or chat channel than it is to have a customer call the center, but there will be instances when a meaningful phone conversation will turn a disgruntled or confused customer into an advocate for your organization - and help the organization defuse a potential brand-image bomb.  

Some vendors are experimenting with applications and tools that are intended to help customers contact the call center directly via social media sites. For instance, Avaya recently announced its Facephone prototype, which enables customers to contact a call center via a Facebook page and be connected to an agent. The agent can query the Facebook page of the caller prior to taking the call to gain some insight into what the caller’s issue may be.

“This is definitely the evolution of the contact center - the future of social media CRM we all need to be aware of,” says Rich Tehrani, President of Technology Marketing Corporation (TMC). 

Develop sound QA processes for social media interactions. Quality assurance doesn’t apply only to traditional customer contacts; smart call centers extend their QA process to the social web to ensure that the center’s social media agents are providing the right kind of support and service during customer interactions. This typically entails having a supervisor or quality monitoring specialist review a random sample of agent-customer exchanges each week/month, then providing feedback and any necessary coaching.

QA shouldn’t stop with quality monitoring/coaching. As in other contact channels, gauging agent performance from the customer’s perspective - and not just the call center’s - is key to not only gaining an accurate assessment of what the center and agents need to do to improve, but also to ensure customer loyalty and to avoid having customer frustration (that may go undetected through quality monitoring) go viral. Not many call centers are doing this, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to do for those centers that already have a post-contact customer satisfaction process in place for email/chat or phone contacts. Following an exchange on the social web (or one that moved from the social web to a traditional channel), the agent could invite the customer to complete a brief survey about their experience, then either send them a link to the call center’s C-sat survey or direct them to a web page containing the survey. Centers that currently use a third party survey firm to conduct phone surveys with customers following a phone call or email could have the firm do the same with social media customers.     

Incorporate CRM into your social media strategy. It’s one thing to be able to react to a customer’s needs via the social media channel; it’s quite another to get close enough to that customer to be able to anticipate their needs. 

We’ve already discussed the fount of customer information and feedback that call centers can capture via social sites; the big challenge - and potentially huge pay-off - is developing the ability to mine such data and use it to provide highly personalized and proactive service. 

“Information gathered from social media sites should be incorporated into the contact center’s customer history,” write the authors of the RightNow whitepaper. “If possible, agents should have a complete customer profile before responding; has this person also interacted through traditional contact center channels?”    

In its recently released “Top 10” list of Communications Tech Trends for 2010; Avaya listed “Social Media and the Contact Center” as number three, predicting that “more businesses will embrace mining of the social network, capturing new opportunities to provide service, address issues and promote sales.”  

Making CRM an integral part of a call center social media strategy is not only about unearthing strong sales leads and catering to specific needs of individual customers; it also involves careful analysis of collective customer data to help pinpoint broader trends and to gather insight that leads to improvements to existing products and services, as well as development of new ones. 

“Think about customers in social media as extensions of your organization,” RightNow recommends. “They’re willing to provide feedback, help each other, share experiences, and make recommendations. It’s not outsourcing, it’s ‘crowdsourcing.’”

Look before Leaping

It’s critical to know exactly why your organization is participating in social media and then to adopt a phased approach to accomplishing those business objectives, say the experts at RightNow. They recommend starting with these questions to hone in on your goals for social media:
•Why are you participating in social media?
•What percent of your customer base uses which sites? 
•How can social media improve the customer experience?
•Will social media help you build and reinforce your brand?
•How can you support agents in monitoring and responding to social media?
•How can social media help you build your knowledge base?
•What protocols are in place to help agents determine when and how they should respond? How can agents use the knowledge base to support conversations?

Source: RightNow Technologies

Greg Levin is Community Services Manager for ICMI. [email protected]