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Social Customer Service In the High-Performing Contact Center

Social customer service is coming to the contact center. Here we look at an approach from an award-winning contact center to find out where the challenges and the successes lie at this point in the game.

At a live panel at Dreamforce 2011 on September 2, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Sarah Stealey, senior vice president of customer support for iContact Corp., which garnered ICMI’s 2011 Global Call Center of the Year Award (small-to-medium category). Also with us was call center guru Brad Cleveland, senior advisor to ICMI (he’s also a co-founder and former president and CEO). Our goal was to share what the see as the contact center’s chief contributions to social customer service, as well as how leading organizations are making the step into adoption (including some of the challenges and successes).

Today, social customer service is owned, primarily, by marketing departments. We're not saying that a line needs to be drawn in the sand over ownership, but the call center brings a lot to the table when it comes to operationalizing any channel addition to the organization’s customer access points, such as:

  • The structure and ability to corral activity
  • Resources that can be scheduled to match the real-time environment of social media
  • Inherent infrastructure and skill to forecast and schedule to handle a given channel's volume

As Cleveland points out, the call center is made for this type of work. “The customer using this channel expects an immediate response. That's going to be a challenge for some call centers, but especially for marketing department personnel.”

iContact is somewhat of a trailblazer here. This technology firm has jumped right into social customer service. It’s developed some good, structured practices, but Stealey says they’ve got goals yet to achieve in developing formal metrics for the channel.

Currently, iContact’s marketing department is the primary owner of social customer care, but marketers (and others) escalate social media direct and indirect contacts to the contact center’s Tier 3 support team. “We don’t have a formal service level or response time set around social care right now,” says Stealey, “but we aim for 30 minutes. Our goal is to shorten that by always having Tier 3 support personnel scheduled for this channel – at least for monitoring, at a minimum, in the beginning.” Stealey expects this transition to escalate when the support center integrates its current social media toolset from Radian6 with its Salesforce system (Salesforce recently acquired Radian6).

The marketing/contact center-sharing model for social customer service may prove even more challenging where these operations are not co-located, says Stealey.

I’ve visited top-performing contact centers in the U.S. and abroad that are considered advanced when it comes to implementing social customer service. Some of these still are putting a couple of agents here and there on the social media roster simply because the volume for the social channel hasn’t yet reached critical mass. As their marketing departments drive customers to social channels and listening tools enable better listening and tracking of customer and potential customer activity, however, the best of those are preparing for the shift to activating a full-force channel plan. Meanwhile, one of the questions is, “What do you do with those agents when social media is quiet?” You can’t just put them on other inbound or outbound calls and risk having no one manning the post. This remains a challenge, but shifting those agents’ downtime to monitoring and reporting is a step in the right direction (as well as giving them other tasks that aren’t time sensitive that will aid the center but could be set aside if need be).

Cleveland says even this challenge is not new to the contact center introducing any of the new channels that have entered the workload over the past few years.

Agent skill sets as a challenge, of course, entered the discussion. “Different channels sometimes take different skills,” says Cleveland. That was true for iContact, too. “This isn’t your typical phone skill, or even your email skill set,” says Stealey. “We’re not asking for punctuation and correct grammar so much as we’re asking for more personalized interactions. Some agents just aren’t as adept as others at interacting in this channel environment, and not all agents want that level of accountability.” Obviously, the center needs to know who can excel and, when the time is right for that channel’s growth and maturity, integrate that skill set into its hiring criteria.

How to Move Forward

In the scheme of things, what will be key to success for organizations venturing into social customer service is starting from the beginning:

  • Find out where your customers are, which social channels they’re interacting with
  • Listen carefully to the traffic from your customers and about your organization and its products
  • Know your audience

Consider market conditions such as audience use of mobile devices.Cleveland points out that in developing economies – and some specific industries, such as finance and travel, short message service (SMS) text has taken off. Customers aren’t tied to their desktops in these economies or transaction scenarios.

The important thing to note is that the more intelligence you have about how your customers and prospective customers are interacting with social channels, the more successful you’re likely to be at building your social customer service strategy and to get the best ROI on your organization’s investment(s).

What to Look Forward To

Obviously, the social channel has appeal to customers and great potential for the contact center and customer service as an access channel. Consider, too (and you’ll be hearing more from ICMI about this), the great potential for enterprise collaboration that social media platforms are enabling. We know there’s a gap in many organizations between executive leadership and the contact center. Social media and the collaborative tools springing up around it may force the type of inclusion of the contact center that is absolutely necessary for much needed investment as well as sharing the vital knowledge that the contact center possesses and opening up the two-way dialogue.