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Expert's Angle: Hit or Miss: Is Social Media Really an Effective Customer Service Tool?

There is much hype about social media, but not everyone likes it one iota. Given this scenario and the fact that most people hate to talk to an interactive voice response (IVR) system that leads you through several menus, and the realization that a contact center agent who just follows a script or an inflexible process doesn’t often lead to a satisfactory customer experience, the question arises about whether social media can change things for the better.

Leigh-Ann Heuer, an Internet marketing specialist at Corecubed.com and an ardent blogger, says that everyone has had a customer service nightmare. Over the Christmas period in 2011 she experienced the good and bad sides of customer service. She had a problem with a Christmas present – an e-reader and tablet combination, and she felt she’d had no choice but to contact customer service to resolve her issues. Like many of us she doesn’t like sitting on the phone for long, and so she chose to use the vendor’s chat line. She started the conversation and then had to begin all over again as a chat window was accidentally closed and the thread of the discussion was lost. This wasted two hours of her time, and she still had resolved the problems she was facing.

Determined to get to the bottom of what was ailing her, Heuer says she “discovered a Twitter account for the e-reader, which is devoted entirely to customer service, and five minutes later I had my answer and my problem was solved.” So there clearly is a role for social media for helping customers to solve their non-technical or technical product or service queries. That’s because she was able to gain a quick response and find a solution to her problem, and more quickly than she was able to do using the chat line. “Social media can help customers to receive answers in a more efficient way than even Googling the issue can,” she also suggests.

Bypassing agony

“Customers are using social media to bypass the agony of sitting on the phone, waiting to speak to a real person, as they want to know that someone is there and cares about helping them,” Heuer adds. Yet Dr. Nicola J. Millard, a customer experience futurologist at British Telecom (BT), counters that social media is a secondary rather than a primary contact channel for customers. “BT’s Autonomous Customer research study showed that 10% of customers considered social media to be the first port of call for seeking advice from organizations, and even younger customers are only thinking of it as a preference 5% of the time,” she explains.

BT’s research involved 14 major brands and the study took place over a two-week period. Within that timeframe there were 2,986 customer interactions, which equates to 200 customer engagements for each brand. “In the local government category, no customer initiated social content was found during the two week snapshot period as it was broadcast by the local authorities themselves,” she reveals. The research also suggests that there isn’t much going on in social media terms within the financial sector where it is used, but much of the content revolved around sports events that were being sponsored by the financial services companies who were using the channel.

It also emerges that most customers, 60% of them, had tried to make contact with customer services by either phone or email. These are the primary channels for communication with an organization, and following in behind is social media. You could therefore argue that social media is more of a miss rather than a hit, but customers will opt to use it as in Heuer’s experience if traditional channels like telephone-based customer services are ineffective. In fact BT’s survey says that 84% “of the complaints and criticisms about service on social media were about contact channels such as the contact center, email, the store or branch.”

The findings reflect Heuer’s decision to avoid calling the contact center as the study highlights that customers will try to find alternative communication channels to speak to an organization in order to prevent being held on hold or from being stuck in a queue. Millard therefore claims that customers appreciate “the speed and personal touch of social media interaction.”

Honest Response

Richard Williams, the general manager of sales operations at eSpares, adds that customer satisfaction also depends on how honest a response customers receive through any given customer service channel, including and particularly social media. “Most people will easily identify when they are being fobbed off and this approach will merely exacerbate the situation in an open environment,” he says.

In other words, social media isn’t the right forum for solving all customer queries as some of the issues involved might be of a more private nature than simple ones, which could be shared publicly without infringing the confidentiality of, say a financial transaction or the exchange of sensitive information or personal data. In this circumstance a well-trained customer service agent would agree to take the conversation offline and perhaps even call the customer.

“Not every query can be solved by using social media – or certainly not at the moment,” says Natalie Keightley – a strategic partnerships leader for strategic applications and technology at Avaya. She agrees that social media is often inappropriate for solving complex issues or where a detailed answer is required. “It may be quick and convenient for the customer to raise their issue via social media, but taking the conversation to a private forum, web chat or phone might ultimately make for a more satisfying and speedier resolution to their issue,” Keightley adds. One other point is that this transfer from one communication channel to another should be seamless.

Social Media: Wider Impact

It’s worth noting what kind of impact that customer complaints can have when they are posted on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The joint Youbiquity Finance research study by BT and Avaya found that 43% of the survey’s respondents said that they would change their bank for another based on negative comments in a social media forum. Negative or positive comments that are made online can spread rapidly. Social media therefore presents a brand and customer relationship management opportunity that should not be squandered. Organizations thus need to be proactively listening to what’s going on in the social media sphere, and contributing to it.

A further 7% would help other people with their issues quite voluntarily, and so social media offers a new means of reducing the costs of self-service through the creation of customers that become either brand ambassadors or whom have the knowledge to help others. This shouldn’t replace traditional customer service though, particularly as the adoption of social media by organizations has yet to mature. For example, only 12% of the respondents said that their bank offers a social media service and just 3% of them disclosed that they would share their Facebook profile with their bank.

Most customers prefer to phone customers services than read online frequently asked questions (FAQs). The research also found that visiting a bank branch and calling a contact center remain more popular than other channels whenever a customer wishes to speak about a complex issue.  Almost a quarter of the interviewees said they would use a mobile phone or device to contact customer services.

"Technology is Irrelevant"

Yet Jason Dainter, a co-founder of EthicalCommunity.com, says the technology used by customers is becoming irrelevant. What matters in his view is the ability of an organization to engage with its customers and to provide a consistent level of customer experience across each channel, and they can achieve this by centralizing all of the channels with the help of solutions like Desk.com, Hubspot or Avaya’s Social Media Manager. This allows for the issues to be dealt with from one system to make it easier to find a speedy resolution to a customer’s problem.

Steve Herlocher is the vice-president of marketing and business development at Jacada, and he says that most companies are using social media as a reactive brand management tool. With this in mind he thinks that social media is a miss because organizations are “missing an opportunity to learn, continually influence the perception of their brand in trusted communities and to organically build a community of promoters.” He adds that it is also important for firms to understand that they don’t control the content that is put out on social media sites, and this means that companies will be judged on how honestly, transparently and professionally they respond to any posted comments.

To do this, Jeanne Hopkins, an author of ‘Go Mobile’ and a vice-president of HubSpot, says that organizations have to behave vigilantly and with determination to monitor what is going on out there in the social media environment. This will help them to “avoid the firestorm of controversy and they need a plan in place to manage things when they go sideways, and they inevitably do,” she says. Social media, she argues, should also be integrated across all levels of a company and particularly within the framework of corporate marketing. She is also right to recommend having a website that is optimized for mobile devices, which can improve customers’ ease of making comments and it accelerates the speed and convenience of a response to a query.

Is It Hit Or Miss?

So social media isn’t a hit in terms of it being the most popular channel, but customers may choose to use it more often in the future. Companies should not ignore its significance as a customer communication channel too – whether to resolve customers’ issues, to promote their brands or both purposes. It can, however, fast become a miss if organizations use it inappropriately and if they fail to take the opportunity to act upon an issue, or listen and understand their customers.

This applies to other communications channels too, and that’s why it’s important to know which channels each customer prefers to interact with their organizations. In other words social media can be both a hit and a miss, and so it shouldn’t be used to replace but complement other means of customer communication. That’s because customers tend to use at least three channels, but mobiles are the one to watch as they make social media more readily available and accessible than other means of communicating to the world and with or about organizations.

Graham Jarvis is Managing Editor and Senior Journalist for Media-Insert Editorial Services.