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5 Key Steps to Getting Social Service Right

As with the emergence of the Web itself, the social ecosystem is becoming part of the fabric of customer service. Being part of “the conversation”—listening to customers and appropriately interacting with them where they are and as their needs dictate—was until recently a powerful differentiator. But it’s now becoming a competitive necessity.

As a result, customer service and support is one of the most expansive, fast-developing and dynamic aspects of the social phenomenon. But how do you get it right? In our industry research and work with organizations leading the charge, we’ve identified five key steps—all of which must work together to ensure you’re in the game and serving your customers well.

1. Join the Conversation

Most executives know their organizations should be tuned-in to social channels. But there’s nothing like seeing these conversations in real time. I recall an executive who works with an automobile manufacturer tell of standing behind a computer with several others on her team as the organization “flipped the switch” on a new social media listening tool. The conversations—blogs, tweets, posts, feedback sites—began scrolling across the screen: comments about the company’s products, services, policies and brand, good and (more often) not so good. It was like putting on a snorkel mask and jumping off a boat into the Caribbean—a whole new world became visible.

By listening to and learning from conversations across social sites, you can determine where you’ll be most effective. As you get better at identifying and handling interactions, you will be positioned to evolve into a more sophisticated approach, geared around criteria such as a customer’s influence, root cause analysis, and marketplace opportunities. The first step is to get in the game! (For some great additional tips, see Karin Hurt’s article, 7 Deadly Sins of Social Customer Service.)

2. Harness the Contact Center’s Potential

The sooner you are ready to pull the full range of interactions and channels into your customer service operations, the sooner you will be able to scale resources and respond as opportunities unfold. Many organizations start out by treating social channels as a part of marketing or corporate communications. But with any kind of volume (and without the help of the contact center) one of two things begins to happen: either customer needs go unanswered, or these areas began to grow a quasi contact center as they find themselves handling interactions that are more in the realm of customer service and support.

The good news is that many organizations are finding their call centers to be more ready than originally assumed. After all, they are already handling a wide range of contacts, and most employees have become familiar with social tools.

3. Reshape Your Customer Access Strategy

To put effective services in place, you’ll need an updated customer access strategy. This involves thinking through and defining access alternatives, hours of operation, service level objectives, agent group structure, skills and knowledge required and other key components. For a summary, see (Updating Your Customer Access Strategy for Social Media).

4. Build All Interactions Into Plans and Processes

Underlying patterns in social interactions almost always exist. Yes, social trending topics and posts that quickly multiply can create unique staffing challenges, but being responsive in their early stages can help head off what would be repetitive contacts. In short, the same basic principles you’d apply to phone, chat and other traditional channels apply: Look for patterns, consider the variables, and use what you’re seeing to project future workload.

My advice when anticipating staffing requirements for this emerging workload is to think more along the lines of forecasting the weather: Partly cloudy this morning, with a warming trend this afternoon. You don’t have years of patterns as you might for calls or chat, and they wouldn’t mean much anyway given the fast changing nature of social service. But begin collecting data on volumes and handling times. Look out as far as possible, think through as many variables as feasible, and observe patterns and how they are developing. In the end, dress for any kind of weather (meaning, build flexibility and scalability into your staffing plans).

5. Cultivate Strategic Value

Social service does not replace traditional customer service channels. In fact, if you have poor phone service levels and unanswered customer email, viewing social service as a substitute would be sorely misguided. Rather, it will become an increasingly important part of your organization’s overall approach to communicating with and serving customers. (See Rich Pinnington’s recent article, for some compelling stats backing this trend.)

The latest-generation contact centers are the engines organizations depend on not only to handle interactions with customers but also to listen to and engage in external communities. They are taking on more of a “level two” role, handling issues not resolved through self-service and communities. And they are integrated with other business functions at a much deeper level, enabling the organization to better understand and improve products, services and processes.

Contact centers, and the management methodologies that guide them, are helping to bring order to what would otherwise be an enormous, asymmetrical challenge in serving customers. Social channels are providing a significant opportunity to shape services that differentiate, build the organization’s brand, and, ultimately, have a positive impact on customers, employees and shareholders.