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Is it Ever Okay to Put Service on Autopilot?

The words “amazing customer service” probably bring to mind brands such as Zappos, Trader Joes, WestJet, or Amazon.  Mention Spirit Airlines, and thoughts almost immediately turn in the opposite direction.

Last week PR Daily ran a piece on Spirit’s social media bot.  For more than a year now, the budget airline has touted the virtues of its automated service, claiming that the staffing savings allow them to pass along discount airfares for customers.  But what’s the true cost of their bare boned approach to social service? Does autopilot every truly work for customer care?

I brought up this topic during a recent #Contentchat on the social customer experience.  The consensus was clear: automated service doesn’t foster relationships, and a lack of personalization can severely impact the customer experience.

Best-selling author and award-winning speaker Shep Hyken agrees that brands must tread lightly when automating service—especially social customer service.

“There are very sophisticated software programs that automate responses, but allow companies to customize and personalizes the messages even though they’re automated,” said Hyken.  “Many automated programs do work, but mass automation without personalization leads to customer alienation.” 

Curious to understand how personal the Spirit automated experience was, I decided to tag them in a Tweet and test their listening skills.

Spirit Airlines Tweet

Within a couple of hours—yes hours-- I received a (generic) response.


Spirit Airlines Customer Service Tweet


Cute, I guess.  But should it take a “robot” four hours to reply?  Not impressive. And what would have happened if I’d truly needed to contact this company to solve an issue?  While I certainly believe there are instances when automated support can work (appointment reminders, scheduled tweets regarding planned outages, etc.) I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to put customer conversations on autopilot--especially via social media.  After all, isn’t social media meant to be social?

The customer experience is more significant than ever. Customers have countless options when choosing a service provider, and they have a world of information at their fingertips.  Smart brands utilize the tools at hand to cultivate relationships and develop brand advocates. Doing so requires time and effort, and it’s not an outcome that can be achieved with automation alone.

Does effective social customer care demand time, money, and effort? Yes.  Is it worth it? Absolutely.

2014 ICMI research indicates that offering a customer service in their channel of choice is a competitive differentiator.  In fact, 86% of customers would be more satisfied if offered service in their preferred channel. But just being there isn’t enough. Brad Cleveland echoes that sentiment in the ICMI Guide to Serving Customers Socially.

“Having an official presence in key social sites such as Facebook and Twitter is only a first step,” says Cleveland. “Being part of “the conversation”– listening to customers and appropriately interacting with them where they are and as their needs dictate – is a powerful differentiator.”

What’s your opinion?  As a company, how often do you automate service processes? As a customer, how does automated social service make you feel?  Is it ever okay to put service on autopilot?

Join us on Tuesday, June 23 at 1pm EST as we devote an hour to discussing this topic on Twitter.  Jeremy Watkin of Phone.com will host our chat.  Just follow and use our hashtag #ICMIchat to participate.