Customer service today is a public affair. Poor service is no longer resolved in private through traditional call centers and email channels but laid bare on social media with far-reaching reputational consequences—and opportunities—for companies.
Customers are not coming to social media just in anger or frustration, either. Customer behavior and expectations have been shaped by digital-first, fast-growing tech companies. People increasingly expect rapid responses 24/7, and social media is becoming a preferred channel for customer service interactions—and a challenging one. One survey found that when consumers have a bad experience, half will complain publicly on social media. And if they don’t receive an answer at all, 81 percent won’t recommend that company to their friends.
Companies are under greater pressure than ever to be present and responsive on their customers’ preferred social channels. Daunting as this may be, with the right strategy, organizational structure, processes, and empowered resolution teams, companies can use social media to drive positive brand experiences, as many leading companies have been able to do.
This article explores the challenges facing organizations as they shift toward using social media as a full-service channel and offers an approach to excel at delivering end-to-end customer service on social channels.
Shifting toward a full-service channel
In October 2021, there were 4.6 billion social media users worldwide, with 13 new users signing up to their first social media account every second. Social media is fast becoming a primary channel of communication and social interaction for many.
How customers engage with companies on social media is also changing. Previously, many customers turned to social media as a channel of escalation when more traditional service channels failed to address their concerns. Today’s customers are increasingly using it for general requests, queries, and feedback—even compliments.
As the only servicing channel with public exposure, the quality of servicing on social media can have a significant impact on brand perception. Social content can go viral quickly, potentially turning small or isolated customer service issues into PR disasters. The consequences can be more than reputational too: the most popular platforms have a high presence of industry regulatory authorities. It is not uncommon for disgruntled customers to tag these bodies in their posts, creating additional risks for businesses in highly regulated industries, such as financial services or healthcare.
While there are clear risks associated with such a public channel of engagement, companies have much to gain from the effective and efficient use of this growing servicing channel—for example, asking for and obtaining public acknowledgment of a great experience. Customers also spend 20 to 40 percent more with companies that respond to customer service requests on social media. And companies that don’t respond to customers on social channels are losing customers year after year, with a 15 percent higher churn rate versus businesses that do respond.
Despite the growing business case for a dedicated customer service presence on social media, leveraging social platforms for this purpose comes with unique challenges, including different customer engagement expectations across platforms, the need for fast response times, unpredictable spikes in demand, skills gaps, and complicated workflow and technology investment choices.
Customer expectations vary across platforms. Social media is a catch-all term for several platforms, each with unique characteristics in terms of customer personas, demographics, and expectations. Twitter and the Facebook unit of Meta are among the leading platforms in the industry, and both have the biggest number of users in the 25 to 34 age group. However, Twitter’s second-largest age demographic is 35 to 49, creating an older overall demographic versus Facebook. Companies need to adjust their tone of voice, formality, and response times in line with the expectations of primary users on each platform. LinkedIn involves a more formal writing approach and sees higher engagement for B2B posts. Twitter has a 280-character limit, demanding friendly but to-the-point messaging. It also has a high presence of influencers, regulators, and authorities—raising the stakes for customer service teams to resolve issues efficiently. Facebook allows for casual, friendly interactions and awards companies with a “very responsive” badge on their Facebook page if they respond to 90 percent of their posts within 15 minutes.
High expectations for service response times. Customers expect a rapid response to queries and complaints made on social media. One recent study found that 40 percent of consumers expect brands to respond within the first hour, and 79 percent expect a response in the first 24 hours. However, there is a wide gap between customer expectations and company performance. Only around 50 percent of businesses are currently meeting service response time expectations.
Unpredictable service demand spikes. Social media channels are sensitive to a wide range of factors that can create spikes in customer service interactions. Among these is the risk that other customers and influencers will add their voice to complaints, creating a viral effect. Marketing campaigns, regulatory changes, market performance, and new product launches can all lead to sharp increases in customer service interactions too. Forecasting future demand to appropriately staff for customer service peaks remains a challenge.
Gaps between required versus available skills. Social media servicing requires distinct skills from more traditional service-channel staff, given the amplified impact of social media servicing and the unique expectations of customers across different platforms. The steep increase in year-on-year demand has made it challenging for organizations to hire staff with previous experience in social media servicing. Employees from other customer service departments such as complaints or assurance desks have transferable skills and can be retrained. However, even with the correct skills in place, the overlap between marketing and customer service teams means many organizations struggle to develop the appropriate governance structures for their social media service teams.
Complicated workflow and technology investment choices. Effective social media servicing requires robust digital workflows enabled by fit-for-purpose technology, requiring leaders to make important technology investment decisions. Operating models should allow for a range of actions and responses, including identifying service-related posts, auto-allocating these to the appropriate servicing teams, authenticating posts, gathering information from customers, and providing instant resolutions on platform or off platform through callbacks or email.
Organizations that overcome these challenges can turn social media servicing into a win–win for their customers and their reputation—earning free, positive publicity for their brand while delivering a great customer experience.
Developing best-in-class social media servicing
Servicing customers on social media requires a different approach to traditional customer service. Leading organizations have mastered six key areas spanning service strategy, response time, resolution effectiveness, quality of engagement, technology enablers, and organizational structure and skills (Exhibit 1). The social media servicing excellence framework outlines best practices to deliver across the end-to-end customer servicing journey on social media, from data mining to final resolution.
Develop an end-to-end strategy defining platform presence and service windows. A well-developed strategy starts by defining the social media platforms on which the organization should develop a customer service presence, driven by considerations such as customer demographics, service expectations, and existing brand presence. Key decisions on service windows should be agreed upon and aligned to platform characteristics—will customer service teams have a 24/7, always-on scheduling system, a 12-hour service window, or operate only during standard business hours aligned to primary business markets, for example? Clear, user-friendly social media policies can be developed and published to educate customers on the service boundaries.
Match response times, tone of voice, and engagement to platform characteristics. The main drivers of customer experience include response time, resolution time and effectiveness, and customer engagement. Service-related posts should be acknowledged as quickly as possible to meet customer expectations; best-practice service windows operate 24/7 on key platforms, with the first response in less than 15 minutes. The target time frame to resolve basic queries is shorter than requests and complaints, which can take up to two days depending on their complexity. The formality of replies should be adapted for different platforms while remaining true to brand tone of voice. Customer engagement activities play a key supporting role in promoting customer service handles and dedicated social media servicing pages.
Define workflows and leverage supporting technology. The primary enablers of social media servicing include clearly defined workflows that guide the end-to-end journey from customer post to resolution, and appropriate supporting technology such as AI (Exhibit 2).
The best-practice workflow begins with 24/7 text mining of social media platforms to surface customer service requests in real time. Smart technology, such as intent engines, can automatically segregate simpler customer posts (which can be addressed through auto response with a reasonable degree of confidence) from more complex posts that require personal handling. Highly empowered social media servicing teams close out basic queries and low complexity requests, while more specialized staff manage influencers and sensitive posts. Text analytics provide a real-time cockpit view alerting teams to customer responses and follow-up requests. Tight integration between customer relationship management systems and social media platforms can help to ensure quick and smooth response and resolution. Designing these new workflows and technology in an integrated way helps ensure a consistent and smooth omnichannel customer service experience (see sidebar, “Social media servicing excellence dramatically improved a major bank’s customer service”).
Create a combined team for a seamless customer experience
Finally, as organizations design the right servicing strategy and shift gears toward implementation, it is important to design the right supporting organization structure. Social media servicing teams tend to sit within either the marketing or customer service teams. But the more successful examples illustrate that a combined response-and-resolution team tends to work best for social media servicing (Exhibit 3). While dual reporting lines can pose a challenge to combined teams, the benefits of single ownership and accountability for customer issues and a consistent messaging style usually result in a better customer experience overall.
Whatever structure and reporting lines are chosen, it is imperative to have empowered frontline teams that can use their judgment to make exceptions when needed. Teams should also have direct access to all relevant functions within the business to expedite and prioritize resolutions. Specialist teams can be trained to manage influencers and sensitive posts to minimize the risks of individual customer complaints creating reputational damage.
Reaping the benefits
Social media is expected to continue its shift toward a full-service channel, outgrowing some of the more traditional customer servicing channels over time. The high visibility of these channels means that getting it right is not only a matter of creating great customer experiences but it also can significantly boost a company’s reputation.
Getting it right is not simple. But with the right strategy and commitment, organizations can realize the immense potential and value of social media servicing: creating awareness and positive engagement with their brand, supporting customers to self-service through educational content and campaigns, and even converting potential detractors into promotors.
To create a best-practice social media servicing approach, organizations can consider the following principles:
- Develop an overarching strategy that clearly defines platform presence and service windows, aligned to platform characteristics and user expectations.
- Set clear goals around response times, ensuring all posts on key platforms are acknowledged within 15 minutes.
- Define target resolution time frames, relative to the complexity of the post. Basic queries should be resolved within 30 to 60 minutes, while complaints can take between 24 to 48 hours.
- Develop an appropriate tone of voice for use across different platforms, creating clear guidance for social media servicing teams and brand-appropriate response templates for automated responses.
- Leverage appropriate supporting technology across the end-to-end servicing journey, including AI, to perform key automatable tasks such as filtering high-priority or sensitive posts and monitoring customer responses.
- Set clear internal reporting lines to ensure a combined social media servicing team that brings together skills from marketing and customer services.