Part Four: The Case for Social Media in Customer Care

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By Aaron Templer

Part Four: The Case for Social Media in Customer Care

This the fourth in a five-part series that looks into social media marketing moving into 2021. Part One examined the marketing industry’s ongoing challenge with understanding and processing its data, and how this contributes to poor decision-making related to social media marketing. In Part Two we took a look at some data demonstrating the ineffectiveness of social media marketing that all too many marketers seem to want to ignore. Part Three made some suggestions about what exactly we should do about it. Now we take one of these suggestions and flesh it out: move social out of marketing and into customer care. Part Five outlines the key to making this shift.

Social media marketing effectiveness data is top-of-mind for me these days. I’m a part of the teaching team for the American Marketing Association’s Digital Marketing Bootcamp (if any of them get back on schedule) and we like to bring the latest industry studies and trends to our presentations. I’m also writing a book (in its final stages!) involving quite a bit of research. In collaboration with Julia Roth, Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Colorado School of Law and a top-shelf marketing mind, we found, organized, and analyzed 50 recently published reports and studies on digital and social media marketing. I’ve also interviewed several people who have led some interesting social media efforts for companies that were featured in published case studies.

Those in charge of effective customer service recognize that the way it works is this: you solve a problem together for mutual wins. It isn’t promotional, it isn’t about sales lifts. Of course organizations measure the commercial benefits of their customer service efforts, but exemplary and even above-average customer service cultures recognize that financial rewards are an outcome for brands, not a goal.

Conversocial’s State of Digital Care put it this way: “A digitally mature brand will execute a well-crafted customer service approach […] focused on building positive and genuine connections. Every customer wants to feel valued and if a brand can do this, it will mean the customer is more likely to come back to your brand again and again and spend more in the process.”

Famously, Nordstrom—a rather banal reference for customer service excellence at this point—touts that its primary business goal year in and year out is to improve its already peerless customer service. How do they measure the outcome? What kind of metrics and KPIs do they use across their staff, stores, and online and offline properties to determine a return on their customer service investment?

They don’t. They just look at sales. “Sales are the truth” to Nordstrom. Their driver—their mission, vision, and goal—is “to provide a fabulous customer experience by empowering customers and the employees who serve them.” So convinced is Nordstrom that sales are inexorably tied to exceptional customer care that they skip the leading indicators.

Using social media in customer care stands in contrast to marketing in social media settings because it’s driven by the customer and the community. Not by the brand and the profits. It operates with the same primary driver as what creates value in social constructs: reciprocity. You solve this problem for me, I’ll thank you publicly for it. You go a bit beyond expectations, and I’ll tell others about you. You exceed expectations and I’ll actually help you solve other customers’ problems. Care about me this much consistently over time and you’ve got a lifetime customer and advocate. Senior Director of Customer Loyalty at Zappos Rob Siefker told me that Tony Hsieh called him into a meeting room one day and said “Hey I want you to create a corporate twitter account and start interacting with customers online and helping them out.” It was that simple. He didn’t ask Rob to tell stories, engage people, or disrupt how marketing is done in online retailing companies. He asked Rob to interact, build relationships, and solve problems.

Critically, this isn’t a marketing function. Marketers’ training and conditioning forces us into promotions, conversions, and sales funnel thinking, and we build the technical chops to be effective at it. Customer care requires something entirely different and organizations using social media successfully in their customer care functions know this.

For example, McKenzie Eakin built Xbox’s record- and ground-breaking customer service team The Elite Tweet Fleet and a thousand-plus-member Ambassador Chat program composed of Xbox users who provide peer-to-peer support. She told me she didn’t even have a Twitter account when she started the project and didn’t hire social media experts. Instead she looked for people with a passion for Xbox so they’d have a deeper understanding of the problems their users were experiencing. This resulted in more authenticity online, and acting passionately to solving problems.

Xbox set a new standard for customer care.

Your customers are literally clamoring for you to engage them in social media channels in this way, but marketing biases are strong and marketers aren’t receiving the signals, or aren’t willing to. Perhaps this is due to our years of training and conditioning to look at pools of customers and potential customers as “audiences” and “target markets” and “market segments” instead of horizontal cooperatives which drive value through reciprocity. Nordstrom describes it as “constantly putting the customer at the center of everything we do. If something is important to the customer, find a way to deliver. If it’s not […] question if it’s worth [the] time and focus.”

Or as McKenzie, the Xbox Elite Tweet Fleet’s “Fweet Mama” put it to me: “Doing good, one on one. Only at scale.”

Maybe marketers don’t want to advocate for social media move to customer care because we don’t want to lose the billable hours of social, or the budget or the responsibility, or don’t want to face the fact that we need to invest in customer service care retraining for the talent we’ve put in charge of social media marketing. Unlearning marketing, as Nichole Kelly advocates in Part Three.

Regardless, the challenge for marketers in 2021, entrenched in social media marketing as we are, should be this: Instead of clinging to an ideal, hand off the social media to the customer care team. Recognize what marketers are good at and what we’re not, and either learn and train up, or delegate.

Moving social media out of the hands of marketers into those of the customer care teams isn’t at all a new idea. In fact, the discipline is maturing from what used to be called “social care” into “digital care”, and the standard is now moving toward nothing less than “effortless care”.

This evolution makes perfect sense. Those executing top-shelf customer care understand that the primary driver for customer retention is ease of access—not necessarily achieving some level of excessive delight. A Harvard Business Review/Customer Contact Council study throws shade on our intuitive notions of “going above and beyond” for customers. Turns out that some of the typical resolution tactics of the customer care interaction—a refund, a replacement, a nice bump in miles or loyalty points—make marginal differences in customer loyalty. Not only that, but despite the sometimes-backbreaking work brands put into the resolution of customer care interactions, customers are still four times more likely to leave disloyal.

What really moves the needle when it comes to creating loyal customers through customer care is easy and quick access. The upstream efforts, not the downstream offers, are the primary drivers for customer loyalty. And what can be quicker and easier (for the customer) than social media? The platforms are ubiquitous and free, used daily, and serve multiple functions for customers. Tag a brand in a tweet, click send, boom. Do it on the toilet or the subway. Middle of the night when you can’t sleep, at breakfast when your kid reminds you. Brands that invest in social customer care are recognizing that investing in quick and easy via social is less expensive and more effective than costly “exceed expectations at all costs” downstream efforts.

Social customer care doesn’t just drive loyalty. A Twitter/Applied Marketing Science study found that airline customers were more likely to recommend the airline and are willing to spend more to use it when responded to on social. What’s more, the faster the response time (quick and easy, remember) the more potential revenue. To check against a potential bias by way of Twitter’s sponsorship of the study, consider a Harvard Business Review study of airline and wireless carrier social customer care: Those with positive interactions would be willing to pay $9 more per airline ticket and $8 per month more for a wireless plan. (That may not seem like a lot, but the point is to measure a change in behavior, not revenue.) The study also uncovered a significant bump in Net Promoter Scores among those with positive interactions: up 37 points for airlines and 59 points for wireless carriers among those with positive social media customer care experiences.

Some 51% of respondents in Conversocial’s report said they were “very likely” to repeat a purchase from a brand that responded to their customer service questions over social channels, and 41% were “somewhat likely”. Look at those numbers through a Net Promoter Score lens. What are you doing today that could potentially bring you a 94% NPS? What would you be willing to do? Meanwhile, a full 57% of respondents said they’ve stopped doing business with a brand due to poor digital care. How many of these actively disengaged customers has your organization lost with a marketing-and-sales approach to social?

A Microsoft study agrees with Conversocial’s report when it comes to the value of social media’s ability to deliver value as a customer care channel, and finds it to be true across age groups (lest you think digital natives somehow have a unique perspective on how social constructs should operate). Consumer use of social media for customer care among those 35 and over doubled between 2018 and 2019. “No longer just an important option for millennials” the study found, “social channels are fast becoming a standard for all demographics.”

No longer just an important option for millennials, social channels are fast becoming a standard for all demographics.

– Microsoft’s State of global customer service report

It’s not just that customers flat out expect organizations to use social media channels for customer care. At this point, the expectation bar is extremely high:

  • The Convince and Convert agency published a report that found 32% of customers expect a response from brands on social media channels in 30 minutes and 42% expect a response within an hour.
  • 57% of Convince and Convert’s respondents expect the same response time to social media customer care posts submitted at night and on weekends as those submitted during normal business hours.
  • A SmartInsights report found 63% of customers actually expect companies to offer customer service via their social media channels, and 90% of social media users have already used social media as a way to communicate with a brand or business.
  • Of the 2,000 respondents in Conversocial’s The State of Digital Care Report, 81% indicated that their expectations for digital customer service are higher in 2019 than they were in 2018.
  • The study also reported that—wait for it—100% of the respondents saying an “issue being resolved in a single interaction” is a must-have for digital customer service.

Social media is a valuable tool for businesses willing to use it in their customer care functions because the social mind is wired to interact in a flat and collaborative framework, not in a salesperson-to-customer relationship. Part Five outlines 13 ways you and your organization can shift social media from marketing to customer care, but it all begins with a recognition that it should. As marketers we have to accept that the value of social media is generated in customer care, and then realize that such communities are built following a specific set of rules very different from legacy sales-and-marketing approaches. It isn’t easy work. For far too long marketers have relied on easy, tactical approaches as they try to build value in their online communities. It takes more than what we as marketers like to admit.

As explored in Dr. Matthew Lieberman’s book Social, neuroscience is proving that humans are hard-wired, predisposed to seek out and participate in social constructs. Our innate hunger for social connection feeds off reciprocity, hierarchy-less organizations of coordination, and participant-driven experiences, which is exactly what customer care on social media provides. And, by the way, we’re also hard-wired with alarms to protect us from threats that may sever those connections. Be careful in social groups, sales and marketing friends.

We’re hard-wired to connect.

Still we struggle to break through our biases. Remember the Sprout Social content marketing report from Part One reporting a 146% rise in social messages requiring brand responses over three years, while brands’ response rate has actually decreased over the same timeframe (on average they respond to only 1 in 10)? There’s more of this data, like The SmartInsights study finding that 80% of companies think they deliver exceptional social media customer service while only 8% of their customers agree.

Most marketers and leaders will be charged with measuring the value of social media-based customer care across more business imperatives than just “sales up or down” as Nordstrom does. We know that effective customer care can result in many business outcomes like reduced customer churn, enhanced customer lifetime value, and increased re- and upselling rates. But, again: the most effective customer care cultures use these organizational-centric measurements as outcomes to a customer-centric goal.

It was numbers like this that motivated British Telecom, the United Kingdom’s largest broadband, landline, and mobile provider, to funnel resources into their social media customer service channels. BT was noticing increasing demand for social care—74% of their customers were beginning to use a multichannel approach to seeking care, and 50% preferred live chat or social media—and social media was checking all the boxes for their customer care strategy:

  • A wide footprint that was easy and cheap to access
  • A way to reduce expenses by way of reduced demand on the more expensive traditional channels
  • Multi-touch communication opportunities which could reduce the number of individual contacts, and
  • The potential to result in user-generated support, again saving costs but also creating a peer-to-peer problem-solving platform which is always a more effective way to provide customer support.

Social media was also outperforming other support channels on BT’s Net Easy score, an internally-created, leading indicator metric that helped BT predict churn, increased spend, and repurchase rates. For example, BT was able to correlate higher Net Easy scores on customer care interactions with reduced customer churn by as much as 40%.

With a focus on four social channels (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a support forum), BT measured their social media customer care effectiveness by separating the social channels and calculating the number of unique customers, effectiveness of resolution rates, and the operational cost per channel along with some other typical social media metrics.

The results? BT lowered the cost of their customer service operations by £2m a year. Approximately 600,000 contacts are handled via social media every year now instead of through expensive traditional methods. They’ve seen live chat and social media channels both register a 44% increase in preference scores while traditional methods decline.

You can read the BT case study here, but we found other case studies with specific ROI numbers like BT’s hard to find. Perhaps this is because organizations haven’t built their Net Easy scores and correlated them to their bottom-line numbers. Perhaps organizations view their social media customer care as a competitive advantage and like to keep it to themselves. Or perhaps the social media customer care industry is still maturing while marketers, who clog up the case study bandwidth, don’t yet know what to do with social media customer care data.

Still, it’s clear organizations are taking note. For instance, Microsoft launched a branded online community to offer support for the launch of its Power BI product and help a support team that was quickly overwhelmed. It built and cultivated a branded online community forum to generate user support, and claims a $1 million per month savings in support costs. In 2015 the Intercontinental Hotel Group, with its 20 social media customer care agents, reported that they’re keeping “remediation lower than we initially forecasted” with social media customer care, and planned to increase their investment in it. When a Starwood Hotels and Resorts team member was asked if their social channels are deflecting traffic away from traditional channels, they gave this answer: “Absolutely. Instead of emailing or calling, customers are reaching out through social media channels. In 2014, approximately 1.1 million messages came through our brand channels alone.” Adobe, having made a monumental shift from the boxed software days of Creative Suite to the online, subscription-based Create Cloud, put social media customer care at the center of its support strategy: “Social plays an important role in that it allows Adobe to meet our customers where they are at versus insisting they come to us. One of the unique support options we’ve been able to provide through social media is facilitating customers to help other customers […] they crave the social validation.” For Adobe, social media customer care facilitated “new solutions that […] make it easier for new Creative Cloud members to learn from more tenured community leaders.” (The last three examples come from this study.)

When Adobe Creative Suite moved out of the box and online, so did their customer care.

The promise of social media from a business perspective has always been that this type of collaborative community with user-generated support could add value to an organization’s bottom line. It’s easy to see where business took a wrong turn by assuming that this value would be in the form of word-of-mouth advertising and sales, and that it could be generated by engaging customers in a traditional marketing and sales way. The promised value of social media simply isn’t built this way.

One of the key reasons customer care through social media creates value is because it is, in fact, user-generated from the jump. This stands in clear contrast to brand-driven social media marketing. The fact that organizations seem to have been (or arguably still are being) dragged kicking and screaming into social media customer care is a clear indication that marketers, who usually drive the social media bus for organizations by way of ownership over it in marcomm departments and agencies, either aren’t willing to let it go or flat out don’t understand how social constructs work. It’s only recently that organizations are starting to catch up with user demand as they pry this control away from the marketing mindset of sales figures and lead gen metrics distorted by stars of grandeur in marketers’ eyes.

Social media marketers’ view of social is distorted by stars in our eyes.

Customer care communities stand in contrast to brand-driven social media marketing in two other ways. As mentioned, in a customer care context value is derived because community members are driving it. By this definition brands are forced to play by the rules of the customer when they approach the organization with a problem in need of a solution. It’s not the other way around. Brands are forced into a flattened relationship—a position of responsibility to a diverse range of stakeholders—with customers. This is a common leadership style hallmark among social-savvy leaders.

Second, we know that social communities are built over time and in stages, as much a deterrent for immediate-gratification obsessed organizations as it comes. Online problem-solving communities mature toward building a norm of reciprocity, and they start with building social trust. This happens in stages, over time, and it depends on patterns of behavior—not promises—as the community demonstrates that they are there for each other and that the organization facilitating things is a part of this social contract. This represents a “magnified” risk to community members as they begin to feel out the situation, and is why social communities can be difficult to build. If authentic conditions exist and trust is established, the community will move to the next stage, referred to as normalized reciprocity, relinquishing power and control even to strangers in return for affiliation to the group. And “as the norms of reciprocity, voluntarism, and social trust strengthen, the [value] will increase”.

Zappos handles their social media activities in two distinct and separate areas: a 15 members strong, purely customer care-focused team (called the Customer Loyalty Team, CLT) and a more marketing and sales-related team. The two teams interact daily to help the marketing-focused team stay tuned in to customer trends, topics, and concerns. I was able to talk with members of both teams, and even though “sales and marketing” look very different in Zappos than typical organizations (Rob Siefker told me Zappos marketing is “a part of our service model, too”), Zappos can promote, tell corporate culture stories, and perform the kinds of activities social media marketers drool over because of the trust and democratic relationship they’ve built over time on the CLT team. It’s hard-earned and intentionally managed. Zappos Customer Service Manager Kelsey Walsh said her “team spends 99% of their time online. We see trends, challenges, and send it to the marketing team.” Amy Gilmer, who heads up the marketing-oriented team, told me her team “is constantly checking in with the CLT team, on a daily basis. They bubble up commentary and themes from customers so what we put out there resonates. The CLT team has feet on the ground.”

This should send up the most obvious of warning flares to brands trying to build social communities online. Seeing the kind of returns BT was able to achieve and what Zappos accomplishes comes from a dedication to solving problems, and being true to that promise, over time. Bait-and-switches kill the value in social groups and the pressure to act against this truth is omnipresent in marketing. How many times have you as a marketer bent to the directives of a boss or the pressure of a client to promote something in a social channel where you’ve been trying to add value in order to build trust?

The evidence is solid: the social media marketing formula of added-value-to-promotional-content is a myth. Communities require unwavering consistency, over time, in order to build trust that converts into value, aka reciprocity.

The social construct itself is not an asset. It isn’t the followers and fans that create value. Only when the function of the group is facilitated to actually achieve value—through a consistent history of building trust to facilitate collaboration and reciprocal problem-solving—do organizations bring about what they dream social media can do for them: as one study put it, an “achievement of ends that would be impossible without it.”

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