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The Future of Social Media Customer Service Agents

Joshua March
By Joshua March on Dec 3, 2014 10:01:00 AM

Over the past few years, social media has emerged as a major new customer support channel — one controlled by the customer, not your company. For some major brands, social media now makes up 10% of all inbound volume (e.g. Hertz —watch their case study here), and is still growing rapidly. I have pages of @mentions and DMs with multiple airlines, Uber, Seamless, FlyCleaners — almost every service I use (I’m a demanding customer). Why would I sit on hold, or email and risk waiting days for a response, when I can just Tweet from my iPhone and get a fast response, sometimes within minutes?

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Social media is not like email or chat; its public nature means that a mistake can have huge ramifications for your brand. At the same time, its rules and constraints can make mistakes very easy. If an agent is switching between private, traditional channels and public, social channels, they will slow down as they have to constantly re-think workflows and processes. Mistakes become easy — for example, sending a public message instead of a private DM… a mistake that even twitter’s CFO can make!

Social media also has different consumer expectations from other digital channels. It combines real-time expectations with asynchronous workflow. Responding with the same SLAs as email (often measured in days) would be disastrous — consumers expect a social media response in well under an hour (with First Response Time for many leading brands now counted in the minutes). At the same time, holding a social media conversation open like chat would be extremely inefficient; the customer may not respond for 30 minutes.

All of these differences mean that trying to have ‘blended agents’ who handle a mix of private, traditional channels and public, social channels in the same shift, or with the same tools, is a recipe for disaster (or, at the minimum, significantly worse customer experience and agent efficiency).

That’s why social customer service requires a different approach, with new teams, training and new processes. As a result, we've seen the rise of completely dedicated social customer support teams (with best-in-class software like Conversocial, designed social-first, powering their workflow and analytics). These teams are inside the contact center, but with a unique team of agents, trained in social media, being managed separately.

The pros and cons of a dedicated team

Having a dedicated team is the best way to get started with social customer service. Training a small number of agents is simpler; and it’s easier to reinforce the right behavior, with constant attention. New policies and behavioral norms need to be created, often from scratch or on the fly, so it’s important that these can spread quickly between the agents.

The pros of a dedicated team:

  • Simple to train the right behavior
  • Mistakes minimized as agents are highly specialized
  • Dedicated agents become social-savvy very quickly
  • Information (e.g. new processes) can spread quickly among the team
  • Allows agents to take a social-first approach, with processes and workflow that are best for social (and the customer), instead of trying to fit social into a traditional model

There are two main considerations, however: resourcing, and agent satisfaction.

Resourcing

The biggest consideration is in agent resourcing. If inbound volume in social media spikes, and you have stable volume on other channels, you cannot move your other agents onto social media. The risks are too high when any Tweet they send could be seen by millions.

Unless you have a very large dedicated team, it can even be hard to match normal shift patterns to varying volume needs over the course of the day and week; and offering 24 hour service can be a nightmare to implement.

Combined, this can mean huge backlogs and wildly varying SLA performance.

Agent satisfaction

Social media customer service is in general more informal and more human than traditional channels. Social agents often have more freedom, and enjoy their work far more than over traditional channels. The social media team is a highly coveted role for most agents.

Although this is great, having a dedicated team limits this benefit to a small number of your agents. Widening the pool increases agent satisfaction more widely — reducing staff attrition, which can have a huge impact on the bottom line.

A model for the future: multi-channel agents, but dedicated social shifts

As businesses have come to accept social media as a core customer service channel, more companies have moved social media to the contact center. This has raised topics such as best practices for efficient resourcing, and how to best unify customer data and reporting across channels.

With training, processes and management clearly established in many companies, it’s now time to help spread the workload and bring more social media savvy agents into the fold. Instead of a team of 10 dedicated social agents, you should be looking to train a much wider base of your digital agents in social media, who can each take dedicated shifts in social media according to demand.

To do this, it is essential that you have a very clear social customer service playbook, with solid training plans for agents, and regular refreshers to ensure agent knowledge up to date. Use of approval workflows and QA also becomes much more important. We also recommend having managers who specialize in social media, to always be on hand with in-depth knowledge and guidance for agents.

This approach allows you benefit from significantly more efficient resourcing, the ability to hit consistently high SLA performance, and to have higher general agent satisfaction. It also makes you much more ready to deal with sudden social media spikes or crises.

Social media has grown phenomenally over the past few years — but now it is time for social media to grow up. The time of separate, dedicated social teams — whether within the business as a whole (usually run by marketing), or inside the contact center — is drawing to a close. The future is one of social deeply integrated into the contact center, no longer treated as an ungainly step child, but instead the best way of engaging with a mobile, social audience. It’s time to put social first, but not social alone.

Topics: Customer Service, Customer Experience

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