Social Customer Service: Talk Is Cheap, Action’s Much Tougher!


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The growth in social customer service appears to have stalled. Now the early adopters are out and about, the expected next tranches are nowhere to be seen. New names remain scarce.

That said, it remains a popular blogging topic. The same old ‘5 tips’ formula continues to appear. Is this serving the ‘101’ needs of a new generation? Maybe. Against that, some industry grandees have rubbed out the language of ‘social’ and now only talk ‘digital’.

What’s actually going on? Answers on a postcard if anyone thinks they know.

Meanwhile in my own search for clues, I bring you a rare interview. The fruits of digging deeper into the successes of those who are actually making it work. It’s rare because it’s a different type of story. Here’s why.

While I celebrate the volume and breadth of customer-themed thinking that pours into my inbox every day, it often smacks of unrestrained enthusiasm: based on the way authors imagine it should be rather than the realpolitik of introducing new ideas into a corporate culture. Let’s face it, if repetition was all we needed, the revolution would be done and dusted many moons ago.

So what actually happens when something as different, new and challenging as social customer service is introduced onto the corporate agenda? The lack of broader adoption I referred to earlier suggests that the initial response is seldom ‘love at first sight’.

Meet Chris Geddes. An early adopter of social media who rose to the top of Nokia to run their global support business and then integrated it into Microsoft. I’ve followed his career with great interest. He gets social media. He also gets big business. So how did he get around the lack of ‘love at first sight’ and make it work? This is Chris personal story of how he took that initial rejection on the chin and got down to the serious business of selling in social customer service.

Martin: Chris thanks very much for your time today. I heard you talk recently to a room of social media advocates and you captured everyone’s attention when you started out by saying that as far as social media’s future is concerned, it’s time to conform!

Chris: It’s not a popular message to deliver to a room of social media evangelists. I knew this going in, having been a blue-blood, die-hard social media advocate all my professional life. But it’s a message I really wish someone had told me 10 years ago.

I’ve climbed the corporate ladder despite what I was trying to do in social media, not because of it. And it was only when I was promoted to run all of Customer Support at Nokia/Microsoft Mobile that I could raise my head above the clouds and see what I had been missing.

Having settled into my role running customer support for 1.3bn customers worldwide, I looked at what was expected of me and realized that the revolution I had been evangelizing – “Social Media Transforms Everything Businesses Do”, will never happen.

Martin: So what stopped you in your tracks?

Chris: Revolution is risky and, at my new level, I saw that failure no longer results in a poor performance review or a telling off. It gets you the sack. I would get fired, my mortgage wouldn’t get paid, my kids would have a bad Christmas which means me being a bad dad and, knowing my wife’s taste for shiny things, I might get divorced too. As much as I love social media, it simply isn’t worth it.

BOOM. My world shook and I became the boss I had for so long fought against. I now heard the social media pitch from a new angle.

“ENGAGEMENT is more important than cost per contact…” Rubbish, engagement doesn’t get me a bonus, doesn’t help me hit my KPIs and won’t help my boss’ KPIs either.

“Reach is a proxy for success and look at how much it has grown”…. I don’t care. How much does it save me? You can’t tell me? Get out…

“We are dealing with x thousand contacts per week through Baidu”… How much does each contact cost us and would it be better to migrate these to another channel?

You get the picture.

Investment would only happen if it helped me hit my KPIs which, in turn, help my boss hit his KPIs. If I can make my boss look good to his boss… guess who gets a better bonus? And so began our journey of integrating social media into customer support rather than forcing customer support to adopt the “social media way”. This was a first for me.

Martin: This sounds like a story of welcome to the top table and getting acquainted with their agenda. It’s the inside-out version of what social media is so used to seeing – the customer perspective.

Chris: In order to make my boss look good, in order to look good myself, in order to justify taking budget away from the big, political dogs that ran my contact centers for me and give it to the social media puppies, you need to understand how social media is truly perceived at the top of support organizations (and above).

It isn’t the cure-all, holy-grail of technologies. In fact it is scary and unfamiliar. For years I made a point of demonstrating just how different social media was to other channels. I used different language. I used different KPIs. I even dressed slightly differently to the rest of my peers. The reason I did those things, which with the power of hindsight were obviously going to make life harder for me, was because I truly believed that the rest of the business had to change to be more like the social media team.

Let me pause on that for a second….. I believed that a function that had never even had a formal leader before I joined less than 12 months ago should be the format around which we shatter the existing and proven business model and re-form it. That’s quite a leap of faith and, now that my job rested on it, it was a leap I wasn’t prepared to make.

Martin: So you’re saying that the voice of the customer, even a social one, is not going to blow down the house?

Chris: I believe that Social Media has not managed to turn businesses inside out because there are forces more powerful than customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is a vassal of profit, meaning that CSAT works for profit, not the other way around.

You can run a successful company with less than perfect CSAT. But you can’t run a successful company on a negative margin. Happy customers can mean increased profits, don’t get me wrong, but the correlation is not perfect. Non-profitable companies can’t make customers happy for long.

And for those that say “it’s not all about profit” – yes it is. That’s business. Customer satisfaction is a tool that is used to generate those profits, not the end goal. That, for me, was a big wake-up call.

So, if profit is King, then the Princes are revenue and cost reduction. If the CEO wants profits to keep his job then he will look to his team members who can deliver against his KPIs (profitability). The ones that do deliver against what he needs to secure his job and bonus will be held in high regard. While those that don’t wont be. Nothing surprising here.

If this logic is followed down through an organization, then we find the social media teams are normally not aligning metrics with the KPIs of their bosses’ KPIs. So it’s no wonder, organizationally speaking, social media doesn’t yet fit in.

Martin: OK so that was your strategy – see the world for what it is. How did you then win the argument for getting social engagement funded?

Chris: The key to aligning social media KPIs with that of the customer support team (or any other team) is simplicity. I used to spend days (literally) coming up with complex business cases that would take into account advocacy, word of mouth, influencer scores, propensities to convert, network and game theory and build assumption onto assumption.

What I ask of my teams now is that they remove assumptions. They remove any possibility of double-counting benefit and that the benefit is aligned with my KPIs. They have about 15 to choose from. This not only makes the business cases simple, it makes them believable if considerably smaller in ROI than the previous ones I spent so much time on. They also require much less investment and so are lower risks. This makes it more likely to get sign-off from me.

Here’s a real example we worked through as a team. We have a very successful set of communities. How do I know this? Lots of visitors and views. How much money is it saving us currently? No idea!

So we decided to build a single button that would appear under each answer provided for the community that read “Thanks, now I don’t need to call the contact center”.

I already know exactly how much each call to a contact center costs me, so I would now have a damned good idea as to how much the community is saving me. One answer could be clicked 100 times or never. And it is safe to say that people who don’t get the help they need won’t click the button.

From now on if development is requested for the community I just ask “how much more call deflection will be achieved post development?” This gives me my concrete community ROI and allows me to invest with confidence against metrics that I care about. Not “views”.

Martin: Sounds smart. What changed when you started working in that kind of way?

Chris: A change in mindset regarding social media results in no-brainer “yes” decisions from leadership. If you are smart, you can also secure part of the ROI for re-investment. Succeed the first time, in a way that your bosses care about (tied to their performance and bonus) and you earn a license to play and a license to fail, should a business case not get delivered for whatever reason. You get to call it a “blip”. Start with a failure and you undermine your own credibility and sourcing investment (and being credible) in the future gets harder.

Martin: OK that’s been a great description of how to position social engagement as a credible investment. Can you give us a quick summary of how that then mushroomed into the full omni-channel strategy you deployed at Nokia?

Chris: Social Media is a set of channel through which customers could contact Nokia. They could also pick up the phone, web chat, email or even walk into a Care Center in some countries. The tricky bit was working out Social Media’s integrated position. What I mean by this is: now that Social Media is a team player and pulling in the same direction as the other channels regarding metrics, it FITS IN. The question is, “where?”.

To work this out we calculated the cost per contact of every channel and plotted these values along the x-axis of a bar chart in order; cheapest to the right and most expensive to the left. We could then see, clearly, that any customer channel migration from left to right would help our cost KPIs. We now needed to work out how to migrate the customers to the right in a way that did not impact their experience.

To do this, we had to go back to the drawing board of why people contact support and what kind of interaction they would most like to have. After A LOT of research and debate, this is what we came up with:

Why customers contact support: to fix something that has gone wrong or find information about something

What is important in the support interaction: the most important thing is to get my device fixed, or my question answered as easily as possible

We had our second axis: Easiness.

To measure this, we shamelessly took a leaf out of BT’s book and implemented a single, identical question across each support channel: “Overall, how easily did you find getting the support that you needed, today?” and we collect the response on a scale from 1-7.

We then took the % of 6 & 7 ratings (positive) and took away the number of 1, 2 & 3 ratings (negative) to give us our “Net Easy Score” or NES.

Once plotted against cost per contact, we would want to create a gradient, from least easy (most expensive) to easiest (cheapest) where all channels are easy… it was just that some channels were easier than others.

As soon as we had our first two metrics in (online and voice), we saw that they were the wrong way round, meaning that people would migrate from online to telephone because it was easier to find the support they needed there! Whoops! We had to really look at making online support as easy as we could whilst looking at ways to make the telephony experience fractionally less easy, without upsetting customers.

There are lots of details that I am missing out here, in the interests of time, but to cut a long story short, the solution to “how to make a channel less easy whilst maintaining customer satisfaction” is this: don’t give the customer the answer – in all cases where it is possible, get the agents to show the customer how to find the answer for themselves online. This has three effects:

  1. It is a great experience for the customer
  2. It takes longer than just providing the answer, making it less easy
  3. It shows them that there is this other channel and that it is even easier than picking up the phone

It also has a downside that I am sure you spotted: it costs more per contact. This, however, is an investment that I was willing to make, as it was short term. Once customers know that they can get help in a way that is easier for them, the plan is that they never need to phone in again (and each time they do, it’s a failure that we measure).

So, Martin, that’s the channel shift strategy and Social Media needs to fit in its place. It actually has a number of places within the gradient of ease of use (as Facebook, for example, is more expensive per contact than the communities are), but it HAS TO deliver against the same primary metrics as the rest… cost and easiness.

Martin:Chris Thanks for sharing your story. You covered a lot of ground which I’m sure will be of great interest to anyone needing to balance customer experience against internal cost priorities while delivering an overall omni-channel strategy. I guess if anyone wants to get in contact they can make contact via your Linkedin profile.


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