Social customer care: Moving beyond transactional customer relationships with social media


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I was recently asked by the Institute of Customer Service to write an article in response to a report they commissioned – Return on investment in customer service: the bottom line report. In the post I examined how technology has affected customer behaviour, what social media can tell us about this behaviour and how organisations need to change how they view and do customer service as a result.


Return on investment in customer service: the bottom line report recognises that understanding ‘behaviour’ is important. The report points out that:

  • customer service is moving towards a fundamental shift away from a largely transaction–based cost centre; to a strategic driver that helps generate value for the organisation
  • calculating the ROI in customer service is complex
  • a profound change for the customer service world is taking place.

But here’s the rub: when push comes to shove, we retreat from this understanding. We find comfort and familiarity in easy, objective metrics like average handling time, first contact resolution, call deflection rates.

The preoccupation remains firmly on the channel, or the mechanics of the channels. The modern day contact centre has been built on the pursuit of tactical efficiencies and expediencies, but its future lies in a far more expansive, challenging and less familiar landscape.

Although technology has created many new channels that affect customer behaviour, the traditional channels don’t disappear

Social media provides an insight into customer behaviour

Behaviour is in our DNA. We cannot escape it. To recognise this as a ‘fundamental shift’ seems somehow incongruous. Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back because we recognise something so fundamental.

The customer service industry has been shaped by the thinking of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford. To suddenly cast off the security blanket of mass production, efficiency and E = ?h, will require more than a sharp intake of breath every time the word ‘social’ is mentioned.

And yet it is to social media that we must look as a source of insight into how people – organisations and customers – will use technology to communicate.

What social media tells us about customer expectations and behaviour

Whether you believe social media is the root cause of this ‘fundamental shift’ is a moot point. But what we cannot deny is the increasing pervasiveness of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs within our daily lives and conversations:

  • Twitter has 175 million registered users
  • there are 95 million tweets a day
  • LinkedIn has 100 million users
  • 24 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • Facebook has over 600 million users
  • 200 million Facebook users access the site with a mobile device
  • 30% of Facebook users are over 35
  • Facebook is the second biggest source of traffic to all UK websites (Google is first)

(Source: Internet Statistics Compendium)

While these numbers are truly mind-blowing, it is the user behaviour that is interesting. According to a recent survey:

  • 50% of people login to social networking sites regularly throughout the day
  • 43% of people check social networking sites before going to bed, 1 in 5 check when they wake up
  • 28% of people have uploaded a picture of a meal they were eating to a social site, this increases to 47% for 18–34 year olds
  • 27% of respondents expected a response within 3 days when complaining via a company web site, 1 in 5 expected a response within an hour on Twitter or on Facebook
  • 48% of 18 – 34 year olds check Facebook as soon as they wake up
  • 20% of adults in Great Britain own a smartphone

(Source IABUK, Social Media, 2010 — Word Doc)

We record the minutiae of our lives from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. And in the UK where 20% of adults own a smartphone, the desire and possibility to record and share the mundane moments in our lives habits and innermost thoughts is exacerbated and fuelled.

There are over 24 million active Facebook users in the UK. If they spend on average 27 minutes and 12 seconds per session one could surmise that at some point they will complain or voice an opinion about a service or product.

And if 1 in 5 expect a response within an hour on Facebook or Twitter, and 20% of GB adults own a smartphone, and only 26% of companies use social media for customer service, one could also surmise that the expectations of many customers are not being met (see IABUK research — Word doc).

Customers voice their opinions across a range of channels using different devices

What to do with customer data

We live in a world awash with data. Each one of us generates enough data to last a life time of insights. Using a freely available tool such as TweetStats I can see that I:

  • tweet 9.6 times a day, 230 times a month
  • tweeted the most times in March 2009, when I Tweeted 448 times
  • tweet the most on a Wednesday, and the least on a Saturday
  • have Tweeted 521 times between 09:00 – 10:00am
  • have sent 3,729 Tweets via TweetDeck
  • have used the #custserv hashtag 663 times
  • have used the word ‘social’ 1,085 times in my Tweets

But the power of this is not that I can understand more about me, but that I can understand more about you by simply entering your Twitter ID. And any company can therefore gather more data on their customers. We are all fast becoming ‘data voyeurs’.

But this raises two questions:

  • it’s easy to add a Twitter field to an existing CRM system, but in doing so, what will it change?
  • for all this data, how many insights and data capture points does a company need in order to fix a problem?

Using behaviourgraphics to understand more complex customer behaviour and relationships

Brian Solis writes about ‘behaviorgraphics‘ and identifies 17 specific personality types including: Problem Solvers, Conversationalists, Curators, Broadcasters, Socialites, Egocasters, Researchers and Complainers amongst others:

At the center is Benevolence — The unselfish and kindhearted behaviour that engenders and promotes recognition and reciprocity, and in doing so, earns the goodwill of those around them. This is the hub of social networking with a purpose, mission, and a genuine intent to grow communities based on trust, vision and collaboration. Brian Solis

If we transpose this notion of behaviorgraphics to a customer service arena, the emergence of social media has seen the rise of a far more complex, fragmented and asynchronous interaction. The resolution has become in many respects subservient to the experience.

Customer organisation relationships are complex and inconsistent

The traditional role of the company as the sole provider of customer service is too simplistic, and is gradually being replaced by a service ecosystem that is far more transparent, immediate and collaborative than ever before. In this paradigm, the call centre agent takes on new roles as Explorer, Voyeur, Passerby, Promoter, Listener, Prisoner, Participant, Partner and Creator amongst others. And at the centre of these new help communities and networks is empathy.

In this emergent service ecosystem, empathy becomes the social currency. But how do companies make this ‘fundamental shift’ from a three minute transaction-based resolution to one where empathy is wrapped around a process pipeline? How do you scale empathy? How do you measure empathy? What is the business case for it?

And how do you contend with the fact that empathy can only be truly unleashed by empowering your frontline agents? By trusting them enough to let go.

The future

Whether you believe in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, Flickr, LinkedIn, whether you understand FourSquare, Gowalla, GoScoville or Facebook Places is of little consequence. While you are trying to work out how many Tweets equates to a deflected call, the value of live chat concurrency to a Facebook ‘Like’, what part Google, TripAdvisor, Groubal or ComplaintCommunity have to play in your customer service proposition, or whether to say ‘I’m sorry, how can I help?’, the simple truth is your customers are not waiting for you.

What is of consequence is that your customers have embraced these disruptive social technologies that have democratised the tools of self-expression and their behaviours and expectations are changing. I can communicate with you, to you, at you, about you, without you at any time and from anywhere. The monopoly on ownership and control that companies have fiercely protected for so long is disappearing.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Guy Stephens
Guy is a social customer care trainer/consultant who has been in the social customer care space since 2008. He is also the Co-founder of Snak Academy, which provides online social customer care microlearning for individuals and SMEs.



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