Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

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Make social media work: the move from marketing to customer service

Published 21 March 2013 15:52, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32

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Make social media work: the move from marketing to customer service

More companies are shifting their social media activities away from marketing to their customer service operations, where it can be used to respond to anything from simple queries to natural disasters. Photo: Glenn Hunt

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the east coast of the US last October, stranded Starwood Hotels customers took to social media in droves.

What happened next could be a game changer for how companies deal with social media.

Rather than have the marketing department deal with the headache, Starwood used customer service agents to deal with social media inquiries.

The hotel company, which owns brands such as Westin and Sheraton, deployed Kana software to bring social media streams into the call centre where agents dealt with it, alongside telephone, web chat and email.

Kana chief marketing officer James Norwood says the strategy was so successful Starwood stuck with it.

“Starwood got into it in a big way during Hurricane Sandy when all the telcoms’ infrastructure was down on the east coast of the US and all their customers took to their smart devices and started tweeting and Facebooking to them,” Norwood says. “They started redeploying agents over to social . . . and it made them realise that social was a really useful tool to interact with customers more than they had before.”

Norwood says Starwood discovered many customers used a smartphone as their primary device and preferred to use social media to avoid going to a mobile web browser or making a call.

He believes the Starwood experience is part of a larger social media shift – moving from the province of marketing to the realm of customer service.

“Social happened really quickly and you had all the hype,” Norwood says. “It began mainly with the marketing focus and product managers trying to understand the customer. Marketing and customer service don’t talk very well together – it’s one of the issues that most businesses face – so it’s only lately that people have said we need the service angle here.”

The chief executive at customer experience consultancy Fifth Quadrant, Catriona Wallace, backs this up. Her company does not sell specific software products but offers strategic advice on how companies should deal with customers, and counts organisations such as the NRMA among its clients.

Wallace says businesses usually move through several phases of engaging with social media. The first three steps are listening and monitoring, pushing advertising and branding, and community engagement – functions that usually sit with marketing.

The fourth step is using social media for customer service, the fifth is deploying it as a sales channel – which is only possible after building up trust from the previous steps. The sixth is simply using it as a communication channel for any of the above.

Wallace says her company’s research shows a definite trend for social media to be handled by the customer service channel – and believes this is the way it should be.

“The Australian business community is moving from the community engagement and marketing [phase] into customer service and ultimately sales,” she says. “We ask which organisational department is responsible for the management of social media and still see that in 59 per cent of organisations it’s the marketing department, 3 per cent IT and 38 per cent are saying it’s the contact centre.

“So for about six in 10, it’s the marketing department and about four in 10 it’s now the contact centre.

“That’s changed dramatically – if you look at a year ago, it was only about 20 per cent in the call centre and the balance in the marketing department.”

Wallace says marketing should design social media content and campaigns, but the contact centre staff should manage the channel and be the responders to any inbound inquiry.

There are two reasons for this – the first is that marketing departments don’t have the resources, customer service skills and authority to be able to respond appropriately. The second is that contact centres have a more rigorous approach to measurement.

“The contact centre is equipped to [respond] and is the best division within the organisation to do that,” Wallace says.

Marketing staff, especially digital marketing, she says, are being moved next to the contact centre so the two groups can work together as a team, which is ideal.

Gen Y wants answers now

Avaya is another company that, like Kana, sells software to give call centre staff access to social media streams.

The managing director of Avaya in Australia and New Zealand, Tim Gentry, says the shift is being driven by customers, in part because of the rise of smartphones and demographics.

“Generation Y, as consumers, are becoming more prevalent and 29 per cent of them prefer to use social media to communicate with businesses,” Gentry says. “Consumers are now driving the enterprise to have new discussion points and new points of entry – they’re looking for that instant response.

“They’re looking, quite frankly, not to be put on hold; they’ve seen that social media is a quicker and easier tool to get a response, and they’re looking for that customisation. If a business is not willing to leverage where the customers want to be, that company will become irrelevant or lose large amounts of business.”

Customisation can be taken too far – call centre staff have been known to use software, such as Klout Score, or the number of Twitter followers a person has, to decide which customers should get priority service. However, Wallace argues this is not good business practice.

“There are some organisations routing social media inquiries and prioritising them according to Klout Scores, but we think there’s some danger in that,” she says. “The nature of social media means it’s very transparent to other customers when someone is being treated differently.”

Internet service provider iiNet uses Virtual Hold software for Fetch TV – an IPTV subscription service that iiNet resells to its customers. In this case, Virtual Hold bridges the gap between web self-help and the call centre, but the software can also do the same for social media communication.

This approach is better than having call centre staff deal with large volumes of social media inquiries that can be more easily handled elsewhere, argues Gary Howes, Virtual Hold’s vice-president of sales Asia Pacific.

“The call centre should be marginalised as a last resort because all the costings of self-service are so much better,” he says.

He puts social media in the same category as web self-service because corporate responses on a medium such as Twitter are often automated for frequently asked questions.

“Sometimes you need to speak to someone and at the moment all the context from social media stays in social media and is not presented [to the call centre],” Howes says. “It’s horrible to have to start afresh.”

Wallace agrees it can be an expensive solution to fully integrate social media into the call centre.

“Some organisations put in social media and web chat because they think they’re going to migrate people off the voice call and it’s going to cost less,” she says.

“What we typically see is that that doesn’t happen and social media adds about 10 per cent to the contacts handled by a call centre. It’ll be some years before we see true, effective migration.”

Wallace says only 50 per cent of social media inquiries are currently resolved within social media and it will be 12 to 18 months before organisations become more effective.

However, if customers want to use social media for customer service inquiries then businesses should let them. Wallace believes it is a matter of etiquette that if customers make an approach using one channel, the company should nearly always respond using the same channel – adding that call centre staff would have the expertise to know when it’s appropriate to switch channels, such as with a complex billing inquiry.

“The channel preference of the customer has to be a key driver,” Wallace says. “With social media, there should be resolution within an hour. Where we’re seeing organisations come unstuck is that it’s taking days for them to respond on social media.”

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