For social media savvy customers looking to engage companies directly, Facebook and Twitter serve alternate customer support channels. Instead of waiting on the phone for an agent, customers jump to the front of the queue by going online. But when companies fail to design for integration of social media channels into established customer support processes they introduce inefficiencies and increased costs. Enter the Shadow Customer Support organization.
Over 9,000 flights were cancelled two weeks ago, my 2/1 1:45pm to New York was one of them. Here’s the communication timeline with my airline to get rescheduled on a new flight:
- 10:23 am: I receive flight cancellation email.
- 10:26 am: I call Frequent Flyer customer support desk. I’m not allowed to speak with an agent. In fact, the automated system notifies me that heavy call volume dictates they have to hang up, which they promptly do.
- 10:31 am: I tweet my airline letting them know I have a problem.
- 10:36 am: Airline replies, requests I direct message (DM) my flight info.
- 10:42 am: I DM the airline my flight info.
- 10:45 am: Airline replies, confirming receipt of my tweet and flight info.
- 10:50 am: I receive email confirmation of a re-booked flight.
- 12:46 pm: I call Frequent Flyer customer support desk (just to see if they’re still congested). Still the same heavy traffic message and hang-up.
The consumer in me was thrilled with this unexpected expediency, but the Social Business Designer was concerned. I had a hunch that:
- the person on the other end of this company’s Twitter account works in a communications department, not customer support
- as such, the person on the other end of this company’s Twitter account has no formal training in customer support nor the company’s reservation system
- as such, to help me reschedule my flight, this untrained person had to reach across organizational lines and tie up multiple resources which increased costs
- no metrics were captured on my experience
Curious, I DM’d the folks at the company’s Twitter account to request an interview. They kindly accepted and took twenty minutes from their busy day to address and confirm my suspicions. The Communications department, in conjunction with their ad agency, runs their Twitter account. Staffed by one employee on a normal day, with ad hoc ramp-up to as many as six when circumstances (such as heavy cancellations) require, the company’s Twitter account exists to listen, engage and help customers when they can.
How is this going to scale?
This company has proudly converted customers into brand advocates that race to the company’s defense when curmudgeons hijack the company’s Facebook page. Their approach to social media is unbelievably progressive compared to companies even 24 months ago and they should be lauded for it. But as Social Business matures to business as usual, social media strategies and tactics must move beyond listening and unstructured engagement.
Pew Research reports that only eight percent of online Americans use Twitter, and yet this company increased (read: repurposed) staff six-fold to handle last week’s rush. If Twitter’s impressive 2010 growth continues and more people realize the customer support arbitrage opportunities that exist in social channels, something has to give. Ad hoc staffing and engagement models, like the one this company successfully employed to develop brand advocates, will break and the advocates will undoubtedly turn.
What Can Companies Do?
Becoming a Social Business requires (re)design. Companies wishing to use Twitter and Facebook for social servicing need to integrate new channels into their already existing customer support structure; examination through a people, process & technology framework should highlight focus areas.
While many social business initiatives, like social media monitoring of Twitter and Facebook channels, live in the Communications department, social servicing isn’t a good fit. Communication department employees need to be trained in a company’s customer support process as well as the tools used to support that process. Conversely, customer support employees need to be brought up to speed on the new ways their company engages customers.
Fortune 500 Companies spend large amounts of time and money optimizing customer support workflows. Any type of customer support that happens outside these workflows is inefficient and costly. Reduction of these costs requires a reworking of current processes to include new customer support channels, the workflows and decision rights they entail.
To enable customer support people and process, companies also invest heavily in technology. Technology helps with customer support triage, scalability and reporting. Issues originating from social channels need to flow through the same systems all others do. Good-bye social servicing arbitrage.
More people use social media everyday and the number of customer support issues originating through those channels will only increase. Unprepared organizations risk creating shadow customer support, increased costs and brand advocates turned brand detractors. If your company’s Communications and Operations departments don’t already talk, now would be a good time to pick up the phone.