A better way to evaluate customer service on social channels

Spoken | August 9, 2016

Screen shot 2011-11-23 at 10.04.09 AMIs social media stealing customer care away from more valid callers in the call center? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

With the rise of social media has come a rise in customer expression through social media channels. Who could forget Dave Carroll‘s 2009 YouTube hit, United Breaks Guitars, now with over 11 million views. The ComcastCares Twitter team constantly monitors the microblogging site for any mention of Comcast, positive or negative, and offers customer care with “Can I help?” Foursquare and Yelp recommendations draw and repel customers at point of use.

Are social media channels drawing customer care away from the call center? And if so, what are organizations to do about it?

Michael Shrage recently made the argument in the Harvard Business Review that complaints made via social media are unduly pulling focus from the quieter customers who obediently call in to the call center as instructed. His argument stems around the perception that those who complain about a company publicly in social channels get better treatment than those who call in to call centers, even though their complaint might not be as pressing or as valid:

Consider the most obvious, and pernicious, perverse incentive: publicly tweeted complaints get faster/better reaction than calls or emails to the corporate customer contact centers. Social media circumstances invite organizations to prioritize indiscreet tweets over less transparent call center interactions. The squeaky tweeter gets the grace.

How smart are customer-centric firms that effectively train complainers to disregard or disintermediate their contact centers?

Disparity of training by channel

As a representative of both the call center space and the social media space, I had a mixed reaction to Shrage’s analysis of the situation. It seems that there is an assumption that the agents who respond via social media are somehow faster and better trained than those who respond via the call center. If that is indeed the case, my question would be: why don’t smart, customer-centric firms train their call center agents the same way they train their social media agents? There is no reason that a Tweet should get a different resolution than a call. If both channels feature efficient, expert staff, there should be no difference. So whose fault is that if it does?

I speak from personal experience: a few years ago, I had an issue with Comcast. After numerous, time-consuming calls (at least 20 minutes each) to the call center, I Tweeted my frustration. Within 10 minutes, ComcastBonnie responded and took my account information. Within an hour, she had fixed the problem and DMed me the solution. If the call center had been able to resolve my issue on the first, second or third call, there would not have been any reason to Tweet.

That would be the difference. Staff who monitor Twitter and blogs have typically been trained within the marketing and PR departments because there is the perception that these agents represent the public face of the company. Their words and actions are on public record, so attention is paid to their responses. And while this should be true for call center agents as well, it isn’t. Agents are trained by customer service or worse, by sales. No one but the immediate supervisor ever hears the recording of the calls the call center agent handles. Even the customer can’t obtain the call records and often is denied permission if she requests to record the call herself. By nature, the channel is veiled in secrecy–and often for that reason, can be frustrating for customers who are promised one thing over the phone only to be told there is no record of that the next time they call.

The message to organizations might be: don’t want your customers Tweeting negatively about your product and service? Fix your product and fix your call center.

The channel matters

That being said, people DO use public social channels for complaints, and they don’t always wait until after they’ve contacted the call center three times. One reason is because there is a well-founded belief that complaining in private (e.g. through calling an IVR and speaking with an agent) is often ineffective, time-consuming and frustrating, for some of the reasons mentioned above. And the truth is that if customers had a history of timely, effective problem resolution from contacting a call center, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If the call center worked more effectively, then people wouldn’t dread it more than needles and mothers-in-law. But it doesn’t, and they do.

Which leads me to reason number two for the use of social channels for complaints. I’m fond of saying that individuals gravitate toward their own preferred communication channels. My mom uses the phone for everything. I never use the phone; I use texting, Twitter and Facebook for 90% of my communications. That is why companies have added web chat to their service offerings–because we have figured out that some folks prefer that communication channel and will do anything to avoid making a phone call.

My point is that even if call center functions become 100% effective and as enjoyable as a champagne pedicure with a basket of puppies and kittens, many customers will still opt for Twitter first because it is their preferred communication channel. Should we give the channel lower priority because we already invested too much in call center infrastructure? Or because it requires new and different skills?

Fish where the fish are. If your customers are on Twitter, then your organization should be monitoring and responding via Twitter.

Which channel merits priority?

To answer the question of which channel should be given the highest priority, that can easily be answered with metrics: the channel that provides the biggest returns aligned with the organization’s stated goals. If it is determined that loyalists and the target market is on Twitter and that the publicity and brand awareness that a good Twitter problem/resolution instance proves to increase Metrics A and B for type C customers, then Twitter should be given priority. If it’s proven that the most loyal customers still use the call center, thereby increasing Metrics C and D, then call center callers should be given priority.

In short:

  • Know your fans and detractors and know their preferred channels
  • Train your call center agents in PR as carefully as you train your social media agents
  • Listen to your front line call center agents–they will tell you what is wrong with the call center experience

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