Customer service has been one of the earliest and most tangible areas in which businesses have achieved social media success. This is partly because the contract between brand and customer is so clear: 'we are using this channel to answer your questions and fix your problems, not to make you love us by sharing photos of our office pets.' Best Buy, KLM, Eurail and T-Mobile USA are some pack leaders, and for a glimpse at how much effort is ploughed into this field, look at the Social Bakers' Socially Devoted website, which ranks industry leaders on their social care.
But social care takes a lot of resources, training, listening, flexibility, inter-organisational communication and employee autonomy to reap results. Many companies may actually be damaging their reputations by failing to deliver on their dedicated social presences. So has social CS become a must for any future-proof business? Or is it a marketing hybrid too far?
Looking at the rate of adoption, the former seems true. One Gartner poll shows that by the end of 2012, 80% of companies planned to use social media for customer service. In predicting trends for 2013 customer service, Forrester touts online proactivity, deployment via mobile, and personalised engagement as key discriminators for success. And Enterasys Networks' Vala Afshar is eloquent in his belief that 'customer service is the new marketing', explaining that brands need to start looking beyond Twitter and Facebook, to tools such as mobile video to produce service that truly chimes with how we live now.
Moreover, the longer brands stick at it, the more evidence they have that social CS really does affect their bottom line. Salesforce has compiled some impressive evidence: 94% of consumers on Twitter say they frequently share good service experiences with others; 43% have cancelled an online transaction because of poor care. On average, consumers who use social media will share a good experience with 41 others, and a bad with 53 others; for those who don't use social media, that reduces to 9 and 17 respectively.
However, there's a big gap between expectations and execution. AT Kearney conducted a study that i found 56% of the top 50 brands did not respond to a single customer comment on their Facebook page in 2011. Maritz Research found that brands ignored 71% of their customer complaints on Twitter.
So is disillusion setting in? At the end of last year, US cable company Charter Communications announced it was shutting down its busy social service stream. "We believe speaking directly with a customer is a more personal, effective and consistent way to answer questions, solve an issue or provide information, and we will focus our efforts on these means of communications," said director of communications, Anita Lamont.
This may well have been a nice-sounding cover-up for a cost-cutting exercise, but it also came as something of a breath of fresh air. Charter made it clear that it thinks it can produce better and more conversational service on another channel (offline), and its openness has managed the expectations of its socially-savvy consumers.
So where does that leave us? I would suggest that, although social media customer service may or may not be possible depending on your company's resources and skills, conversational customer service – whether over the phone, Twitter, email or in-store – is an indisputable must. Depending on the nature of your business, you've got three main options for staying ahead.
First, if you already have the capacity to do social CS brilliantly, you really will benefit, so put a clear, flexible process in place that empowers staff to respond quickly and effectively, and jump in.
Second, if you're OK for resources but you still feel you lack the skills or strategy to make social CS measurably work for you, now is the time to get some help. Review your operational strengths and challenges, establish specific skills training and after a short period of hand-holding, you should be on the right path.
Third, if you're just not ready to handle the speed and volume of social media interaction, don't feel pressured to create rubbish presences that will be a thorn in your side. Instead, plot how you can make your existing channels as authentic, disruptive and conversational as possible – whether that's training call-centre staff to be as amazing as the folk at Zappos or reviewing in-store body language à la Apple. When you're ready, social channels will be waiting; do what you currently do well and the word will still spread.