Social Customer Service is Withering. Long Live the Social Customer Channel

Mar 24, 2016

Social media as a customer care channel had its coming out party in 2011-2012 when numerous contact center vendors announced an initial wave of solutions.  There was much talk then about social media becoming the next critical customer care channel.  Customers were flocking to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and to social sites like TripAdvisor, to comment and to complain about companies. Some of these posts, like the now infamous “United Breaks Guitars”, went viral.

Fearing negative impacts on brand reputations (and ultimately on customer loyalty and sales), many companies went out of their way to handle social complaints. As a result customers sometimes saw faster and more satisfactory responses to their issues, as compared to when they contacted the contact centers and/or raised them with in-person staff.  Naturally organizations began dedicating small numbers of contact center agents to handle social inquiries.  

But there are signs that perhaps the social customer service “wave” is receding.  Few vendors now talk at much length about their solutions’ social capabilities.

A recent NICE-sponsored study bears this out. It found that social customer service use doubled from 2011 to 2013, but dropped between 2013 and 2015. Meanwhile customers who never used (or who were not offered) social media customer service rose from 58% in 2013 to 65% in 2015. Customers cited social customer service taking too long to address issues, limited functionality, and the channel being ill-equipped to handle complex inquiries.

There is a hard truth in these numbers. Companies have grown thicker skins with social media. As much as customers threaten they will complain to others, and churn if they don’t get satisfaction, the reality is that product and service price, convenience, need, and availability too often trumps customer service.

Most importantly, social media has never been suited as a service channel—no more than radio or TV hotline programs—due to social being media.  One should never reveal the same critical personal identifiable and linkable information that is often necessary to resolve issues on the social channel that they can more securely provide on the other channels.

By the same token, contact center agents must act in not only customer service roles, but also as media/PR spokespeople, responsible for their brands’ reputations: tasks which they were not hired and trained for.  As a former journalist and spokesperson who also has worked in customer service and as a telemarketer I can attest that it is one thing when you are speaking to a customer, but it is quite another when you are speaking to the world.

But does this mean that social is irrelevant? On the contrary it has never been more important to pay attention to listen and engage with customers on the social channel. Social media has become mainstream and in fact social customer use may in fact be increasing. A recent Frost & Sullivan report, Refining Social Media Marketing Strategies, points out that the demographic range for social media now encompasses all age ranges.  Social media usage is evolving as exhibited by popularity of chat apps on social sites, more niche sites, and the private sharing of social content ie “dark social”, whose volume is far greater than social sharing on popular sites. Frost & Sullivan also reports that companies expect their customer social interactions will have grown between 2014 and 2016.

The seeming conflict between these social customer trends may be explained by looking at two developments. First, companies are figuring out how best to handle social customer inquiries whether online or offline by agents, or a combination of the two, and having the triage performed by marcomm departments.

Second, companies are now tapping the value of social media as a business channel. They are using targeted social ads, branded social communities, paid social content, promoted commentary, and hyperlocal social campaigns, and they are integrating social with the other marketing channels. Companies also are realizing that social selling works.

As a result social customer engagements may be evolving from service issues handled on the channel towards marketing and sales initiated over it. After all, companies will rightly want to see an ROI from social by converting customer use, interest, and satisfaction into revenues.

Brendan Read


Brendan Read is Senior Industry Analyst with over 25 years’ experience covering business, communications, staffing, and technology. He has worked in, prepared reports, and blogged on a wide range of topics including customer contact, CX, CRM, IoT, social media, supply chain, and BC/DR. He also has backgrounds in construction, manufacturing, materials, resource extraction, site selection, and transportation. He examines the broad economic, environmental, innovation, political, and social mega trends, and their impacts on businesses, markets, and society.

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