A recent experience highlighted the evolution of social media customer service.
I was traveling from San Diego to Milwaukee, connecting through Dallas. My American Airlines flight from San Diego to Dallas was cancelled due to weather.
A long line of customers trying to get re-booked formed in front of the gate agent. Another group of customers pulled out their phones and dialed reservations, hoping to get a live agent without waiting on hold for too long.
I went to Twitter and sent a direct message to @AmericanAir. Fifteen minutes later, I was booked on a later flight to Chicago, which was a good alternative airport for my destination. My trip was back on track with minimal effort.
Meanwhile, a long line of passengers were still waiting to get help.
To learn more about how companies like American Airlines are leveraging social media, I turned to Al Hopper, the COO and co-founder of SocialPath Solutions. His company provides social media engagement and customer care solutions for its client companies.
Hopper was recently named one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter and is a co-host of Twitter's weekly #custserv chat (Tuesdays, 6pm Pacific). In 2016, Hopper was named one of Conversocial's Top 30 Most Influential People in Social Customer Service.
Q: Outsourced social customer care might be a new concept for some of my readers. Can you tell me a little about SocialPath Solutions and what it does?
"When we were formed in 2014, most companies were using social media agencies to do a lot of marketing push, but not a lot of engaging. SocialPath was created to put the social back into social media.
"A lot of marketing companies don't want to do that. They want to create a campaign, plug it into an automated schedule, and hope it goes viral.
"But there's a real limitation to that approach. One retailer had set up a marketing campaign to tweet special deals on Black Friday. Each tweet contained a link back to the retailer's website, but the website crashed in the middle of the campaign. Customers started tweeting the company to let them know and ask for help, but there was nobody monitoring the Twitter feed so these customers couldn't get a response. Meanwhile, the next automated marketing tweet was sent out, making the company seem like it was deliberately ignoring its customers.
"SocialPath Solutions helps with that engagement piece. Even if you're already working with a marketing agency they're probably not engaging with your customers. Or if they do, it's really limited. We can provide scalable access to 24/7 social customer support."
Q: Social media customer care is a struggle for many companies. What are some of the major roadblocks that you see?
"Scale is a big one. It takes most companies a minimum of $500,000 to staff a social media team 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Think about a small team with perhaps two agents per shift and a supervisor. What happens if someone calls in sick or wants to take a vacation day? How do you build in time for training or staff development? And how do you ensure there's coverage every day, all day?
"That might be possible for a large or mid-sized company, but a small business has no hope of being fully present on social media because they're already strapped for time.
"Even if you get the staffing part down, you need to invest in a platform that's robust enough to allow you to engage in active social listening and can generate the appropriate analytics.
"Analytics are key. A lot of business leaders look at customer care as a cost, including social, so you need to be able to get executives to understand that social customer service is really marketing.
"Outsourcers like SocialPath allow companies to minimize their upfront investment by taking advantage of our ability to help you scale. We have a talented team of social media experts and have already invested in robust platforms to manage social customer care effectively."
Q: You mentioned that social customer service is really marketing. Can you give me an example that's different than traditional advertising?
"Let's say your company is a regional retailer with a network of stores. A loyal customer who has moved out of your region connects with your brand on social media and says, 'I miss you!' Having a social media presence allows you to respond and say, 'We miss you too! Did you know you can shop with us online?' You can share a link and track it to connect that interaction to sales.
"A lot of fast food restaurants have had big wins like that. The most recent example is Wendy's with their 'never frozen' campaign. Organic engagement just happened, the news caught wind of it, and then suddenly it went viral. (Side note: Adweek put together this great recap.)"
Q: How should a customer service leader get started if they want to engage customers on social media?
"The first thing you've got to have is a plan. What are the potential types of contacts that are going to come up? You can use previous contacts from other channels (phone, email, etc.) as a guidepost to help with your planning.
"Next, you need to think about how you are going to respond. (Side note: develop your brand voice using this excellent guide from Stephanie Schwab at Crackerjack Marketing.)
"You should also consider what sorts of messages you aren't going to respond to. Someone might complain that your website isn't loading properly, but in reality they just need to clear their cache, restart their browser, and everything will be working fine. But if 100 people complain about your website, you'd better have a way to respond internally and externally."
Q: What else do you want business leaders to know about social media customer service?
"People are going to be talking about you whether your brand is present on social media or not. So you're never controlling the conversation, you can only contribute to it.
"Executives sometimes worry about a service failure going viral on social media, but if you think about it, all customer service channels now have that potential.
"In the last few years, people have posted recordings of bad phone calls, shared videos of in-person experiences, or posted emails or chat sessions. Those used to be exclusively one-on-one interactions, but now they're easy to share.
"Another concern we hear a lot as an outsourcer is business leaders are leery about entrusting their social media to another company. But it's really okay to outsource social media if it's done right. You just want to make sure you find a provider that takes the time to become a true partner with your business.
"This is the same consideration for outsourcing any aspect of your customer service, whether its having another company answer your phone calls or hiring a delivery company to deliver orders to your customers. Anyone that connects with your customers should be invested in providing a great experience, no matter what channel it is."