Social customer service: In-house or outsourced?

By 2015 there was a 30% year-on-year growth in the volume of social media messages related to customer care. Social was said to account for around 11.5% of all interactions in contact centers. The dynamics of the customer interaction have shifted via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, yet as we previously reported, businesses are struggling to find the resources for the transition: just 3% of company investment in customer support is earmarked for social media, despite platforms accounting for approximately 17% of the communication channels used by consumers.

With so much at stake, is outsourcing social media an option? In 2014 it appeared that way. Research released by Arvato found that multichannel customer service was a common thread in 62% of outsourced service contracts in 2014, compared with 40% in 2013.

Then the RAF went to press to announce it would be outsourcing its Facebook and Twitter feeds to better cope with the “24x7 nature of social media”, and it seemed the stigma associated with other aspects of the call centre might not be relevant for social. However, in the subsequent period, taking this route has come with several caveats:

“The increasing reliance on digital comms and social customer service helps bypass any customer prejudices that may be stirred by a foreign accent at the end of the phone,” says Peter Burman, president, corporate solutions at EF Education First. “From that perspective it facilitates a much purer transaction that is judged by the strength of the support and the ability to resolve the problem.

“The challenge it presents brands and heads of customer service with is that it makes the interactions much more visible and accountable. There is less ‘margin for error’ in communication: errors of presentation or nuance are becoming a bigger problem than simple errors of grammar or understanding. The penalty is, at best, damage to reputation. At worst there may be legal consequences.”

As with all outsourcing, the outsourcer will need to be seamlessly connected into the sales, marketing and service organization...the worst thing you can do is give one answer on one channel and a different one on another.

Brands have fallen foul of social media’s perils with unique regularity in recent years, and on occasion outsourcing has been at the heart of a brand’s failings. Perhaps the highest profile example of this was Eurostar, which, in the wake of a crisis involving some broken-down trains, was exposed as having outsourced its Twitter feeds to marketing agencies without the capabilities required to deal with a flurry of complaints.

Dr. Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures for BT’s global innovation division believes that the public nature of social media is the very reason brands need to tread carefully when considering outsourcing their requirements. Instead, she recommends getting to grips with the scale of the challenge, in-house: “Firstly, a business needs to decide whether 24/7 service is actually demanded by your customers. This is likely to be the case for global businesses because it’s always five o’clock somewhere. If there is demand, it would make sense to equip those already offering 24/7 customer service over phone or email with the capacity to deal with social media.

“Then an assessment of the skill level needs to be made. As with all outsourcing, the outsourcer will need to be seamlessly connected into the sales, marketing and service organization. As it isn’t uncommon for customers to phone, email and tweet about the same issue to get the quickest possible service, the worst thing you can do is give one answer on one channel and a different one on another. This will at best cause confusion and at worst generate negative social comment as the left hand and right hand seem to be disconnected. Customers don't see channels, they only see brands.”

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