Social Media for Customer Service: Gold or Fool’s Gold?

JD-FairweatherBy: J.D. Fairweather
There’s gold in them thar hills, or so you would be led to believe by the social media pushers who drive companies to open up their service and support departments to the social stream. While the popularity of this format cannot be denied, I would like to take a minute’s pause from the hype to review what I see are the cons of this medium. As you might not have the time to conduct thorough research, I managed to quickly list three watch-outs for your consideration:

More channels, more problems. Contact channels provide access convenience for customers and service redundancy and volume management for customer service groups. But adding a new channel comes at a cost of both human and intellectual capital. With every new contact channel added, your resource requirements begin to multiply exponentially – new software requires new engineers, new engineers require new hardware, etc. And once you add social media to the mix, its built-in requirements include 24/7 access and lower response times.

For some channels the added resources are worth it. Chat channels are cheaper in comparison to voice, and ticketing/email channels live up to low-response-time expectations. But for social media, there are no such benefits. Social app providers and tech media may talk about enhanced customer experience and about how their channel represents the future of all interaction, but nothing is proven. Actually, recent data shows the opposite: only a small number of people use social media, and an even fewer number of those who use social media use it to reach a customer service group. And even fewer still are those who care about its availability as the chart below from a study done by American Express on “consumers’ preferred service channel” illustrates.

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A bad day for one, is a bad day everyone. Customer service at times can appear to be a collusion between company leadership and contact center management in containing bad experiences. What might seem secretive and opaque are actually attempts to keep customers whole and happy.

I support the idea that customer service should be transparent; in fact, it should actually become more translucent, permitting visibility to things that resolve issues while containing the individual correspondences used in resolving said issue. Why? Invite a grouchy person to a party and he is bound to spread the mood to other guests. Same goes for a customer that is frustrated over a bad service experience: get her talking with neighbors about her cable provider’s latest antics and see if they don’t match her experience and raise you three. Negativity spreads. Now imagine that same conversation with the neighbors and the cable provider’s customer service representative present (I hope they wore protective gear).

So when that outage, billing error, or incorrectly applied credit happens, by isolating individual cases you can quietly defuse the situation and avoid the risk of incorrectly grouping together non-related issues. As a result, issues are resolved more quickly and the customer is left with a positive experience.

Whose data is it? While data-mining might be a widely touted outcome of social media, it remains one of its most dangerous “benefits.” How dangerous? Congressional hearings dangerous. Sensitive information transferred over a third-party tool isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided that the third party has explicitly made it clear they will use any data transferred over their network to deliver targeted advertisements to the consumer. But not every social media application has honorable intentions for your customer’s data. Many of the popular sites are guilty of unintentionally “leaking” sensitive customer information to third-party vendors and are currently being investigated for its history of privacy breaches. If you think I’m over-exaggerating, please forward all of your customer notes and their associated ID’s to and I will be more than happy to hold them for you in safe-keeping.

So, you might have entrusted customer notes to Facebook, Twitter, or whichever social media platform you prefer, but they may not necessarily have your best interest in heart, and even when they do, things can still go horribly wrong. And when something does go wrong and you’ve cleaned up the mess, improved processes, and made staff adjustments, you will still be unable to just hit the delete button and start over. The negative interaction is now a permanent record stamped on search sites, social “timelines,” and those impossible-to-navigate profile settings.

Sure, you can disclose to your customers that all conversations held over social channels can be used to bombard them with advertisements and spam, but why even put your company at risk when there are so many other proven, viable contact channels available. Could it be because you’re drawn to a nifty info-graph or cool tech blog? Don’t succumb to the hype! Those same blogs will be more than happy to provide the chronology of your organization’s customer service melt-down.

Now, it’s not all gloom and doom. There are effective ways to take advantage of social media within your organization, such as via brand and product awareness, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming article.

Until then, “treat them right and they’ll be loyal.”

6 thoughts on “Social Media for Customer Service: Gold or Fool’s Gold?

  1. Ron says:

    I really like the idea of using social media at the call center level, and think that it can be more effectively leveraged there than by the sales and marketing side of the business. The trick is to pull social streams and data about each individual caller in real time as they contact the service organization, so that the CSR has a complete view of the caller’s social influence and history while on the call. Seeing the caller’s recent tweets and facebook posts, and knowing their social reach and influence while they are interacting with the customer would lead to more meaningful interaction and targeted follow up.

  2. Dr. Kulkarni – thanks for imparting some wisdom. Up-sell/Cross-sell is a term widely used in the industry but seldom executed; in their defense generating revenue through a service/support channel requires some finesse otherwise it can come-off bullish and overbearing to customers. Social media does provide the opportunity to post links, images, and videos that when used correctly enhances a rather flat customer experience. As you’ve stated a “balanced view mechanism” should be thoroughly discussed before implementation.

  3. JD, thanks for the response. I’ll be sure to check out the blog post you reference and look forward to reading your follow-up to your Gold or Fool’s Gold piece.

  4. John – thanks for reading and commenting on this post. I see you’ve somehow read the follow-up to this article before I’ve had a chance to write it. In the follow-up I will touch on some the very things you brought up like conducting “a proper risk assessment” and developing a “well thought out social media strategy”. I will also provide what I believe are misconceptions of a customer’s preferred channel. I hope you check back and provide feedback once that article is posted – something tells me it will be debated.

    Let me share with you something I recently read that could have been another bullet point to this article. I came across a blog post where someone wrote on the experience they had with their local cable provider. In the article the writer mentions on a new “hack” he discovered that by contacting the provider via Twitter he is able to get a faster response compared to a phone call. I’m puzzled by this because If I pick up a phone and dial 10 digits I should reach someone much faster than if I condense my issue into a 140 characters tweet and wait for a response that only directs me to another channel (maybe I’m over-exaggerating that last part). The issue some organizations face when implementing social media is they haven’t perfected their existing contact channels, nor determined what their customers consider “good” service. Instead they’ve trampled over the expectations they’ve set for their previous channels and their customers no longer trust those access points. Now by implementing a new channel they have only created yet another avenue their customers will grow to be frustrated with – lather, rinse, repeat.

    You can find the blog post I’m referencing here –

  5. I think an important element to consider is the preferred channel for a consumer of a brand. Strategy around what channels should be deployed should be well thought out and not just deployed as if it was the flavor of the month. But make no mistake, a brand needs to fish where the fish are and if they have a consumer base that is tech savvy and interacts within the social media space then it makes sense for the brand to have a presence there as well, and to support the needs of their consumers, be it content or service. There is also nothing wrong with a brand promoting interaction and questions via a social network providing that brand has considered and put in place the infrastructure to provide the support the consumer requires. Is there a risk, of course. But a brand that conducts a proper risk assessment and develops a well thought our social media strategy that supports their overall brand efforts has the potential to provide a stronger customer experience while strengthening the relationship they have with their consumers.

  6. Dr. Avinash Kulkarni, Ph.D. says:

    Nice view point. Another dimension to it, if organisation see this an opprtunity to cross sell / upsell and have a closer connection with younger generation who are more likely to reach out through Social channel. Caution to get organisation work out balanced view mechanism built and treat this as a channel like any other they are supporting as on date.


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