Social media has been part of our online lives for a couple of decades now. That’s a long time when it comes to the internet, but relatively new as a form of human communication.
Providing customer service over social media is much newer, tied closely to the growth of ecommerce and online business. There are no time-tested playbooks to fall back on because the environment changes so quickly.
For customer-centric businesses, thoughtfully considering where and how to offer service on social media channels is an important step in defining and delivering a consistent, high-quality customer experience.
This article will help you decide on a process for managing social media customer service that best fits your particular business goals, your budget, your team’s resources, and your customers’ experiences.
Do you need to offer support on social channels?
The first question to answer is whether or not social media support is necessary for your business.
“You should offer support wherever your customers are!” is a pretty useful rule of thumb as far as it goes, but deciding when and where customer service should be offered deserves a deeper level of consideration.
The channel your customers might sometimes prefer is one important factor, but it must be balanced against all the other elements that go into creating the best holistic customer experience.
Most teams are making decisions on where to offer support amidst a complex and changing mix of resources, constraints, skills, and demands, and social media presents a particularly challenging context for quality service:
High expectations for speedy replies. Everyone can see how long a request has been waiting, and a delay that might be fine over email can feel eternal on social channels. Sprout Social shares some social response time insights here.
Higher staffing levels. Compared to asynchronous channels like email or messaging, social media customer service requires increased staff levels (if you have significant volumes).
Limited communication and context. Social tools often restrict how many characters can be posted and what tools you have for managing and replying. That can turn even a relatively simple request into a cryptic crossword puzzle with no published answers.
Unhelpful handles. One of the most frequent challenges is figuring out who the person is and securely confirming which customer they relate to in your internal systems. People love their wacky Twitter names, but they don’t tend to use them when they email support.
So before you add “built-in social media support” to your list of help desk must-haves, ask yourself a few questions:
Is there an existing demand for help on social channels? Are you actively getting requests for support on your company social profiles, or are customers asking you to add social support?
How does social support volume compare to other channels? Is it a significant proportion or a relative handful?
Where are your customers most active? Some products and services are more heavily tied to social activities, meaning support requests on social channels are more likely.
Are your competitors doing social support in volume? The answer could give you some insights on expectations that your new customers may have — or confirm that they aren’t heavily demanding social media service.
Which social channels is your company active on? You’re more likely to get requests in places that other parts of your company are actively investing in. If your marketing team creates a company account on a given channel, they may also be inadvertently creating additional customer service work. Make sure they have a plan for managing incoming requests.
What resources does your support team have for adding channels? Social media support is inherently public, comes with higher expectations for speed, and can limit your tools for managing ongoing conversations. Can your team maintain high-quality service with new demands added to their existing workload?
Are you prepared to support social channels long term? Adding a new support channel is considerably easier than removing one once your customers are used to it (though you can turn off a support channel if you need to). If a social channel really takes off, can you sustain it without dropping quality elsewhere?
Answering these questions will help you understand the reality of your current position and shape how you manage your social media customer service. That approach might be as simple as, “We’ll reply directly on Twitter or Facebook if we need to, but otherwise we’ll encourage everyone to go through our contact form.”
Let’s take a peek at how the Help Scout team handles social media channels, plus five different options for social media support that you might consider using.
How Help Scout supports customers on social media
Help Scout currently serves over 12,000 customer-facing teams from all over the globe. Our incoming customer service requests are primarily through email and live chat (using Beacon), but we do also receive requests on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s how it works today:
The social channels are owned by our marketing team, who are the biggest users of social media for promotion, customer communications, and engagement.
In most cases, incoming customer service questions can be answered by the marketing team member looking after those channels at the time, using Sprout Social. That’s reflective of our commitment to Whole Company Support, where everyone is expected to spend some time helping customers directly.
Marketing folks use their own experience combined with searching our internal documentation (in our Docs site and Slab) and our own Help Scout account (e.g., saved replies) to find answers, look up customers, and learn the right approach.
If the question is complex or sensitive in some way, we use a special Slack channel to ask for help from our customer service team members. Typically they will pass the information back to the marketing colleague who will answer the customer.
In some cases, a conversation needs to be gracefully transitioned to another channel, which is usually done by creating a new “phone record” in Help Scout attached to that customer. Relevant context can be added in a well-written internal note. From there, our customers team can take over as usual.
There are times when our customer service team needs to take more of a role — during unplanned outages, for example. In those cases, they retain access to login to Twitter and Facebook directly for monitoring, status updating, and replying as needed.
In the past Help Scout has used specific social media support tools, but it was not worth the additional cost or effort (and those tools were insufficient for our marketing usage).
That’s what works for Help Scout, at least for now, but is it right for you? Let’s consider some other options.
5 models for quality social media customer service
Presented below are five approaches to managing social media customer service, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Take whatever works for you from any of these models, and remember that you aren’t locked in to any particular approach forever (unless you sign a terrible enterprise contract!).
Whichever approach you take, the ultimate test is the experience of your real customers — not the theoretical best possible outcome, but the actual daily experience of real individuals reaching out for help. That’s your measure.
1. Redirect queries away from social channels
If current volumes are very low and you are not obligated to offer social support, then your best option might be to just direct people to your official support channels.
Work with the social channel owner in your company to include a short note and link in your company bio about the best place to get help, and then make sure your contact page is well-designed and helpful.
It’s totally free.
You are directing people to where they will get the best help.
You don’t split your support team’s time and attention.
If your customers do expect or demand social media help, being sent elsewhere can be annoying.
2. Use social media tools directly
If you get reasonably simple or broad questions and not in enormous numbers, just logging in to Twitter or Facebook and responding directly might be all you need to do.
Have a support person check a couple of times a day, or use the Help Scout team’s model and have your marketing folks keep an eye out, pulling in your team as needed.
There is no additional cost or software to learn.
This allows you to listen in for conversations about your company and product without being obligated to respond.
Every feature of the social channel is available to you.
As volume grows, keeping track of the work is harder.
There’s limited ability to report on social media support.
3. Use a social tool independently of your help desk
As described above, at Help Scout we use Sprout Social primarily for marketing purposes, but also to respond to customer (and prospective customer) requests. We don’t directly integrate it with our Help Scout account because there would be little benefit in our context.
This lets you pick from all the social tools, regardless of how they integrate.
It doesn’t lock you into any particular style of usage or pricing model.
It typically includes solid social reporting tools.
If you’re having to manually copy a lot of information between this tool and your help desk, it could get tedious.
4. Use a social tool that integrates with your help desk
For teams that need to regularly handle a significant number of incoming customer service requests from social channels, using a tool that integrates with your help desk can be a real timesaver.
You can connect social media handles with a specific customer to understand their context.
You’ll save time and effort in moving information between support channels.
This may allow for cross-channel reporting.
It restricts your choice of tool to those that have integrations with your help desk.
Not all integrations are equal — some don’t offer enough value to be worth the complexity, others may not include all the channels you need, or they may be clunky to use.
5. Use an enterprise social platform
Some companies will be heavily dependent on social channels for their customer interactions and will prioritize social media power tools over other elements of their customer service platform. Enterprise-level tools can give you that power.
These offer the most features and control on social channels.
They typically offer the most robust reporting.
They provide access to account managers and other resources.
They’re expensive to purchase, implement, and maintain.
They can require longer contracts.
There’s an additional complexity of interface and usage that can make them less pleasant to use.
Whatever option or combination of options works for you, the tool can’t actually send responses to your customers by itself (well, it can try, but it probably shouldn’t). That’s a job best left to the humans of support.
Top tips for great social media support
Delivering great service on social media channels is a skill of its own. It combines public relations with microcopy writing and analytical reading, often under significant time pressure. Here are our best tips for creating quality social media customer service experiences.
1. Work on your copywriting skills
Writing for social media can be tricky. There is often limited context to understand the question and (for Twitter at least) limited space in which to reply. It can be more conversational than email but less immediate than chat. Don’t expect your team to be great at it immediately!
Try setting some team challenges — take a prepared response to a common question and ask everyone to rewrite it for Twitter, for example. Your knowledge base, if it is well-written and maintained, can be an excellent source to link customers to for all the details.
2. Practice graceful channel shifting
Sometimes a conversation is better handled in a private discussion or will be safer or simpler to answer on another channel. Switching channels can cause customer frustration and confusion, though. We have an article on how to accomplish that move successfully and with as little customer burden as possible.
3. Set clear expectations
If you can’t staff your social channels 24/7 (and who can), it’s important to let customers know upfront when you will be around and where they can get help most quickly. Use your bio space to tell people when they can expect an answer.
Realistic expectations of delayed responses are vastly better than over-promising or setting no expectations at all.
4. Understand your social voice and tone
How should your company sound on social media? Generally, social channels are less formal than emails or corporate websites, though not always.
Since social support is so public and may include many different people behind the keyboard, creating guidelines for hitting an appropriate tone is essential. Will you be snarky or serious? Are GIFs okay? Start simply by collecting examples of real conversations and sharing them for discussion.
Prioritize customer experience
When your customers need your help, you want to get them that help as quickly and as effectively as possible. Determining where and how to deliver help is an ever changing equation, with no single “correct” answer.
It’s tempting to try to cover every possibility, supporting every channel customers might conceivably use. But that’s never going to lead to consistently high-quality service. Instead, it can create very different experiences for customers, depending on when and where they ask for help, and that’s frustrating for everyone.
Social media may be a critical channel for you right now. If so, then certainly you should do the work to create quality service in the relevant social locations. If not, though, prioritize for the best customer experience you can deliver on every time, with the resources and demand you have today.
In a year or two, if the balance has shifted, you can review and add another tool. Just don’t make all your customers deal with an inferior experience today because of a problem you think you might face down the road.