Leslie Campisi is managing director, U.S., at Hotwire, a global communications consultancy serving technology companies and digitally enabled brands, where she oversees operations in New York City and San Francisco.
Social media management. Customer service.
The first is a modern construct, the second is as old as business itself. Yet consensus still holds that the two are distinct disciplines separated by the dreaded “silos” — silos with potentially disastrous effects on a brand’s ability to communicate and, more importantly, engage with the public.
2014 will be the year those silos come down.
What does this mean? It means that, in the future, the teams managing a brand’s social media presence and those responding to its customers’ questions online will belong to the same team.
That’s not to say they won’t have distinct roles within the organization or that every individual involved will perform both functions. But the two departments will work from the same space (real or virtual), report to the same manager and move through the same approval process while maintaining an ongoing, real-time dialogue. They will address crises as a team rather than working in isolation and outsourcing time-sensitive problems to one another.
The sooner this merger happens, the better.
While traditional customer service departments have treated social as a new and unfamiliar language, many top brands recognized its potential value some time ago.
The most prominent example is Nike, which offers customer service via Nike Support on Twitter and Nike Running on Facebook. Other notables include JetBlue, Xbox and Best Buy, which maintains separate feeds for different departments. The trend is international: France’s Nestle operates a “war room” with 20 full-time “digital accelerators” responsible for putting the brand’s best face forward. Australian mobile service provider Telstra has a command center that runs 24/7 and responds to 97 percent of posts in an average of less than one minute (far quicker than the one-hour response time our impatient public demands in repeated surveys).
Yet these brands remain outliers. On the whole, the public isn’t satisfied with the social service experience.
Here are three case studies illustrating the problem at hand.
1. When an angry customer purchased a sponsored tweet to express his displeasure with British Airways’ service, the company took eight hours to respond.
Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous.
— º¿º (@HVSVN) September 2, 2013
The company’s excuse? Customer service only operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the meantime, more than 76,000 users saw the tweet — and subsequent media coverage turned it into an even bigger PR disaster. Brands as big as BA don’t just need to have service and management departments that work together. They need to be available in some way around the clock.
2. As quick and clever as Tesco Mobile’s feed may be, its grocery wing’s customer service is less so. No one foresaw the response to this semi-joke, which went live right in the middle of the brand’s “horse meat” scandal.
It's sleepy time so we're off to hit the hay! See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets
— Tesco (@Tesco) January 17, 2013
3. Finally, these new teams could prevent problems like those caused by American Airlines’ embarrassing automated responses to customer complaints.
— Ross Sheingold (@RossSheingold) February 14, 2013
These three incidents show why it’s not enough to coordinate between departments. The silos must come down.
There might seem to be a conflict between the disciplines: Customer service is a defensive practice, while community management is positive, outgoing and in some cases, even entertaining for followers.
In reality, though, the teams aren’t so far apart — and they have more than a bit to learn from one another. Service teams have the authority to act in collaborative, highly-responsive ways, while managers are masters of content and conversation. By combining the two, team members can create a looser, more responsive voice for the brand itself.
Tesco Mobile and Zappos are two good examples of how that equation might work; they’ve both applied the off-the-cuff absurdity of social to the customer service sector. While Zappos simply responds to requests with its famous sense of humor, Tesco Mobile has a more discernible attitude. You might even go so far as to say that the brand has begun trolling its own trolls — and the media noticed.
Of course brands can’t always satisfy customers’ needs. But they can certainly better coordinate their responses and engagement with the communities surrounding their feeds, while presenting a more helpful face to the public at large.
The wall between the two disciplines has already begun to blur, and in the coming months it will grow so faint as to be all but invisible.
The biggest winner in this union? The customer.
This piece comes from research performed for the 2014 edition of the Hotwire’s annual Digital Trends Report.