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Should you have a customer support handle on social media?

Where social media fits for businesses

It’s a question many companies grapple with at any stage of growth: “How do we best use and manage social media?”

In the grand scheme of things, social media is still pretty new - just 15 years young for the oldest networks. Trends and “best” practices have cropped up, grown like weeds, pollinated to the point of allergic reaction, blossomed and died in this time, but there is still no standard operating procedure for how companies should use social media.

Nor is there a clear understanding of where it best fits into their business. Structure and fit becomes a substantial question to answer. Let’s say you’re Coca-Cola. Do you have social media handles for @CocaCola, @CocaColaIndia, @Sprite, etc.?

When social media was new and exciting, it was an unlimited marketing channel with no algorithms to manipulate feeds and hide content, and users were compelled to engage with someone - anyone! - on this new frontier.

Over time, as social media became more integrated in daily life, it moved from simply being a marketing channel to an ongoing conversation with customers. People started using social media as a customer support channel, moving away from phone calls or emails. Now, 63% of millennials begin their customer service interactions online.

To deal with this new influx of customer issues, many brands created separate support handles (remember you’re still Coca-Cola so @CocaColaSupport) designed to collect all customer service inquiries in one place.

It seems logical enough. Customers know exactly where to go for their issues, and everything unpleasant gets separated from the fun marketing messages of the main brand handle.

A separate @support handle is outdated and reinforces silos

However, having a separate support handle adds complexity and builds silos between the customers and the brand as well as employees from customers.

How a company handles their customer support on social media is a representation of how they interact with their market on a larger scale.

Moving away from a separate @support handle can reorient a brand toward more nimble, responsive, and ultimately profitable operations and customer relationships.

This new marketing landscape means higher expectations

A major goal of a company should be to reduce friction and frustration in the purchase and post-purchase process. This leads to increased customer lifetime value and a better Net Promoter Score, while saving the company on internal costs associated with customer service.

Companies should think carefully about if a @support handle is continuing to serve them and makes sense for their business given the current market landscape.

Luckily, if they make the decision to deprecate it, there are some steps to follow to make this transition relatively painless for them and the customer.

I experienced this very situation when I took over digital marketing for the North American headquarters of an international carsharing company. Just before I was hired, the North American marketing department had made the decision to create a separate @support handle, as a way of addressing customer support issues.

The social media setup for the company was already quite complex:

  • Since it was a location-based business, there were handles for each operating country and city i.e. @Company, @CompanyCOUNTRY, @CompanyCITY.
  • The @CompanyCOUNTRY and @CompanyCITY handles were monitored by multiple stakeholders, with nobody solely responsible for answering either marketing messages or customer service inquiries. For the customer, this meant inconsistent responses and response times.
  • North American customer support inquiries were supposed to be handled through the North American headquarters… but there was no process for routing issues from local handles to HQ.
  • The solution: Centralize customer support issues to @CompanySUPPORT, which was monitored by the North American headquarters (still the marketing department, but at least in the same building).
  • My job was to take a look at the above situation and determine if the @support handle was a valuable investment or a misinformed move.

Spoiler alert: After investigating, evaluating, and debating, we decided to deprecate the dedicated @support handle - a decision that better served the customer and the company.

What’s best for the customer?

Keep it simple

If you’re traveling from New York to Boston, you simply show up to Grand Central Station and get on the train. From there, the conductor switches tracks to head the right direction - you don’t worry about doing it yourself. It’s the same with social media handles. Customers just want to contact the conductor without worrying about how to route their issue appropriately.

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When a customer has an issue, they want that issue resolved as frictionless as possible. Brands can have too many social media handles, phone numbers, email addresses, or contact forms as it is.

If customers are already upset about the product or service, they don’t want to do a lot of searching.

Your company may have a structured path and organization for certain types of issues and contact paths, but customers rarely follow a set path. They will reach out wherever they can find first.

We’re all guilty of this - raise your hand if you’ve repeatedly mashed ‘0’ through a phone tree, ignoring the nice and neat pre-recorded phone options someone at that company worked on for weeks.

Likewise, for a company with a dedicated @support handle, marketing inquiries come in to the @support handle and vice versa, the @support inquiries come into the marketing handle, no matter how clearly the company defines the purpose of each. It’s just natural!

Look out for Imposters

In addition to simplicity for the customer (and not fighting against nature), there’s another risk in fragmenting a brand’s online identity: Imposters.

It’s been great sport for people to create a fake customer service handle and troll a brand’s page, responding to customers in outrageous ways. Customers aren’t used to vetting an online identity and so they assume it’s the actual brand responding:

target-troll-5a

Of course, one rogue tweet won’t cause that much damage at scale, but to that individual customer, that can be quite the negative experience.

Additionally, it’s more likely for a single main handle to be verified, which leads to less confusion and helps safeguard against impostors.

Less room for user error

Ideally, well-structured marketing and customer care organizations have smooth operations between them, so no matter where an incoming inquiry comes in, it can be handled by the correct department. There are multiple great software platforms that enable back-end systems and programs to speak to each other and route appropriately and easily.

For the carsharing company, adoption of the new @CompanySUPPORT handle was high, but an unexpected consequence happened: adoption was too high.

Customers found the number of handles to be overwhelming, so they took the ‘spray-and-pray’ approach: They reached out to @Company, @CompanyCITY, @CompanySUPPORT , all at the same time.

We ended up having to re-route those issues anyway, which added complexity to the process and increased the likelihood of a message going unresponded.

This shone a harsh light on the inefficiencies in our systems and processes. We had to adjust our systems to make sure all incoming messages, regardless of channel, were being tracked to the same customer in the CRM… not an inexpensive effort!

Clear communication is good communication

What about keeping a company feed or wall ‘clean’ of customer complaints? Any marketer reading this gets twitchy thinking about their carefully planned campaigns and obsessively-produced graphics being surrounded by customer complaints.

This fear is mostly unfounded. In reality, it’s very rare that a user will go to a company’s profile directly and read through a feed - Facebook barely shows others’ wall posts anymore and Twitter no longer displays @ mentions on a user’s feed either. The option to directly DM a company on Twitter has been around for five years, negating the need to publicly tweet at them.

One of the fears I’ve had to mitigate with C-level executives is that customers or competitors can see all the times there was an issue or outage - all the dirty laundry is out in the open, as it were.

Refocusing on the customer behavior is important here. When things hit the proverbial fan, most of the time, people go straight to the company profile to get an update.

It’s best if you proactively announce that your product has an outage or is unavailable, otherwise your feeds will be flooded with the same question, or customers will turn to other sources for this information. The other sources then control your narrative, not you.

For example, here’s Cloudflare, which had an outage as I was writing this article:

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Even though they have a dedicated support handle, they still posted updates about the outage on their main handle.

This is just good communication. It’s always better to be more honest with customers rather than trying to hide it when things go wrong. Most of the time, people want verification that yes, something is wrong and it’s not just them.

For the executives who fear of exposing the company’s weaknesses, remind them that social media is short-lived. The half-life of social media posts is pretty short: A tweet is ~18 minutes, a Facebook post is ~30 minutes, and Instagram about 19 hours.

This means that even when a company explicitly states they are having an issue, it disappears from feeds relatively quickly. It’s always better to over-communicate than not communicate at all - that’s the whole point of social media.

If you can get your leadership team over the fear of ‘showing your worst’, they’ll find that there aren’t really any negative consequences to doing so.

Just like beauty, good customer service comes from within

Empowered employees and good process is critical

Social media’s change from a purely marketing channel to a customer service-focused one happened relatively quickly; it really started picking up in the last couple of years.

With customer service inquiries continuously shifting to social media or owned digital channels, it’s imperative that a company’s back-end processes and their employees can be responsive and adaptable to whatever comes in.

Most companies should have a social media tool (or ideally one that can take input from multiple sources) and have rules in place to route appropriately, so having separate handles on the front-end is redundant.

Streamline and make it consistent

Any reduction in the number of handles a company has to maintain and publish content on will lead to more efficiency and cost savings. And besides, your customers should care about what you have to say, on any handle.

Few people follow a @support handle, so operational announcements (like Cloudflare’s outage referenced above) have to go on ‘brand’ channels anyway.

When I was researching this article, I looked at Twitter itself. Contrary to the arguments made here, Twitter has a @TwitterSupport handle as well as @Twitter.

The @TwitterSupport handle puts out some really useful content, like product updates and asking for feedback on ideas:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">We&#39;re raising the bar on how you search! When you search for accounts, we&#39;ll show you a little more info, like if they have recent Tweets and how they connect to your broader network. We&#39;re rolling this out on iOS, Android, and <a href="https://t.co/AzMLIfU3jB">https://t.co/AzMLIfU3jB</a> over the next few days. <a href="https://t.co/rSI2S2PKa6">pic.twitter.com/rSI2S2PKa6</a></p>&mdash; Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) <a href="https://twitter.com/TwitterSupport/status/1144001040284450817?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 26, 2019</a></blockquote>

The @Twitter handle…. Not so much:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Social experiment: If you come across this Tweet, you’re in the real social experiment</p>&mdash; Twitter (@Twitter) <a href="https://twitter.com/Twitter/status/1144246050846384128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 27, 2019</a></blockquote>

But here’s the thing: the @Twitter handle also publishes useful information about the product, albeit in the more ‘fun’ voice of @Twitter versus the more factual one of @TwitterSupport:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Skip the sign in, sign out hassle. Now you can switch back and forth between handles faster on <a href="https://t.co/AIUgyCj4rs">https://t.co/AIUgyCj4rs</a>, Twitter Lite, and Twitter for Windows. Just tap the drop down from your profile photo. <br><br>Your stan account thanks you.</p>&mdash; Twitter (@Twitter) <a href="https://twitter.com/Twitter/status/1135609713218007040?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 3, 2019</a></blockquote>

This is a lot of effort to duplicate information. Centralize and streamline!

Simplifying where communications come and go also benefits a company’s employees, too.

“What the heck was marketing thinking?” is a phrase many customer service teams have uttered. Unless there is great communication and close coordination in the campaign planning phase, customer service tends to be the last to know about new initiatives. Customer service is very familiar with the common problems and pitfalls customers face - and they can anticipate how customers will react to change.

Because marketing is often removed from customer service, they don’t feel the pain and cannot anticipate the impact their campaigns can have to current customers.

By centralizing communication, marketing will become more familiar with common customer service issues. They can adapt their messaging and/or materials to ease this friction.

A single sentence changed in the sign-up process or an added illustration in the tutorial can reduce inbound customer service inquiries by a handful of percentage points. Each case costs money and for every customer that writes in, 26 others stay silent and/or simply stop doing business with the company.

Use the right tools

But isn’t having separate handles easier to monitor and route questions appropriately? If someone writes into @support, customer service can be in charge of monitoring that handle. Easy!

As stated earlier, this is a nice, clean process in concept that customers in the real world typically don't follow. Creating an easier internal process shouldn’t come at the expense of increasing customer friction.

Having a separate @support handle trains your internal employees to mentally separate customer service and marketing as unrelated. It subsequently becomes easy to write off everything that comes into one handle as ‘not my job’ or not pay attention to it.

Any real difficulty with monitoring is typically from trying to do it natively on the platforms themselves, which is not recommended except for very small companies or ones where social media isn’t one of their main (or even secondary) channels.

Using one unified tool across marketing and customer service, specifically one that connects to your CRM, saves time, effort, and can ultimately be cheaper.

These tools also take care of metrics tracking and maintaining SLAs. It can be a big investment, but one I’ve always found to be worth it.

With the carsharing company, when it was time to purchase a social media management tool, one of the core requirements was integration and routing. The tool we purchased enabled customer service inquiries to be routed directly into the case management system.

When we made the investment and restructured the handles, we also restructured the team and their responsibilities. Instead of having 14 people in locations ‘kind of’ monitor social media with inconsistent responses, we centralized to a team of 2 in HQ who did it with depth of expertise and who worked closely with customer service.

Orientation Toward a Better Future

The best ideas come from your customers

“Serving millions of customers today doesn’t guarantee you will be serving even a thousand tomorrow, and learning to appreciate the individual customer truth is probably the most fundamental mind shift leaders and marketers alike need to make.”
Leonid Sudakov, Adweek

What happens when a customer doesn’t quite have a complaint, but instead has a suggestion?

If they have an idea for a feature on the app that makes things easier, should that go to @support or to the @main handle? If they have to hesitate in making that decision for even a second, it’s likely they’ll just say “forget it” and move on.

Customer feedback, requests, and ideas are critical to making and improving great products - so reduce the friction to get this input.

Employees + customers = a stronger company

Great customer service (and in fact, great business practice) comes from meeting the customer where they are and explicitly addressing their needs.

The landscape of customer service is changing drastically. Challenger brands’ entire USP is built on great customer service.

For traditional brands, Adweek states that “major brands across 14 product categories lost market share and 90 of the top 100 CPG brands have experienced declines.” Things are changing fast, and having an internal divide between customer service and marketing won’t serve companies anymore.

Customer expectations have changed and it’s no longer enough for customers to get stock responses and generic platitudes from low-paid, poorly-trained employees.

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Nobody knows your product better than your employees so by centralizing and removing silos, you’re orienting their thinking to be more holistic, instead of transactional.

A customer’s relationship with a company is bigger than a singular marketing message or customer service issue - it’s the sum of all of the touchpoints they’ve ever had with you.

By centralizing customers and employees around a main handle, this creates a community. It gives improved visibility, both internally and externally, and enables everyone to take more ownership of the product and this community.

Everyone can see (and work on) the problems together

When complaints (and compliments!) are centralized to one handle, a company’s mistakes or weaknesses becomes more visible to the community. This is an argument for keeping a separate @support handle, but one that is rooted in a fear or shame mindset - not a collaborative one.

The benefit of having a @main handle, with issues more out in the open, is that customers can see and talk to each other, especially when one of them is having an issue. Other customers might already know the fix, and they can work with each other to help fix issues. A customer service agent may not even need to be involved at all.

Additionally, having these issues visible to your customers, detractors, and competitors keeps your company accountable.

It also orients your company and your employees toward serving your customer community the best you can throughout their lifecycle. There’s more to business than the bottom line - it’s about serving a need in the market.

What was the outcome for us at the carsharing company? Once we deprecated the @support handle and made the mindset and process shifts, we saw engagement rates for our over 1 million social media followers leap 15%, social care response times decreased by 50% YoY, and turnaround/case resolution rates far above industry standards.

As more fans, followers, and customers saw that they could get a fast, personable response on social media, they started using it for customer support inquiries, too.

The overall proportion of customer service issues shifted from phone and email to social. This led to substantial cost savings - it cost us >$6 for phone call, about $3 per email, and less than a dollar for social media. For a company that received thousands of inquiries per day at peak times, this was quite significant.

How to Implement

If you have a customer @support handle, what now?

You as a company need to prepare internally. This means discussing how calls will be routed, how marketing and customer service can all look at the same feed.

How long will it take? The timeline surprised us. Even though we planned for a 8-16 week transition, the incoming customer inquiries and behavior patterns changed in less than 1 month.

Below you’ll find a quick start guide to help navigate you through the steps. If you’re looking for more hands-on advice for your unique situation, contact us and let’s talk it out.

It’s a big move, but the payoffs will be worth it.

__>> Download the checklist here. << __

Embrace your new world

Once we deprecated the @CarsharingSupport handle, we never looked back. Customers were happier, and marketing and customer service were coordinating closer than ever. Even the company’s developers and engineers started paying attention to what customers were saying, and adapting their sprints based on the feedback.

Maintaining a separate @support handle on social media leads to increased customer confusion, internal employee silos, and holds a company back from becoming more service-oriented, nimble, and responsive.

Break down the silos and embrace a higher-level approach to your customers.

Defining Your Brand Before It Defines You: Total Team Clarity in Just 2 Hours

Taking a few hours to get your team on the same page for your brand(s) reduces friction, lends clarity, and gets the whole team behind the same statements.

If your internal team can’t get behind your brand with clarity and belief, how can your customers?

Capital-B Brand is esoteric

When you think of the word “Brand”, how do you define it?

Is it a personification, like Flo from Progressive? A mascot, like Ronald McDonald? A logo, like Apple? A phrase, like Nike? Or an attitude, like Wendy’s Twitter?

Is a brand the differentiator between your two pretty similar products?

If you were to ask a few people in your company right now what your company’s brand is, you’re going to get some different answers. Try it!

Send this message to a few randomly selected people (not just in the Marketing department) and see what you get back: “What would you say [our Company’s] brand is?”

If they give you hesitation or ask for clarification, state that you’re being purposefully vague and have them respond however they think is appropriate.

Take a look at the answers you got - I guarantee they not only used a different definition of brand, but defined your company completely differently. That’s okay! Even the most communicative companies need to reinforce the messaging and positioning of their brand regularly.

Perspectives differ

And it’s not even the definition of the term brand that can differ, it’s how your brand is defined by your own employees (not even mentioning your customers, which I won’t cover here).

“Strategic planning should be more about collective wisdom building than top-down or bottom-up planning.” ― W. Chan Kim

One of our clients is an Entertainment & Music company with multiple brands, some of which had been around since the inception of the company, and some of which had yet to be launched.

I gathered the stakeholders of the company for a brand Workshop. Most had been with the company for many years, or were intimately familiar with the plans for these new brands.

At the beginning, half the room was disengaged, the other half only mildly engaged. A workshop like this was new for many of the participants - some responsible for managing physical stores, and some focused only on digital systems.

Once we started digging into questions about their umbrella of brands like what their purpose as a company is, the brand architecture, who the target market is, and how the brands are expressed, they started understanding that brand is more than a loose, hand-wavy concept.

They were shocked to hear each other’s answers to some of these branding questions. The room went from passive and leaned-back with little discussion to lots of cross-talk, leaning forward, and laughter.

Each person individually had a clear-to-them idea as to what the brand was, but they hadn’t articulated it to each other. It was new for them to discuss as a team. “We’ve never said it out loud before!” was a common refrain.

The result of the end of this: They had a clearly defined brand architecture document, which delineated parent and sub-brands. For each of their 6 brands (they initially had 10 and we consolidated at the workshop), they had: Brand purpose and definition Target audience demographics and psychographics Brand attributes - fun/funky/progressive, not efficient/traditional/etc. What the brand sounds like (specific copy examples) Everyone was on the same page. They subsequently distributed this information to their entire team, down to servers at the restaurants.

The entire team has to be on board. Not just leadership or individual department like marketing or engineering.

Another case: an industry-leading video gaming company came to us to help them migrate their servers from hardware to the Cloud (a very scary proposition when you have 125,000 active users every minute).

At the same time, they asked us to redo their website. It was outdated, barely functional, and served no real purpose.

In an ideal world, there would be a project team made up of representatives from each department of the company, where each has a voice in how the website functions and fits into the overall vision for the company. The goal: ensure consistency in messaging, from customer service to product, to operations, to marketing.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. One group is tasked with the project (or they just take it on) and they go full-bore, without bringing in others to slow down the process. This is natural.

The scenario that we’ve seen play out over and over is that if marketing or other stakeholders aren’t involved from the start, they will step in at the last 10% and add scope creep, require re-examination and re-visiting of decisions, and cause general internal misalignment.

Worst case is it brings everything to a grinding halt, causes contention amongst the team, and wastes one of the most valuable resources: time.

Before any work begins, it’s important to define not just how the website will function, but why it exists, who it exists for, and what stakeholders across the company need from it.

It is imperative to make sure everyone is aligned on what it does and why it exists. Even if other departments decide to leave the purpose, narrative, and content up to your department, they should be clear in what they are handing over.

A website is more than a place to store information; it is the public representation of your brand and company, and where all business units are represented. It should be the shared foundation for content strategy, marketing strategy, future growth, product, product marketing and more.

Consistency is key and defining + distributing is important.

Once you have the brand defined and agreed upon by stakeholders, the next milestone is getting everyone onboard with the idea. Every. Single. Employee. Full-stop.

From the product packer in the warehouse to the VP of Engineering, all company representatives need to understand what the brand is about, who it’s for, and why it exists. If everyone gives a different answer to “So what does [your company] do?”, it weakens the consistency and the overall power of the brand.

You know it’s important, but it really is critical - a person has to hear a message an average of seven times before they really ‘hear’ it or understand it.

“Most of us know the marketing concept of good communication. To make a message stick in the head of a future consumer, you need to deliver the message seven times using seven different channels. Why do executives think that to make a strategy stick, a boring speech delivered once will be enough?” - Jeroen De Flander

So, you’ve had this big mysterious brand workshop where all the top-level people and important stakeholders (e.g. company influencers) come out laughing and talking about how clarifying this workshop was. That’s great. But if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody talks about it at the all-hands, did it really happen?

The key to all this effort is to make sure this gets disseminated to the rest of your company! Do a summary or write-up, or talk about it at the next town hall.

Then make a little brand cheat-sheet for front-line employees in social media, front desk or retail counters, and especially for communications and customer service. This tactic will be instrumental in helping focus their communications and keep everything in line with what your brand represents down to how it should sound.

For a car-sharing company with an extensive and dispersed customer service organization (we’re talking internal email and call centers at headquarters in Texas, internal call centers in Vancouver and Montreal, and third-party call centers in Nebraska) brand cheat sheets were distributed and physically stuck on the wall by their desks.

Does that sound extreme? It wasn’t! There was a lot of positive feedback from employees who felt empowered to represent the brand without sticking to a prescribed script.

So, what does a brand workshop look like?

We recommend a working session where we bring stakeholders from marketing/communications, development/technology, and leadership into a room to ensure that the ultimate business purpose of the brand, what it is and how it is defined, is agreed upon by all parties.

Overall though, it varies for each company based on their needs. For the Entertainment & Music client mentioned previously, they also needed to determine their brand architecture. For the car-sharing company, there was only one brand, but global implementation and country-specific adaptations had to be considered as well.

It’s best to do this workshop all in one session or over a two-day period, while people are warmed up and thinking about brand in a new way and open to new ideas.

Generally speaking, a workshop should cover:

Business Purpose and Vision Messaging, Positioning, and Target Audience(s) Primary messages and benefits Positioning relative to other offerings - not just medical, but lifestyle (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Target Audience(s) - Informed by market research and your experience. Defining who they are, how they think, and what their true needs are. Brand Attributes and Voice and Tone E.g. “Our brand is Cool, Innovative, and Elite. Our brand is not Traditional, Eclectic, or Broad. We have an inspirational tone, and never use the passive voice.”

Who to invite?

While the go-to is the C-Suite or sometimes just Marketing, there should be a variety of attendees - obviously the C-Suite is important, and even those in Finance or IT are important. Also bring a few influencers from different departments, as they are closer to the customer and closer to the employees and will have valuable and unique insights.

Context Matters

Positioning and messaging can’t be done in a vacuum. It’s a collaborative process between everyone on your team to define and realize your company’s true vision.

Whether you lead this yourself, or bring in a team like Victory to run it, the result will be that investing a few hours of your team’s time will lead to much better company and brand cohesion, both internally and externally to your market.