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A separate @support handle is outdated and reinforces silos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.
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:
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:
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're raising the bar on how you search! When you search for accounts, we'll show you a little more info, like if they have recent Tweets and how they connect to your broader network. We'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>— 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>— 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>— 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.
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.