Why Social Customer Service Needs a Dose of Reality (Part 1)

This is a post from Martin Hill-Wilson of Brainfood Consulting. Martin is the trainer for our unique 1-day training course on ‘Social Customer Service.’ Given my job, I...

This is a post from Martin Hill-Wilson of Brainfood Consulting. Martin is the trainer for our unique 1-day training course on ‘Social Customer Service.’

Given my job, I spend a good few hours each week tracking down and reading as much commentary on social customer service as I can. Do I capture all of it?

Not a chance. But enough to get a sense of the themes that are absorbed, explored then abandoned over time as the debate we are all involved in moves along.

One of the current themes is responsiveness. Or let me be more precise, the lack of it. For the last twelve months, social media monitoring brands, consultancies and enterprising individuals have been benchmarking how organisations respond to service enquiries over Twitter and Facebook.

The results made great headlines. Of course it depends which ones you read. But at best we are still in the land of extremes with a heavy weighting towards ‘we missed the mark’.

But before I get further into this topic, I need to ring fence peer to peer community based support (where customers help each other). The standards of service that a customer is likely to receive in that context are in quite another league, so, in my book, are exempt from the majority of observations I’m about to make.

By the way, I don’t know if you have noticed how many people seem to assume social customer service is nothing more than Twitter and Facebook. Anyway, those are the channels on the menu in this post.

How Good Is The Best?
At the top of the pile, some organisations appear to be doing it pretty well. Socialbakers reckons Next (the UK clothing retailer) answers 93% of their Facebook customers against an industry average of 55%. While Vodafone manages to respond 77% of the time and thus comes out top on Twitter against a global benchmark of just 32%.

Is this good enough? Gut answer is no. But we simply don’t know. Most traditional voice and text channels have post interaction feedback triggers. I’m not aware of anyone trying to collect feedback on their customers’ Twitter and Facebook service experiences as yet. But please spill the beans if you know better.

So in the absence of any direct source of customer insight, let me quote you some performance stats on voice-based customer service, which remains a foundation for most customer expectation.

According to the annual benchmarking data conducted amongst members of the Top 50 UK Companies in Customer Service, the average wait time to get through to a call centre is around two and a half minutes. This is actually far shorter that public perception and quite probably conflicts with a few of your own personal experiences.

It also does not include waiting to talk to HMRC (the UK taxman) who manages to cause such queuing distress for so many of us that they are now being treated to their own improvement plan in the form of a special Parliamentary Committee!

But even if we add in HMRC and then retest the waters at busy times such as Monday mornings, I very much doubt that the average wait time to talk to someone in the call centre is equal to or worse than the 357 minutes that Social Bakers lays out as industry benchmark for Twitter. And if you were hoping Facebook would up the average then think again. That benchmark is currently 819 minutes waiting for a response.

So just on the numbers which channel would you prefer to be using?
You might argue this is an unfair comparison. Voice is real time. Twitter and Facebook are not intended to be as responsive.

OK so just how long is an acceptable time?

I would agree that it does depend on context. The travel business is an industry where timing really does matter. So they need to be sharp. Unfortunately, responsiveness from airlines during Hurricane Sandy showed a mixed bag.

On the other hand you might argue it like this. Some people just prefer to interact via social channels. That’s true. So maybe it is the right of each generation to choose their own form of suffering. Some prefer letter, others phone. Who is to deny the social network generation their right to queue?

But beyond the black humour, is there any substance as to why I am making such a fuss?

I reckon so when we compare these real world performance levels to the way in which we often ‘big’ up social channels in our collective online discussions. Consider some of the other favourite themes currently in play.

Here is one I’m sure you are familiar with: “Customer Service Is The New Marketing”.

It has appeared in numerous posts. It makes a great headline, but I doubt whether Marketers would be quite so happy to know that there is little evidence of brand equity being improved and quite a lot of evidence that implies damage. If we want Customer Service to drive positive sentiment towards the brand we need to up our game many times over.

Here is another upbeat theme that will probably cause grief later down the line as reality smacks into aspiration.

A webinar is taking place end of this month for SMW in New York that propositions we should be re-imagining the contact centre as a ‘Social Engagement Hub’. Nice theory. But about as real as imagining that the current generation of contact centres are seen as a strategic asset in most businesses. Ought to be, but ain’t.

But Surely Social Is All About ‘Quality Of Response’?

So far I’ve talked about the issue of responsiveness. But maybe, it’s not just about the speed for some people. Instead it is more about the culture and quality of interaction that social channels embrace versus that of call centres.

Well I’m with you on that point – and I’ll explore it in some depth, along with two others: Authenticity and Continuous Improvement in Part Two of this post  – read part two here.

Martin Hill-Wilson is running a unique 1-day training course on ‘Social Customer Service’ in London on (12th March 2013). Places are limited and tickets are available here.

In this article

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  1. Richard Hughes Reply

    Looking forward to part 2, because I very much agree with you final paragraph – quality of response is far more important than speed.

    I don’t have any particular stats to back this up, but my observation would be that most companies respond faster via social media than via email, but often that social media response simply directs people back to traditional CRM channels. And this raises another issue – if you did get a better response via social media than traditional CRM channels, what would that say about the company’s entire CRM process? In a lot of companies it seems that the social media team are almost a rival customer service operation.

    1. Jerome Pineau Reply

      Very astute observation and likely factual. Service center response average: 3 days. Twitter response time: 17 mins average. This kind of engagement velocity and TTA times are orders of magnitude apart. And I do believe indeed that traditional CRM systems are flies in the social service ointment. Matter of fact I blogged about just that here: http://www.socialmediayousay.com/post/38450421007/i-sometimes-hear-people-say-that-providing
      What it says about traditional CRM processes is that they’re becoming obsolete.

      1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


        In the interests of getting as much fact into the debate, where do you get the numbers you quote for service centre responsiveness? I know industry figures often conflict with each other, but I’m also keen to quash ones that are just urban myth. What geography, year and source? Would be good to know.


        1. Jerome Pineau Reply

          Sorry I extrapolate from our own experience. What I should have said is that traditional is measured in days and social in minutes (when well executed) – these are 2012 figures.

          1. Martin Hill-Wilson

            In which case, either social channels are dealing with much more simple, fast turn around issues or if working on a like for like basis, there is something that trad CS needs to learn from the social team?

    2. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


      The only stats I’m aware of in the public domain are from a 2012 Eptica study of 100 UK organisations (big names). Email performance between 2011 and 2012 declined. Response times ballooned from 20 to 64 hours. They even found 10% had switched the channel off!

      There is clear evidence from reading customers own remarks that shows they are now on social channels having failed with traditional ones. Given that is it not extraordinary that in the age in which all profess being customer centric that they allow a public version of their services failures to (a) remain seen (b) still be dealt with in a sloppy way.

      Myopic or suicidal I’m not sure which.


  2. Jerome Pineau Reply

    This common “what’s the right speed/time to wait” for social service engagement always reminds me of a French comic’s line: the right length for legs is when your feet touch the ground! The answer is that the right time-to-wait is effectively 0.0 — because if a customer is on a channel, it means he’s being disrupted. So you have to try and trend towards instant response. AND additionally, the answer quality has to be top notch. So it’s not a either-or question. It is in fact part of what “being” social as a business is about vs. just playing with social. I’ll step off the soap box now 🙂

    1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


      I’m with you on that point. The trend has to be towards instant and quality responsiveness. Why? Customer service is now a spectator sport.

      Given the low volumes via social so far, it is also not a massive resourcing issue to pick up the pace and win those branding points that Marketing is now so eager should be won.


      1. Jerome Pineau Reply

        Agreed. Especially since service is a form of marketing in the WOM sense of things — in my opinion anyway.

        1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


  3. Jerome Pineau Reply

    ” I’m not aware of anyone trying to collect feedback on their customers’ Twitter and Facebook service experiences as yet” – for what it’s worth we did a SurveyMonkey around Christmas time for 2012 asking our customers how they liked our Twitter/FB social service throughout the year…

    1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

      OK Jerome,

      Stop teasing. What did the survey tell you?


      1. Jerome Pineau Reply

        We did an NPS type survey – nothing but promoters on TW, lower scores on FB but on FB we are “injected” and not liable for all engagements (ie: we only engage on support posts) so the assumption is that lack of “brand” engagement likely dilutes the overall experience. The other thing we discovered is that students heavily favor email support (if social were not available). One of my takeaways is that engagement drives customer sentiment (kind of a doh moment but confirmed via survey IMHO).

        1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

          I assume you had a dedicated TW handle so you received ‘unpolluted’ scores-) Were the students unique in that email bias/could they opt for Chat as an alternative?

          PS I have some of your Lithium submission materials and it is fascinating how well regarded the peer to peer answers compare with the premium services. Do the community volumes dominate the Facebook and Twitter volumes/are you using the Lithium plug ins to integrate back into the community KM?

  4. Mitch Lieberman Reply

    Martin – fun post, intriguing as well. What I like to think about is why people make certain choices. For example, I live about 325 miles north of New York City. I could drive and it would take a predictable 6 hours to get there. I could fly and it would take an almost predictable 4 hours (door to door, security, lines etc.,…). That begs the question, why not fly all the time (Let’s remove cost from the discussion)?

    Why do people post (or pose) questions using social channels? What is the real motive here? Is it about faster response (due to public lashing)? Or is it about laziness? How about synchronous versus asynchronous – I do not really need an immediate response, I do not have the email address so, here goes…. In the early days, it was all about jumping the queue. Now, it is hard to say what the actual reason is – We also do not have any statistics about the question being answered, or was it simply recognizing that a question was asked.

    We have spoken and I know you know all these tidbits. I could have just sent you a note with my opinion, but I chose the public channel because it became a discussion (a good one too). My point is that there is much more to this than response rates – how much more, no idea 🙂

    1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

      I’m with you on the fact that customer behaviours cannot be tied done to a single topic. In fact, I had a few more than just ‘responsiveness’, however I’m too verbose and so was cut into 2 posts! My fault.

      I also know that averages ignore excellence and there are great examples out there. Although all too few. The point I’m driving at here is that social customer service is being talked up and spun in a way that would challenge folk even if they were on top of their game (as represented by much improved responsiveness and our ‘other’ factors).

      My interest was pricked when I actually got into looking at some real Facebook and Twitter feeds rather than just conducting the debate at this level via posts.

      I was not impressed.

      1. Richard Hughes Reply

        Completely agree with you about the poor quality of debate on company Facebook pages – I presented on precisely this subject at Our Social Times events in Brussels and Paris last year, and highlighted some of the nonsense that goes on on UK telco Facebook pages. I recorded the presentation later and posted it here: enterprisinglysocial.com/the-social-facade/

        So much of what passes for “social customer service” is actually marketing, brand protection or damage limitation.

        1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

          Yes I saw your stuff on that. Brilliant. It is extraordinary how myopic silos make folk. One agenda alignment between these teams is the obvious next step. Needs some visionaries to push that through though

    2. Jerome Pineau Reply

      Why via social channels? Because it’s the least disruptive way for them. Whatever is least inconvenient and most likely to fit into the customer’s work stream (path of least resistance) will prevail (in my experience). Additionally, customers know they can “game” the system via social because companies tend to focus on those vs. traditional phone/email channels. So if you’re smart, you’ll research a company’s social channels and, if you see they’re active on there, you will hit em up there rather than get into holding pattern on phone or wait 24 hours for an email back (usually telling you to call some number anyway). My 2 cents 🙂

      1. Mitch Lieberman Reply

        I do know about the gaming aspects, I personally wrote about it almost 3 years ago. The problem is that we are now moving beyond that, because the more people yell, the less disruptive it actually is going to be (counterintuitive, but true).

        People post on social channels because it is easy for them – yes. Do they really want an answer – maybe. The people focusing on social channels are not always the ones who can help you, they are just there to appease you. It truly depends upon whether someone wants an answer, or simply to vent frustration.

        1. Jerome Pineau Reply

          True that — we deal with both at Autodesk. Provide actual solutions in real time when possible, route to peer-based community when not, and be a venue for steam release — a quick glance at @AutodeskHelp will confirm there’s a lotta steam 🙂 — Additionally we are also aggressively pro-active for support. In our experience, there’s been relatively little “gaming” — it happens, but usually subsides quickly. People realize it really truly IS a service channel and use it accordingly. It’s not just a normal “corp” channel mascarading as a caring brand.

        2. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

          Mitch ,
          If you quit the shadow boxing for a second, what exactly are you seeing out there as the state of things?

          1. Mitch Lieberman

            So, the shadow boxing was all in preparation for this – 🙂

            At the leading edge, Social is forced transparency. I am seeing companies tired of being called to the mat for trying to keep things hidden, so they are more open, and willing to tell it like it is.

            I see companies beginning to say “I do not know” or “get in line” when questions are simply out of line. Yelling and screaming on social channels is no longer getting the response it once did.

            We all know that Social is simply an amplifier, that is all it has ever been. It is indiscriminate, amplifying good and bad – that realization is now clear to just about everyone.

            Companies are just beginning to understand the business process requirements of social channels (not the leading edge ones, the next phase). This requires good old fashioned hard work.

            WIthout getting into office politics, the companies that are actually succeeding have a person or people senior in the organization that breaks down the office barriers.

          2. Martin Hill-Wilson

            Thanks. That’s clear. I hope the 1st group you refer to are growing in number and that the senior anchors are being effective at persuading them to turn over a new leaf. I can confirm that often the way forward is to tempt people out of silo thinking by just sharing budgets/resources and see where the whole hybrid thing is going.

            Your point about amplification is well made. “Its not personal” is another way of putting it I guess.

            Would be interested to hear any thoughts on the emerging shape of business processes if I can tempt you.

            Not sure which geography you are playing in right now but the UK scene still is very much phase 1 once the hot air is removed

      2. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


        There have always been customers like that. Gethuman is a pressure group dedicated to getting round IVRs by issuing direct dial numbers into the call centre. Still out there doing good stuff, worth looking up. However whether companies are any more responsive via social remains pot luck right now even for those that can be bothered. Mind you the risk of being mugged a la Dave Carrol remains. Will organisations learn before being ‘spanked’ by SM (as Luke likes to put it)? Not so much evidence of that as yet

  5. guy stephens Reply

    OMG, you mean to say that #custserv isn’t the new marketing or the new black! I thought a little sprinkle of social pixie dust could turn the most ardent of anti-socialistas around.

    As for response time, quality of response, that a social engagement hub will replace the contact centre as we know it… who knows, who cares. The journey is part of the answer. Bottom line: our expectation of social, email, call centre is as fickle as the mood we are in when we Tweet, call or email.

    1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply


      There has to be some benefit in watching the decades roll by! Mine is to ‘poo poo’ the new blacks as they are launched.

      Your other notion is more intriguing and certainly an excellent disturb for the worried client! If Cust exp is now a function of purely whimsical, in the moment’, Queen of Hearts’, style judgement are we all doomed? Or will some kind of real-time, big data munching cloud service come to our rescue in the nick of time?

      Do tell, I’m sure you have an answer-)

      1. guy stephens Reply

        There are fundamental disconnects along the way. The drive to a level of service that is about scale not intimacy, the belief that social is about speed not experience, real-time vs right-time, big data vs me, the compromise between the desire to deliver the exceptional vs the reality of the cost to deliver the mundane…

        As for pre-empting the whimsy and fickleness of us all when we don the hat of the customer, little has really changed. We’ve always been whimsical and fickle, big business just kidded itself into thinking it could somehow nullify this, and still provide great service, and we wanted to believe it as well. Social media is simply calling us all out.

        1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

          Two challenges in what I otherwise salute as good observation. The experience of any kind of interaction has to include the sense of responsiveness, social or private. To that end I think your speed v experience is a false dichotomy.
          Secondly the evidence I’m looking at suggests that yes nothing has changed and that many customer tolerate the mundane, social or not. SM is not calling us out because in many cases the customers simply ignore the service failures and keep coming back for more.

          1. guy stephens

            Perhaps we are all chasing the tail of the pig with the lipstick on?

          2. Martin Hill-Wilson

            Only if I’m extremely drunk!

  6. Shanu cis Reply

    Customer support services provides you technical advices and services. You can also hire inbound online customer service, contact centre to expand your business.

  7. David Newton-Dines Reply

    Martin. Good post.

    I confess to being tired…

    Tired of the continually grabbing, mostly by accountants, of anything that pops up that they might utilise to save money. The current grab of choice is ‘social media’.

    In a pathetic attempt to justify yet more driving down of the cost of servicing the people who pay their inflated salaries, the manipulate data to fit their grabbing and slashing agenda.

    Their justification for the current drive to use social media is that is the customers require it. It’s true that when asked whether they would use it if it were available people will answer yes. But when spoken to in depth, the channel is irrelevant – it’s outcomes that matter. Further more, it’s a simple fact of life that written communications typically take 4-8 times as long to achieve the same levels of understanding in a subject where anything other than facts are required.

    I’ve been in Customer Service business for over 30 years. I first wrote about teh Customer Experience (as the world is now beginning to understand it) in 1997. In all that time the people who matter (customers) have universally recorded that service has declined – despite the billions spent on technological ‘solutions’.

    The way forward is back. Customer Service departments should be disbanded immediately, if not sooner, and if not their key goal should be to make themselves redundant…

    The siloisation of the support of customers was driven by accountants and today actually costs every business with a customer service department valuable profits – theses need NOT be spent.

    Customer Service Integration is the only way. Every person in every department takes responsibility for ensuring that what they do never adversely impacts customers and each individual takes responsibility for looking over the shoulders of colleagues to ensure they don’t too.

    1. Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

      I like your POV and your heritage. Just means you end up baying at the moon longer than most-)

      1. David Newton-Dines Reply

        Sorry Martin, read your post just at the wrong moment.
        Wouldn’t change a word of it tho.
        Back is the new forward… Watch this space.
        If you’re bored one afternoon try challengeparadigms.wordpress.com

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