Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Importance of Social for Support

Last month, I talked about the significance of social channels for marketing and sales. I thought it was about time to see what social means for customer support as well.

The Story So Far

For sales, I generally talk in terms of weak and strong ties. The idea being a lead is, essentially, a weak tie to another person and the sales process converts this lead to a stronger tie i.e. a trusting relationship is established. This model comes from Paul Adams, a social researcher at Facebook (formerly at Google). In this 2010 presentation he talks about three kinds of ties:

  • Temporary: someone we interact with but have no relationship with
  • Weak: someone we have a relationship with but not within our ‘circle of trust’
  • Strong: those in the ‘circle of trust’

As the presentation has over 200 slides, here is a synopsis.

Paul cites a call-center employee as a typical example of a temporary tie with the idea it is unlikely that you will interact with them more than once.

Paul also mentions that it is much easier to keep up to date with weak ties than ever before because of social networks like Facebook. However, communication with strong ties, even amongst the younger generations, involves face to face meetings and phone calls.


Finally, Paul says that our strong ties influence us the most in our decisions. So it makes sense, as a salesman, you want to be considered a strong tie for your customers.

How Does This Relate to Customer Support?

I recently came across this blog post by Sawan Deshpande. Being a salesforce blog, the thrust of his article is how companies must embrace the ‘social imperative’ because the youth use social networks. Here is the infographic to back up the claim thanks to the American Express Customer Service Barometer 2012.


The claim is in reference to the first graph. However, it is the second set of bar charts which are of more interest to me as these specifically talk about customer service and the channels preferred as the request becomes more complex. The channels move from the ‘traditional’ channels at the top (first four), down to the ‘social’ channels at the bottom (last three). They also loosely match the channels talked about in regards to the strong tie research. We can also distinguish between voice-based channels (‘real’ person and face to face) from text-based/automated communication.

Here are my takeaways:

  • As inquiries become more complex, the use of ‘traditional’ channels goes from 77% to 90%
  • As inquiries become more complex, the use of ‘social’ channels goes from 23% to 10%
  • As inquiries become more complex, voice-based communication goes from 27% to 76%
  • As inquiries become more complex, text-based/automated communication goes from 73% to 24%

To put it simply, as a query becomes complicated, people want to interact with support staff as if they are a strong tie, rather than a weak one; they want to establish a relationship with the call center representative.

As I write this I am experiencing this effect. I recently moved from a fortnightly pay cycle to a monthly one. To match this I changed my car repayment cycle. To my surprise, the repayments appeared to become a lot larger than they should. While I initially interacted with the representative via e-mail, it soon became apparent the confusion would be much more quickly resolved by using a phone. No doubt guided by company policy, the representative is resisting the move to the phone. However, if we interacted in this way, not only would I perceive the representative as more ‘involved’ in my query, it would likely get resolved more quickly and save the finance company time and money.

My experience is backed up by another piece of research from the Unified Communications End-User Productivity study which confirms that while text-based communication is good for quick ‘FAQ’-like answers, more complicated queries are often escalated to voice-based communication for resolution.


There is no doubt that social channels are widely used. However, just because a person uses a specific tool does not mean they want to use it for all communication. Also, it may be tempting for call centers to jump onto the social bandwagon for the purposes of cost saving but, if it is at the cost of meeting customer expectations, it is a false economy and will drive customers elsewhere.

The research backs up the notion that for a protracted query, customer prefer voice-based communication, seeking a stronger tie to the support staff, over text-based communication and automated systems.

Given traditional CRM systems are geared to track ‘traditional’ communication channels (face to face meetings, phone calls and e-mails), they align well as a tool for handling complex customer issues. In the same way that I say for sales “Social opens the door, CRM closes the deal”, we can say for support “Social opens the case, CRM resolves the issue”.

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