Eight Tips for Scaling Social Customer Support

David Armano noted in a recent Harvard Business Review post on social business that listening to conversations is a valuable step but only the beginning:

“The true opportunity lies in scaling and operationalizing “social”.”

Online customer support is one of the key trends confronting companies as they embrace social business and look to interact with their consumers online. The growth of social customer support is being driven by three key factors: increased uptake of social media broadly; highly visible success stories from other companies and an expectation of two-way interaction in social channels.

As social support grows in reach and popularity, companies are facing the conundrum of how to successfully scale. How do you deal with an environment where an unlimited number of people may look to you for swift, helpful service?

Here are eight pointers for scaling your customer support:

1. Shift from reactive to proactive + reactive

Listening and reacting isn’t enough. Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that search engines are the #1 source of information about companies for informed consumers. So, win the search battle. Mine your support records for the most common support requests (through both online and traditional channels) and create searchable resources to address those queries.

These resources could be blog posts, knowledge base articles, videos, graphics, whatever (more on that later in this post) — just make sure they’re in the language of your customers, not in business jargon, and that people can link directly to them.

2. Triage

My apologies to the purists out there who think everyone should be treated equally, but if one person could cause a major issue for your company while another is lower-profile, I’m going to prioritize accordingly. Is that ideal? No. Is that completely egalitarian? No. Is it practical and realistic? You bet.

This means setting out your criteria for triage ahead of time. If you have tiered support in other channels you may already have some of this. Consider:

  • Relative influence
  • Severity of issue
  • Spread of issue
  • …etc.

3. Respond publicly when possible

The natural inclination for many companies is to take negative chatter offline ASAP. There are a couple of pitfalls to this approach:

  1. The Internet doesn’t forget — others will be able to see the complaint, but no resolution
  2. Other people with the same problem won’t benefit from the solution

There are many cases where you will have to take a conversation offline due to privacy needs around personal information, or due to legal regulations. Where those things aren’t the case, though, responding to concerns publicly accomplishes two things:

  1. Allows anyone watching to see your company being responsive to an issue (improves your reputation)
  2. The one:many nature of the Internet means that other people with that same issue can see the solution (scales your response)

4. Help customers to help customers

Companies like AT&T (rated highly for social support by Forrester) and BlackBerry (disclosure: client) have been successful at developing highly active support forums where customers interact with and help each other. While the company can step in and address unanswered questions, this solution means that many queries are addressed without any involvement from the company.

5. Build an army of advocates

Your social media activities will naturally let you identify your most active users and your biggest fans. Don’t ignore this potential; create programs to cultivate and build relationships with these people, empower them to become your ambassadors and reward them for doing so.

6. Know your customer

Different people have different preferences for how to receive service; this leads both to tailored interactions with people and to the development of different support mechanisms to suit their needs. People who are pressed for time and just want to get the answer with no frills may prefer quick step-by-step how-tos, for example, while others look for more social interaction and conversation. If you can, take the time (and/or money) to do the research to identify those needs.

Social CRM is a buzz term right now, but even if you’re not ready to go to that extent, there are plenty of tools that let you view your past interactions with people online and begin to move in that direction.

7. Structure for scale

While you may have a core group of support agents conducting support online, look to train and prepare a broader group of employees to step in during critical situations. Few companies are going to be able to take the Zappos approach to empowering employees, but by training outside your team you can be prepared for spikes in activity.

8. Plan strategically

Businesses don’t usually experience flat demand throughout the year. You’ll have seasonality; you’ll have spikes driven by announcements and launches; you’ll have marketing promotions. By knowing when those are, you can plan your resources accordingly – both in terms of staffing and in terms of proactive asset creation (see #1  above).

Scaling support remains a pressing problem for organizations. These approaches can help you to help more people, and in doing so raise satisfaction rates, reduce customer churn and improve your organization’s  reputation.

What tips would you add to the list?

  • Hi Dave,

    I think this is great. Really useful. I agree with the triage point – with limited resources – focus on the customers that could make the most noise online first. I find Radian 6 is good for this with its filters.

    One question: what about going into forums as a company where people are complaining about a product or service. Many clients feels uncomfortable about doing this?


    • Hi Adam,

      There are a few things to consider when engaging in forums:

      1. Some forums have terms and conditions, or even just norms, that
      discourage brands from participating. Messaging or emailing the admin to
      clarify those rules will help to ensure you don’t get moderated/banned.
      2. Forum participants tend to be more persistent than those on blog posts,
      and conversation threads can go on for months. As such, engaging in a forum
      should be seen as a commitment to remain engaged, at least for the duration
      of that conversation. Otherwise, you’ll be left in a position where people
      ask you questions and you’re noticeably absent from responding.
      3. Forum participants often have in-depth knowledge of a subject. So, don’t
      expect to BS your way through an answer – make sure you know your stuff.

      All of this can be intimidating, so it’s not surprising that some companies
      are wary of engaging there. If you can work through those challenges,
      though, it can be worthwhile as you’re engaging with people who really care
      about the topic.



  • Spot on post! Organizations need to invest in expanding their active listening grids. Such responsibility cannot fall solely on a community manager/team or on a non-social customer service agent. You need an infusion of both.I think there is better luck and long term benefits if this expansion of grid is of people who are engaged (proactively, as in your first point) in the industry conversations or trending topics before the brand is mentioned. Such engagement or investment increases top of mind recall and trust. At the end of the day, this is a major shock to even the most engaged corporate cultures.

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  • Good post, Dave. One thing I tend to have a different opinion on is #3. While I think it’s important to acknowledge and respond on the platform the issue was brought to your attention, I feel that taking conversation offline, when possible, presents the opportunity to bring more value to the customer. Rather than simply tweeting “I’m sorry, let me fix it,” I think bringing the conversation offline shows that you’re genuinely interested in resolving the issue at hand. It also brings a bit more human touch to the conversation. And hopefully, after the issue is resolved, the customer will acknowledge it…online!

    • I think the difference is I’m not suggesting you tweet “I’m sorry, let me
      fix it.” I’m suggesting that, where possible, that exchange happen publicly
      so that you can solve the problem for multiple people instead of
      perpetuating the 1:1 model which has trouble scaling. That doesn’t work
      where personal information is exchanged, but otherwise you don’t need to be
      behind closed doors to demonstrate that you care.

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