With social contact centers, companies find it’s learn as you go

Without clear best practices for social initiatives, contact centers need to chart their own courses with some basic guidance from industry analysts.

Managers searching for a playbook to create a social contact center are finding there are no established rules -- yet. With this void, contact centers need to create their own plans to incorporate social channels into their operations.

“There is a distinct lack of consensus on what [social media] even means and how it should be handled,” said Keith Dawson, industry director of the contact center practice at Frost & Sullivan in New York. 

But Dawson and several industry analysts said there are enough common sense first steps to help craft a strategy and allocate resources to get a social initiative off the ground.

Without cookie-cutter answers, contact centers need to experiment, set initial guidelines and resources and then adjust as they move forward. 

“If you have anyone on social channels today, you are ahead of the curve,” said Sheila McGee-Smith, president of McGee-Smith Analytics LLC in Amherst, N.H. “There are few companies that have lots of people resources allocated and a structured program.”

Industry consultants offered several key steps to consider:

Determine how to make use of social channels in the contact center. This sounds simple, but it can stump a contact center manager because it is difficult to know which channels are appropriate until a center actually engages on it.

“Conceptually, you can figure out what you need to address, but putting it into practice is really hard,” said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC in West Orange, N.J.  

Before the first key stroke is made in a social exchange, managers should at least determine if they will use social channels to react and respond or more proactively engage customers.

“You need guidelines of engagement for what information you should be able to convey over public channels,” said Kate Leggett, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

At many companies, a social initiative is already under way and is often driven by marketing organizations. Contact centers need to figure out how they will fit into that plan, analysts said.

“There are different levels of doing social channels,” McGee-Smith said. “Will you be listening, reacting or proactively doing customer care? How you allocate resources depends on where you are on this continuum between proactive and reactive.”

Designate a few key staff people to work as a small exploratory group. Analysts caution that contact centers should resist the impulse to throw manpower at the social challenge and avoid assigning too many agents to this task.

“You can’t just designate 10% of your workforce,” said Ken Landoline, principal analyst of unified communications and contact centers at Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va. “This really is a case of quality versus quantity. Put your toe in the water and start with a few agents doing this.”

DMG’s Fluss said staffing should be tied to the volume of social activity. “If you have a small volume of inquiries, then you can have a couple of people, but never just one,” Fluss said. “With just one, what if they have to go to the bathroom or out to lunch?”

Fluss said that if a contact center has a larger volume, it may need to use a workflow management system to schedule agents.

Identify the agents best suited for the initial social media team. Analysts said selecting the right agents depends on the organization’s culture. In some cases, agents who are social savvy seem like the best fit, while other centers opt for veteran agents with lots of company history and knowledge.

“What I have found is it tends to be a perk assignment, a reward to your best agents, the ones who can think independently and don’t need things fed to them,” McGee-Smith said.

Kick off the process with a listening exercise to determine the types of conservations about your company or its products taking place on social channels. The challenge, Forrester’s Leggett said, is to separate the “actionable items” from the noise. Figuring out what does and does not warrant a response is not a clear-cut issue. It is determined by not only what is said but who is saying it. A customer with influence -- determined by a variety of measurements such as Twitter followers -- should be factored in when considering a response.

Consider investing in social monitoring or listening software and social analytics tools to track social conversations about your company. Depending on the size of the operation, a contact center could consider free listening tools in the market to gainnitial insights on comments about the company, its products and related topics. There are dozens of free options, including Google Alerts and basic analytics tools within Twitter and Facebook. Adding analytics to the process will give an important additional layer of insight to incoming social commentary.

One example is at Best Buy Co. Inc., a national retailer of electronics equipment. The company collects customer comments and observations at a store level and sends them to a corporate database, where analytics are run against that data to determine trends or other issues that individual customer service representatives wouldn’t necessarily see on their own.  The company can then make changes in the store based on that customer input.

Establish an initial plan for engagement. Before engaging customers, companies  need to grasp the nuances of social engagement. There is a critical difference between gathering customer comments, as in the Best Buy example, and fielding customer complaints on social channels.

Take, for example, a customer complaint on Twitter. It turns out customers can pack quite a punch into just 140 characters. Contact centers should not assume that a phone agent could just shift gears and respond to that complaint. Chances are that Twitter complaint has come after the customer has engaged the company before and has been frustrated with the results. So, by the time the complaint goes on Twitter, the complaint is no longer routine and needs attention from a manager or perhaps even the marketing group if it has crossed into a brand management issue. 

“It takes a different kind of skill set to identify the problems that are at the heart of someone going to Twitter,” Frost & Sullivan’s Dawson said.

“It isn’t a call center rep’s job to identify a dysfunctional process,” he added. “That’s why it would be a mistake to say, ‘Let’s put 10 agents who used to be on the phone onto Twitter.”

In fact, Dawson said that some companies may determine that the bulk of Facebook and Twitter comments about them are already “escalated” situations and tend to not be routine customer service inquiries. As a result, contact center managers may determine that while they certainly need to monitor Facebook and Twitter, they are better off putting agents onto other channels, such as user communities and product forums.

Be prepared to tweak the social contact center plan often. Once a contact center begins engaging customers it can start tracking specific activities and then determine how it need to adjust staffing and other resources.

“If you are using analytics, it will help you keep track of what is coming in so you see what’s coming in on the different channels,” Fluss said. “So, we can get our hands around it.”

“As social media matures, it will end up more in the contact center,” Fluss added. “We will be able to figure it out. I am confident of that.”

 

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