Off Center
Wanted: Agents with the inherent skill and agility to respond to social customers in 30 minutes or less, and dazzle them in 140 characters or less.

Up until relatively recently, social customer service reps were considered purely mythical beings – like Santa Claus, or home agents who bathe regularly. However, with customer demand for support and service via social media rapidly growing, social customer service agents (let’s call them SCSRs to save us all some time) have become a reality.

A necessity even – at least in organizations that aim to stay ahead of the competition and keep the number of viral tweets about their poor or non-existent social customer service down to around zero.

What this means is that contact centers that haven’t already done so need to start recruiting and hiring viable SCSRs, or at least to start thinking about doing so. Of course, they can’t do such things effectively until they learn the “anatomy” of an SCSR. What does an individual who deftly monitors and smoothly handles customer inquiries and tirades via Twitter, Facebook and other social sites “look” like? What skills and traits do they require to not only survive but also thrive in the social role?

Key Attributes of an Ideal SCSR   

Following are five things to look for in agents worthy of maintaining your contact center’s “social” life:   

Social savvy. You want reps who not only have active accounts across a broad range of social media, but who also communicate relevant information in a tactful manner via such media. Take a look at each SCSR candidate’s personal Twitter and Facebook accounts. If you see that they have a habit of posting inane or offensive updates, or if they appear to have had multiple infractions of “TWI” – Tweeting While Intoxicated – they’re probably better suited for your IT team than for your Social Customer Service team.

Built-in ‘analytics’. An important aspect of social customer service is being able to determine which customers (and potential customers) to engage with – and how. While some of this should be covered in SCSR training, you want reps who have the intuition and logic needed to make smart social decisions on their own. A good SCSR must be able to quickly analyze and assess customers’ social inquiries, comments and rants, and then provide customers with the answers, explanations and verbal sedatives they need.   

Excellent (and efficient) writing skills. Social savvy and keen analytical skills won’t mean much if your SCSRs write like somebody who failed fifth grade English composition. Don’t assume an agent knows how to write just because their job application and resume featured only minor spelling and grammatical gaffs. A good SCSR not only writes clearly and succinctly, but also conversationally. It’s called social media, not corporate media or academic media. Customers like and expect social responses that are casual yet professional, not rigid and robotic.

A customer service soul.  Even someone with exceptional writing skills will fail in an SCSR role if they don’t truly care about and eagerly want to assist the customers with whom they interact. It’s more important to be courteous and empathetic than captivating and clever in the social customer service sphere. Captivating and clever is nice in small doses, but it won’t get you far with customers who are on the brink of bringing your brand to its knees with a flaming Twitter campaign about how your service makes them want to a learn a deadly martial art.    

Multichannel agility. I know, I know, you thought we were talking only about agents who deal with social customer interactions. But the truth is, a good SCSR doesn’t deal in tweets and posts alone. Often, interactions that start off on Twitter or Facebook need to be quickly moved to chat or voice – particularly when the issue/inquiry in question is a complex one that requires the customer to provide detailed and private information, or when the customer is fuming and using language more fit for drunken sailors than for public consumption. Furthermore, it’s likely that the volume of social media contacts your center must handle won’t be large enough to keep SCSRs busy their entire shift, thus, it’s good to have ones who are able to hop on the phones or don their chat hat and rock the customer experience regardless of channel.    

Did I miss anything big? Please share your SCSR “anatomy” lessons in the comments section below.

While I usually cover contact center best practices and innovation in this blog, today, in keeping with Halloween, I’ve decided to highlight what scares the pants off of most customer care professionals (and what scares the pants back on those who work from home).

Forget about witches, ghosts and goblins – here are some things that are really scary if you manage a contact center:

Rampant agent turnover. It’s positively frightening to think that the average contact center has an annual turnover rate of nearly 40%, and that, according to the human capital management firm CallMe! (that really is their name), the average turnover cost per agent is upwards of $4,000. This means that in a typical 100-seat contact center, agent turnover costs roughly $160,000 – every year. Evidently many organizations are so paralyzed by fear of such exorbitant figures, they are physically unable to create the kind of positive culture that would cause said figures to plummet.

Disengaged agents interacting with your customers. Even scarier than agents leaving are agents who stick around – but who couldn’t care less about your company or its customers. Just because agents show up and sit at their workstations everyday doesn’t mean they are truly present, and THAT can cost you even more than actual turnover. When agents aren’t engaged, empowered and focused on the job, the unnecessary callbacks, long caller rants and customer defection could end up forcing your center to implement a 100% work-at-home initiative – because your company soon won’t be able to make rent.   

Managing Millennials. Millennials tend to be highly creative and tech-savvy multi-taskers who enjoy working in a collaborative manner. Nothing actually scary about that – unless you are a contact center manager or supervisor who only knows how to lead and develop people whose learning styles and communication preferences are just like yours. If that’s the case, your attempts to engage the typical Millennial will be a horror show featuring a lot of carnage – or at least a lot of burnout and attrition.

Social customer service. Just when you thought you had a handle on all the channels and that it was safe to go back into the contact center, social customer service entered the scene – bringing with it a new kind of terror. Now your center has to respond not only to customers who contact you directly (via phone, email and chat), but also to those who express their issue and mention your company name via Twitter or Facebook. And if you don’t respond to the latter customers – or if you respond in an unsatisfactory manner, everybody and their mother gets to see as the PR nightmare plays out. 

Big data. The vast amount of customer information today’s contact center is able to capture is amazing – and scary as all get-out if the center doesn’t have a way of structuring, analyzing and strategically acting on the data. If you thought finding time to monitor each agent a few times a month was hard, try finding time to make sense of the millions of pieces of customer intelligence flying around the contact center stratosphere. Fortunately, there have been real advances in interaction analytics and data-mining to help centers slay the big bad data monster, but many customer care organizations have yet to invest in or tap the full power of said technologies, and thus must continuously face the fear of being swallowed up whole.    

The power of the home agent model. This one may seem a bit out of place, but the power of the home agent model is scary. What else do you know of that, once implemented, has the power to vastly improve such critical things as: agent engagement and retention; agent performance and attendance; contact center staffing/scheduling flexibility; facility expenses; disaster recovery; and the environment? It’s natural to be in awe of such power, even a little frightened. But what’s REALLY scary is the fact that not every customer care organization has embraced the home agent model despite all the huge proven benefits. I guess they are deathly afraid of success – or of happy agents.

What scares YOU about customer care and working in a contact center? Share what makes you shudder and shiver in the ‘Comments’ box below.


When it comes to social customer care (providing service and support via social media channels), there are two key practices that contact centers must embrace: 1) monitoring; and 2) monitoring.

No, I haven’t been drinking, and no, there isn’t an echo embedded in my blog. The truth is, I didn’t actually repeat myself in the statement above.

Now, before you recommend that I seek inpatient mental health/substance abuse treatment, allow me to explain.

Monitoring in social customer care takes two distinctly different though equally important forms. The first entails the contact center monitoring the social landscape to see what’s being said to and about the brand (and then deciding who to engage with). The second entails the contact center’s Quality Assurance team/specialist monitoring agents' 'social' interactions to make sure the agents are engaging with the right people and providing the right responses.

The first type of monitoring is essentially a radar screen; the second type of monitoring is essentially a safety net. The first type picks up on which customers (or anti-customers) require attention and assistance; the second type makes sure the attention and assistance provided doesn’t suck.

Having a powerful social media monitoring tool that enables agents to quickly spot and respond to customers via Twitter and Facebook is great, but it doesn’t mean much if those agents, when responding…
  • misspell every other word
  • misuse or ignore most punctuation
  • provide incomplete – or completely incorrect – information
  • show about as much tact and empathy as a Kardashian.
  • fail to invite the customer to continue his/her verbal evisceration of the company and the agent offline and out of public view.
All of those scary bullet items above can be avoided – or at least minimized – when there’s a formal QA process in place for social media customer contacts. Now, if you’re thinking your QA and supervisory staff are too busy to carefully monitor and evaluate agents’ Twitter/Facebook interactions with customers (and provide follow-up coaching), then what the Zuckerberg are you thinking even offering such channels as contact options? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, and again): If your contact center isn’t ready to monitor a particular contact channel, then it isn’t ready to HANDLE that channel.

Customers don’t applaud organizations for merely being progressive. If Toyota came out with a new automobile that ran on garbage but that had a 20% chance of exploding when you put the key in the ignition, customers’ response wouldn’t be, “Deadly, yes, but I might make it across the country on just banana peels!”

Social customer care is still new enough where organizations offering it are considered progressive. If your contact center is one such organization, are your customers applauding the strong and consistent social service and support your agents are providing, or is your center overlooking the quality component and losing too many customers to explosions?  

For more insights (and some irreverence) on Social Customer Care, be sure to check out my blog post, “Beginner’s Guide to Social Customer Care”. Also, my book, Full Contact, contains a chapter in which best (or at least pretty good) practices in Social Customer Care are covered.

Just when contact center professionals were starting to get a handle on email and chat, social media came along and changed the customer care rules – again.

Sort of. I mean, it’s not like none of the existing principals of service and support apply to social customer care. You still have to be courteous, professional and accessible, and you still have to provide accurate information that resolves customers’ issues before customers begin to hate you a lot. However, you are now performing on a public stage – and if a customer does start to hate you a lot, it’s rarely if ever kept a secret.

With social media, contact centers can no longer just wait for customer issues to arrive; centers now also have to carefully “listen” for customer issues to arise. Often, a social customer is talking about a problem with your company, but they aren’t talking to you. Instead they are talking to whomever will listen. It’s your job to make sure you are among those listeners – and to engage and assuage the customer promptly.

If you haven’t already gotten into the social customer care game, it’s time to do so now. Here are several starter tactics to help you and your contact center look like you know what you’re doing.

Map out your social strategy. When determining just how to incorporate social media into your contact center’s customer care strategy, answer the following critical questions:
·      Who will head up our social customer care strategy?
·      What will agents “listen” for when monitoring the social media landscape?
·      How and under what conditions will agents engage with customers via social sites?
·      How will we use social customer insight and feedback to improve processes, products and

        customer service?
·      How will we keep social agents from spending all day watching cat videos on YouTube?

“Socialize” your agents. Just because the majority of your frontline staff has practically grown up in the Twitterverse doesn’t mean they inherently understand how to serve and support customers in a social media environment. Even the most proficient tweeters and bloggers among your agents still need to be trained and coached on your contact center’s specific social customer care strategy and practices.

Harness the power of an advanced social media monitoring solution. Much of social customer care involves “listening” to what customers are saying across social sites. Using one of the many social media monitoring solutions on the market is essential for such tasks. The best ones make it easy for agents to engage with customers and provide proactive service as well as damage control. Some solutions feature advanced text analytics that can detect key words and phrases relevant to your specific organization.

Create your own engaging online community for customers. A winning social service strategy extends far beyond Twitter and Facebook. Many leading customer care organizations have created their own online communities, which are specifically designed for customers to interact with one another and share experiences. These communities serve as an invaluable source of customer feedback and insight for the company. In addition, they help reduce the number of routine customer calls, emails and chats that agents have to handle since customers can get many of their questions answered by community peers as well as by reading helpful tutorials and blogs provided proactively by the company. If you see that a community peer is doing an exemplary job of fielding fellow customers' questions, consider kidnapping him/her and forcing him/her to work as an agent in your center.  
Be “antisocial” at the right times. You shouldn’t break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend in public, and you shouldn’t interact with frustrated customers via social sites. Some things are better handled in a private setting. While leading social customer care practitioners empathetically acknowledge angry customers’ dissatisfaction out in the open, their agents then invite said customers to interact via chat, email or phone to resolve their issue or complaint behind closed doors. Most companies find that when they handle such interactions well, soon the customer is back on Twitter or Facebook – this time touting how alert and customer-centric the organization is.

What are your thoughts on social customer care? Share your suggestions, ideas, experiences and exasperation in the comments section below.

If you take the CRM craze of the mid to late 1990s, multiply it by 1,000, write a couple hundred white papers on it, sponsor a couple hundred more webcasts about it, then multiply it by 1,000 again, you will get close to the level of hype regarding how social media is “revolutionizing” customer care in the call center.

Should call center professionals be paying attention to how social media relates to customer service and support? Absolutely.

Should they start listening to and engaging customers via social media sites if they haven’t already done so? Yes, probably.

Does anybody really know how best to do that? Nah, not really.

Is that going to stop me from pretending like I do and miss out on the opportunity of being labeled a thought leader on the scorching hot issue of social customer care?

Not a chance.

Maybe Not “Best” but “Pretty Good” Practices

Social media as it pertains to customer care and the call center is simply too new, too rapidly evolving and too short of common success stories for anybody to start labeling any tactic or thought-provoking theory a “best practice”.

That being said, here are some pretty good practices based on what we’ve seen so far:

Develop a formal social customer care strategy. While everybody is talking about social media’s big impact on the call center, few organizations have actually sat down and mapped out how they will incorporate social media into their center’s customer care strategy.

When developing a customer service-based social media initiative, call center professionals need to answer such questions as:

·      How will social media improve the customer experience?

·      What will agents look for when monitoring the social media landscape?

·      How will agents respond to/interact with customers via social media?

·      How can social media help the call center/enterprise build its knowledgebase?

·      How will you keep agents from spending all day watching Lady Gaga videos on YouTube?

Train your “Tweeters”. Unless you’re in the habit of illegally hiring small children or staffing your call center with octogenarians, most of your existing agents will already be well versed on the ins and outs of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as have intimate knowledge of the ubiquitous activity of blogging. Thus, you shouldn’t have much difficulty finding staff to serve as your center’s social media specialists. What you may have difficulty in is – after announcing that there are openings for social media specialists in your call center – keeping agents from poisoning one another in the spirit of competition.   

Just keep in mind that even the most proficient “Tweeters”, Facebookers and bloggers among your agents still need to be trained on the company’s specific social media strategy as well as the call center’s specific policies and practices with regard to customer service-based social media interaction. Smart call centers don’t insult their staff’s intelligence when training them on social media; in fact, they tap their agents’ ample social media knowledge and expertise to improve processes, tools and training. In doing so, the center not only continues to get better at the social customer care game, it increases agent empowerment and engagement, which often results in expanding average agent employment length from three months to five.      

Invest in a reputable social media monitoring solution. Just as with traditional customer support channels in the call center, effective social media-based customer care hinges on listening to customer needs. The catch with social media – as compared to the phone, email, chat, et. al. – is that there is a world of noise to filter out, and the customer you are listening to is most likely not even talking to you directly. Rather they are sharing their elation, frustration, accolades and fury with the entire social media universe.

But it’s your organization that needs to be listening to these customers most carefully. Fortunately for you, that’s not so hard to do, thanks to a host of advanced social media monitoring tools available. Today’s more potent social media monitoring solutions feature advanced text analytics that can detect key words and phrases that are relevant to your specific organization – even one of your specific agents – and make sense out of unstructured, unfiltered information. The most advanced solutions enable centers to not only “hear” what customers are saying on popular social media sites and in blogs, but also to easily interact with those customers – providing proactive service/support as well as damage control before an enraged customer decides to create an online hate group starring your company.

While many vendors now offer some type of social media solution specifically for customer care, a few that stand out include Salesforce, Cisco and RightNow – all of whom I expect to receive a substantial financial kickback from soon for mentioning them here. (I’m kidding, of course. I’ll accept non-cash gifts, as well.) 

Launch your own social networking community for customers. This is where social customer care  gets really interesting – and adds the most value for customers and organizations alike. Rather than merely monitoring and occasionally participating in discussions on social sites that are each owned by a billionaire geek not old enough to shave, progressive businesses have created their own company-hosted social networking communities.

Such social business platforms are specifically designed for customer-to-customer interaction and experience-sharing, and often serve as a source of valuable customer feedback for the call center and enterprise – the kind of feedback that’s tough to capture via more traditional methods like post-contact C-Sat surveys. When completing a C-Sat survey, customers are asked a brief set of questions that they may or may not be in the mood to answer. But when interacting with fellow customers in an online social setting, customers tend to be more forthcoming and expressive – often revealing what it is about the service they recently received that makes them want to learn to box.

A company-hosted customer community can also help call centers reduce the number of routine customer calls, emails and chats that agents have to handle. When customers interact with one another online, they often answer each others' questions. Some companies have seen the emergence of customer “experts” – users who have no real social lives or hobbies who possess a wealth of company product/service knowledge and who take pride in assisting peers with their problems. It’s important that the call center monitor such interactions to ensure that customer experts provide accurate information and answers, and to see if there are any customers worth kidnapping and bringing in to the center to work as an agent.

Centers interested in developing their own social platform should check out such SBS (social business software) solutions providers as Jive, Mzinga, and Awareness. Certainly there are other reputable vendors, but I don’t wear a pocket protector nor have tape holding my eyeglasses together, thus I may not be entirely up to date on who the absolute latest/greatest SBS players are. Regardless of who the vendor is, the best SBS solutions enable companies to respond to customer comments and discussions (when appropriate), create collaborative documents and blogs, take user polls on key topics and track the most popular topics.  

Invite social customers to email or chat – or even call – when appropriate.  Interacting with social customers is like changing into your bathing suit – it isn’t wise to do it out in the open.

Providing customers with basic information and quick answers to routine issues on external and company-hosted social media sites is fine; however, when the customer issue is more complex or the customer is “flaming” about a problem they are having with the company, it’s best to take things inside by inviting the customer to interact privately with an agent via chat, email or phone. Naturally it’s more cost effective to move the conversation to the chat or email channel than it is to have the customer call, but there will be times when a meaningful phone conversation is required to get a disgruntled or confused customer to drop their virtual torch and pitchfork.

Walk… Don’t Run – Hurry!

Social customer care has too much potential to become huge for you to not learn how to at least fake it now. There is no need to panic if you haven’t already begun to do so; simply start to adopt the practices and approaches described above, and there is a chance your organization will survive through the coming summer.