Matrix: The Four Social Support Strategies

At the Altimeter Group, I cover Customer Strategy, which encompasses not only marketing, but also support, expect our discussion to grow as social technologies impact the whole enterprise.

The Social Support movement is afoot (see opportunities), and more companies will be connecting existing marketing and support systems with the social web. Many companies, like Comcast, Wells Fargo, Intel, BestBuy, JetBLue are responding to customers and in some cases, supporting them in near real time.

The challenge is that these teams are unable to scale, even a support team of ten full time folks at Comcast will have a hard time responding to all customers in all social channels. As a result, expect companies to resort to scalable ways to respond to customers, such as:

The Four Social Support Strategies

1) Do Nothing: Use Legacy Support Channels
Some companies will not respond to customers, it’s not in their culture, exposes them to risk, have specific legal or federal restrictions in place, or simply don’t get this space. In this case, these companies may only choose to support customers in their formal forms of support in 1800 numbers or on the official company websites

2) Employee Based Support:  Employees Respond to Customers
Many companies are assigning people in their support or product teams to respond to customers in the social web. The more conservative the company, the less people are officially able to support. Take for example financial services company Wells Fargo has a handful of “Social Concierges” that tweet on the @Ask_WellsFargo account, they set expectations around hours of service (insert banker’s hours joke here) and not to disclose account information. On the flip side, Best Buy encourages their thousands and thousands of “Blue Shirt” employees to respond using a Twitter CMS system that response from the official @Twelpforce account.

3) Peer Based Support: Customer to Customer Other companies will approach this by encouraging their top customers to respond on their behalf. By creating online communities where customers can self-support each other using Q&A features like Salesforce “Answers”, or my Lithium’s unique Twitter alerting system that encourages advocates to respond to prospects.  (Lithium is an Altimeter Group client).  It’s not just on branded communities, many companies encourage support from third party sites such as Get Satisfaction, who centralizes support for all products.

4) Automated Social Support: Computer Generated Tweets
Social CRM systems are going to be intelligent, in fact, they’ll start to incorporate bot-like features you can find in web-based chat support, or the logic from interactive voice systems (IVR), and respond to customers. Support and product teams can already tweet from some CRM interfaces, so attaching an intelligence module will be the next step –it could even come from existing employee Twitter handles.

Web Strategy Matrix:  The Four Social Support Strategies

Benefit Downside
Rely on Legacy Systems This keeps customers in the right process and funnel that the company is used to. Secondly, it doesn’t reinforce that customers should yell at their friends to get help from a company Missed opportunities: Angry customers could revolt starting a Groundswell, or leave an opportunity for competitors to swoop in and take dissatisfied customers.
Employee to Customer Provides a personal touch to help and assist customers, builds relations and trust For large companies, this is not scalable, and will result in companies prioritizing responses to the most authoritative or most urgent. If rolled out to support in all social avenues, it can be costly.  Lastly, it teaches customers to yell at their friends to get support.
Peer Based Support Companies can reduce costs by having customers self-support each other. Collectively, customers may often know more about the company’s products than the actual product team. Unfortunately, not all questions may get answered in a timely way, or answered correctly by staff who may have the inside details. Also, content in knowledge bases, wikis, forums, and Q&A features are often unstructured, messy, and hard to navigate.
Automated Social Support Companies can quickly scale by responding to customers faster, and more accurately, using automated responses. Some customers may feel cheated if they find out they are talking to a bot, and it may be more difficult to build that personal relationship.
  • http://www.facebook.com/OprahoftheWeb Corvida Raven

    Awesome breakdown of the social support strategies Jeremiah!

    I’d have to say I love #2: Employee Based Support: Employees Respond to Customers. I love it because it’s immediate and to be honest, I love immediate solutions. Not everything can happen as fast as we’d like, but the courage and opportunity to make it happen faster than usual is what I love about companies partaking in social media and online communities.

    I associate most brands not by their products, but by their level of customer service. I love my internet connection through Comcast. I love having their cable. I hate having to interact with their employees over the phone. Since technology is prone to many problems, I rarely recommend Comcast as a cable/internet provider because they’re customer support is a pain and hassle. People would be better off calling someone like me or the nearest tech savvy person they know.

    Through employee based support, you can make a world of a difference on how people not only go about buying your product, but buying into your brand. Companies don’t seem to see that though.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Corvida

    While I agree with you, many people today want their brands to stand for more than just the raw product itself, but what it stands for. However I have to ask:

    Are there products where the ethos of customer support doesn’t matter?

    Captain Morgan has a Twitter account, I really don’t want to interact with him at all.

    What about Apple? They don’t talk back to us online, but Apple customers talk to each other online, in forums, and at conferences.

    There are services and products out there where I don’t need to build a personal relationship (like my car) I just want my problems fixed.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shyamster Shyam Subramanyan

    It’s not one or the other. It has to be a combination of all four so every segment of your audience is covered. The percentage of each strategy would depend on customer profile and internal culture and can/should evolve over time. #4 should be < 10% of all interaction.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Shyam, agreed, like a marketing mix, it’s now a support mix.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shyamster Shyam Subramanyan

    also…at this point #2 is more of a reputation management than customer support. Squeaky wheels get the grease. Just wait until all my neighbors figure out that Comcast responds faster if they tweet their complaints…

  • http://tweetiesblog.wordpress.com Ada Wong

    The concept is powerful and the analysis is incisive. I think the combination of these Social CRM strategies is going to be the key to unlock customers’ full value in the future. The question is if companies are unable to provide satisfactory customer support services offline today, do you think they can transform themselves by taking customer support social and online in the future? I think the concept of Social CRM is here to stay and evolve, but I wonder how long it will take for companies to get it and adopt as part of their customer service culture.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • http://johnmarktroyer.com John Mark Troyer

    Great post! We’re at a mixture of #1, #2 & #3 — employees and customers. For us, there is a big difference in Strategy #2 (Employee-based support) between (a) customer service/tech support empowered to participate in social media and (b) other employees. The former are armed with the tools, training, & processes already created, and can drive inquiries into existing processes. The latter are just helping out, often without formal access to those tools, and are almost equivalent to the #3 peer customers reaching out with a helping hand.

    In the enterprise tech world, it’s a common cultural practice for employees to be on Twitter/etc and help out, even without an organized initiative like @Twelpforce. You still need to go back to official channels to get official support, ticket numbers, etc.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    John, it’s really helpful to hear from your real-world examples at VMware, thank you

  • http://www.facebook.com/olivier.a.blanchard Olivier Blanchard

    I love specific, concise pieces like these. This one reads like a Lego piece to a much larger whole. I particularly like that companies can map this out and see exactly where they stand in regards to customer support. This can easily provide the framework for a basic assessment exercise.

    Thanks for outlining this, J.

  • http://www.onlinebrandex.com Jen Travis

    I think it comes down to your brand and its unique promise when deciding how to provide social support. All of the methods you describe are viable options, but not for all companies (as you mention). Rather than letting size or organizational structure dictate how you provide social support, the decision should be driven by your brand, or the role you play and the value you uniquely provide. If it is around immediacy, you need to select a social support method that allows you to deliver immediacy. If your brand is around a specific expertise, you should ensure you have only your thought leaders and experts responding and build a social support mechanism to facilitate that.

  • http://blog.gettrustworthy.com Kirk Skodis

    Jeremiah, where does outsourcing social support fit into the matrix? An extension of #2? Or an asterisked #5? Isn’t this a way for companies trapped in #1 to reap the benefits of #2 (assuming the outsource can provide the similar support of an in-house team, of course)?

    And how is social support any less scalable than phone support? Don’t more customers have phones than Facebook pages? Does the social web present that much more of a challenge to companies than legacy support channels did originally?

    In fact, couldn’t I argue that social support has the one-to-many potential to reach others with answers to similar issues, and therefore be more efficient than one-to-one phone support?

    I think companies can leverage the social web the same way “customers who yell at their friends” do – by getting the public forum to work in their favor. What do you think?

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Kirk

    If it’s social support and outsourced then it falls into #2, as they are company representatives (and sometimes don’t even disclose they are contracted)

    Regarding phone vs social support, yes, it’s also costly. The only difference is that if companies shift to #3 they crowdsource support at a lower cost.

  • http://www.mhgroupcom.com Daniel P Bingham

    Do you have any insights into how social media customer service scales vs. phone support? I would think that social media support would compare favorably for a few reasons:

    1. Multitasking: unlike phone support, reps can have online conversations with more than one person at a time

    2. Elimination of customer holding time: Probably the biggest thing that gets customer service interactions off on the wrong foot is forcing the customer to wait on the phone for 15 minutes to speak to a real person. By the time the interaction happens the customer’s increased irritation has decreased their satisfaction with the company interaction, regardless of the outcome of the call. In contrast, in my recent experience with BofA on Twitter, I DM’d them my problem along with my phone number, and an hour later a service rep called me back with the solution already worked out. Even though it took longer to receive a solution than most telephone customer service interactions, my satisfaction with the interaction was much higher because my time was not wasted. Once I received the initial response via Twitter I knew the company was looking into my problem, so I was content to wait for them to solve it while I went back to my work. I would not have had the same reaction if I was on hold on the phone. BofA also benefited because the only person that had to spend time on the phone with me was the person who had the power to help me.

    3. Easy prioritization: Urgent issues/high priority customers can be identified and triaged immediately.

    4. Customer service process improvement: My general impression and personal experience is that social media customer service teams have much more power to use their discretion and creativity in solving problems than the phone support people. For example, in my experience BofA has very capable phone support people who are hamstrung by their computer system, so in my case they had to resort to a time-consuming work-around executed by a much-higher level executive. A large portion of customer service interactions by social media require this type of work-around – if companies learned from these interactions and improved their processes, the cost per interaction would go down.

    One other question: to what extent do you think companies buying off social media complainers with compensation/solutions they would not offer the typical customer, vs. offering the same compensation/solution that their normal customer service process would ideally offer if the process had not broken down somewhere?

    If it is mostly the former and they are throwing money and white glove treatment at people to shut them up because they have 1 million Twitter followers, then I think they are setting themselves up for bigger problems as more people learn to complain online, and the company can’t offer them all this level of compensation.

    Thanks for the great insights Jeremiah!

  • http://miltski.com/ Miltski

    Thanks for the thoughts. Well, as far as my business insights is concerned. Business approach vary depending the type of strategy you are employed. Like for instance, social media sites though with similar nature operates differently with other search engine optimization approach.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brunoanconalopes Bruno Lopes

    Jeremiah, I think you flipped the text from the “peer based support benefit” with the “automated social support benefit”… just a heads up, but amazing insights, as always! =)

    All the best!

    PS: the translation to portuguese and visual remix of your 8 listening stages post is close to completion. It’s been a long week around here! =)

    Cheers!

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Daniel, this makes me want to sort this by support process, which I may do next. If customers want to self-support each other for non-urgent issues, that could be helpful for companies to just put resources around critical needs.

    Let’s be honest, a customer with 1 million followers is very important, even if they don’t spend a lot of money, as they could influence a million potential customers.

    Bruno, thanks, I flipped them.

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  • http://snowcrashing.com Antonella

    There are many companies that have long considered customer service as an issue instead of an opportunity.
    The emergence of social media as a channel for customer support has many of them upset, because they now have to re-think of the whole problem and realize that competitors with “lesser” products/services might beat them, precisely because of their ability to leverage on these channels.

  • Christopher Coulter

    Anyone expecting “support” from a tweet or an one-time social event, isn’t going to be pleased. And half the time customers, aren’t quite sure exactly what’s wrong and are even less able to describe enough of a scenario for someone to unwind, playing investigative detective and reporter is vital.

    My One-Box Matrix

    Legacy Systems – Nothing “legacy” about Rapid Response Teams and appointed, empowered (and trained) employees. PR, Support, in whatever mode, social or not.

    Peer Group. – No. Never. Too astroturfish artificial if directed by, but if happens naturally, support and guide.

    Employee to Customer – No. Never. Such would sky-rocket training costs, and you’d lose tracking and CRM. Chaotic and inefficient. And in the Best Buy case, wholly contradictory, with endless extra Service Plan pushes.

    Automated Social Support – No. Never. Automated should never be used. Period. Automation to categorize and route maybe, but not per the actual support structure. No robots here.

  • Christopher Coulter

    Support Strategies Matrix Ultra-Condensed Version

    Pure Legacy – No.
    Employees to Customers – No.
    Peer Based Support – No.
    Automated Social Support – No.
    Rapid Response, Special Forces Teams – Yes.

  • http://www.mlmpowertower.com/ Neal

    Social media actually constitute the biggest community in the internet. More often that that, it become a business portal, customer service relation, and product services. Isn’t really the advancement of technology?

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    or the logic from interactive voice systems (IVR), and respond to customers. Support and product teams can already tweet from some CRM interfaces, so attaching an intelligence module will be the next step –it could even come from existing employee Twitter handles.

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