Facebook and Twitter are easy ways for retailers to spread the word about their brand, but how well are they being used for customer service? Rebecca Thomson puts retailers to the social media test.

Why offer service through social media?

  • It increases trust in the brand by making it appear transparent and open
  • The quick-fire nature of social media means that queries that might otherwise take more time to deal with can be sorted out quickly
  • It’s an easy way to boost your reputation. While a relatively low number of people are actively using these sites to speak to brands, thenumber is growing and the amount of traffic is high - with Facebook topping 500 million global users, it matters how you come across
  • It can drive sales. The informal nature of the networks means customers are comfortable asking for advice on what to buy, and converting these queries into sales is easy if you respond promptly and informatively

Providing quality customer service used to depend largely on retailers’ store staff or call centre employees. Not anymore. Efficient, friendly and informed social media managers are now needed, too.

Currently, retailers may receive only a relatively small proportion of complaints and comments via Facebook and Twitter - the two most popular networks for consumers wanting to interact with their brands. But as the popularity of social media continues to soar, the need for retailers to display impeccable online social skills will become ever more pressing.

So how good are they at using these mediums for customer service? What is the trick to getting it right? And what are the best performers doing? To put them to the test Retail Week - posing as typical shoppers - asked questions of 19 retailers selected at random on Twitter and Facebook.

Their effectiveness varied widely. The full results are shown here:

Waterstone’s and B&Q were among the top performers and stood out for their quick, informative and friendly answers. Arguably, they did have the benefit of being asked open questions - both were asked for advice on what to buy or how to do something - but others, such as Halfords, were given similar queries and yet failed to respond.

The immediacy of response on Twitter also made Waterstone’s stand out. Within minutes a personalised reply was received from a specific member of the retailer’s team, asking for more information and providing a direct email address for further queries. Separately via email the company sent a list of links to different books. B&Q, meanwhile, replied to a Facebook post quickly and enthusiastically, used the name of the person they were addressing, and provided a vast amount of information - everything from links to helpful videos to advice from experts and required products.

Making connections

While some retailers are embracing social networks’ ability to engage their customers, others are focusing more on their use as a branding tool, showing customers new products and adverts.

Burberry and Topshop, for instance, don’t currently allow their Facebook fans to write comments on their walls, which is the main route for customers to contact a brand on the network, and Marks & Spencer says it prefers to speak to people on the discussions section of its Facebook page.

Instead of customer service, the aim for some is to broadcast news, pictures and brand information. It may well be working for them - Burberry alone has nearly six million Facebook fans that are obviously interested in its pictures and videos of clothes, and it’s possible that luxury brands want something different from the medium. But the less responsive companies are missing a trick.

John Lewis director of operational development Lesley Ballantyne says talking to people on social media is a no-brainer and often results in sales. While experts generally advise against going for the hard sell on the networks, good communication will always lead to happy customers. “We definitely see it as a sales-driving activity,” she says, adding that these sales can come from helping customers to find a product they couldn’t see before, or giving advice on what to buy.

Organic online grocer Abel & Cole says it generates about £3,000 worth of sales a week through social media. This may be a small proportion of its total, but in a climate when every sale counts and social media is still in its relative infancy, the potential for this to grow is substantial.

Abel & Cole marketing executive Emma Healey says the dialogue between company and customer should be two-way, just as with any other form of conversation. “If a customer is reaching out on social media, it’s as valid a channel as any other. It shouldn’t be ignored.” Furthermore, she adds, it can be enjoyable to get to know customers on a more personal level - and the feedback they provide on what products they would like to see can be invaluable for a retailer’s buying department.

Waterstone’s online content editor Greg Eden responds to customers’ social media queries within minutes, providing anything from ideas for presents to material for research. “Social media can help to convert a person from someone who’s just making a query into an actual customer, and can convince an unhappy customer not to give up on the company,” he says.

“If a customer is reaching out on social media, it’s as valid a channel as any other. It shouldn’t be ignored”

Emma Healey, Abel & Cole

Answering back

So which other retailers got it right and which have significant room for improvement? Of the 19, 10 replied on Twitter, including Oasis and Mothercare, and 11 replied on Facebook. Four - Burberry, Ocado, Halfords and Topshop - didn’t reply on either network, although other Facebook users not connected to the company did answer the question on Ocado’s page, indicating it has successfully built up a good community. Asda doesn’t have a Facebook page, although it did reply on Twitter.

When replying, tone is important. Enthusiasm is infectious and coming across as happy to hear from your customers is most likely to build loyalty and drive sales. Speedy responses are also helpful. If someone is looking for a gift or idea, they need a quick answer before they find inspiration elsewhere.

However, constant communication is hard work. Is it really feasible to answer every single query in the same effective way? Some retailers have thousands of followers, and will receive all manner of queries. Is the volume of requests manageable? Retailers that use the networks all the time say it is. Press and editorial content teams often deal with more general enquiries, passing on more complex issues to the relevant person or department. At Waterstone’s, Eden says it’s possible for two people to keep an eye on incoming queries as part of their day-to-day jobs, while John Lewis says the work has simply been integrated into the customer service department’s overall activity.

Ballantyne adds that the amount of dedicated resource depends on the type of queries coming in. John Lewis uses software to monitor a number of websites - such as parenting forum Mumsnet - for mentions of its brand. She adds that the more time-consuming complaints are often more likely to come through more direct means of communication such as the phone, making social media less demanding.

Social networks currently account for about 5% of John Lewis’ total number of customer complaints, although this is expected to rise. Ballantyne says the amount of resource dedicated to the medium will vary with each retailer, and the number of requests coming through.

“Social media can convince an unhappy customer not to give up on the company”

Greg Eden, Waterstone’s

The right response

Meanwhile, Abel & Cole is in the process of hiring someone to manage its social media. There is also software available to help such as TweetDeck . Seesmic and Hootsuite. Abel & Cole uses the latter, which gives an at-a-glance overview of an account and helps the team stay on top of who’s replying to the queries coming in.

Internet consultancy Auros has done its own research on social media customers, and discovered several similar trends to Retail Week’s investigation. While nearly all retailers do have some kind of presence on the major social networks, there are wide discrepancies in the quality of their use. Some are throwing their weight behind it and reaping results. Many still don’t view them as a way to communicate with and help customers, while others aren’t using social networks much at all - let alone for customer service.

Auros business development manager Robin Smith says this a lost opportunity and attributes it to a fear of losing control. It’s true that social media enables unhappy customers to write negative things about a brand in a public place. But Smith says any negative comments should not be feared - if dealt with well, it can turn a customer’s bad experience into a good one. Ballantyne agrees, saying John Lewis never deletes negative comments off its Facebook wall.

“Most people want to be heard, listened to and respected,” she says. “They want to have their opinions explored. Even if there are times when we don’t agree with them, at least we’ve demonstrated that we’ve listened. I believe that builds trust.”

Smith says ignoring or deleting comments or not allowing customers to talk via social media is akin to hanging up the phone when they call. “You shouldn’t brush things under the carpet,” he says. “You need to turn people who are unhappy with you into advocates by being open with them.” But he adds that in some situations, there is a point where it makes sense to take the conversation to a different channel.

“You need to turn people who are unhappy with you into advocates by being open with them”

Robin Smith, Auros

Facing your public

As with everything new, a whole set of new rules needs to be learnt before providing customer service via social networks becomes easy. But the results some retailers are seeing make it an attractive proposition. Not only is it an easy and cheap way to keep people happy, but it is visible to the passing social media public so it can help improve the standing of your brand in the eyes of thousands.

Social media may be a relative fledgling, but opening up on online networks brings benefits for both customers and retailers. As this channel matures, those who are sceptical at the moment will want to rethink.

How to manage customer service on social media

  • Have a clear strategy and have the right processes in place
  • Agree the tone of voice and type of language that will be used to keep the tone and brand consistent across different channels
  • Identify the right operators and customer service representatives for the role. People who are already personally active on the networks are ideal
  • Agree boundaries over what questions can and cannot be answered, and have a clear idea of who to escalate certain comments to. A clear view of internal workflow is needed
  • Monitor every network and website using software designed for the purpose, and write frequent reports on how effective your activities are and any changes that are needed
  • Measures sales from the networks by tracking any web links you put on them