Should You Bother Using Social Media to Serve Customers?

by Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff


“I’m telling everyone I know about how rude your customer service people are.”

If you were browsing Facebook or Twitter and you saw a comment like this about your company, we’d bet you’d instinctively want to respond to that customer to try to fix the relationship. Comments like these put us on the defensive — we want to prove to both this customer and everyone else that will see this post that our companies deliver high-quality service. It’s this instinct that has led to the growth of social media as a customer service channel.

Here at CEB, we regularly field questions from customer service leaders about social media, including how to develop policies and strategy, staff and train teams, and measure success. And we find that most companies make one fatal assumption: that social media is an effective service channel to resolve customer issues.

In the rush to help vocal customers via social media, many have jumped into implementation without taking a step back to ask themselves four critical questions:

Why is this important to customers?
Social media usage has exploded over the past few years, and provides many benefits to users. But what about specifically resolving customer service requests? Turns out people value social media to connect with friends, find jobs, and evaluate brands/products, but their opinion changes for post-sales support. Our research finds that 84% of customers have never used social media platforms to contact customer service and 83% do not expect to resolve customer service issues on social media platforms. So, ask yourself: Is this important to the vast majority of our customers, or are we serving a small (but vocal) minority?

What are we trying to achieve?
When customers do use social media for service, they often feel forced to go there to ‘vent’ — as a last resort because the company was “ignoring my issues in other channels.” Only 1.8% of customers go to social media first for customer service. If we want to achieve resolution for customers, shouldn’t our first priority to be to fix the gaps in traditional service channels like phone and web self-service — the channels customers tend to prefer?

What makes this solution work?
If issue resolution is the goal, then we have to look at social media’s ability to fully resolve service issues. 84% of customers don’t necessarily care what channel their issues are resolved in, just as long as it is fast and easy. That’s what makes the solution work for them. Unfortunately, social media can require back and forth messages to gather required details (and often ends up in an e-mail or phone call to gather personal information). If we know resolution for a particular issue in social media will be a frustrating process for customers, shouldn’t we guide them away from social media and towards a channel that will provide a better experience?

Am I prepared for it to work?
Companies who have nailed customer service in social media often tell us that they should have been more careful with what they wished for. By successfully handling customer service requests in social media, they teach their customers not only that they can get resolution in social media, but inadvertently show them that to ‘jump the line’ and get immediate attention, they should just publicly complain. Some even wonder if they have taught their customer bad habits. So, if it ends up working, are you ready for the potential implications?

Of course, social media can effectively be used for certain types of customer service. We’ve seen vibrant online customer communities for technical products where customers solve each other’s problems, instances of avoiding customer churn by reaching out to complaining customers via Twitter, and times when customers get information on Facebook that teaches them about their product.

But, before you jump the gun and start a social media team, stop for a moment. Ask yourself these four questions, and you might come to a very different conclusion about how to serve customers via social media.

Matt Dixon is an Executive Director of CEB’s Sales and Service Practice. Lara Ponomareff is the Practice Manager of CEB’s Customer Contact Council.

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