When they want, how they want

Editor's note: Marianne Hynd is vice president of operations at Ann Michaels and Associates, a Naperville, Ill., customer experience management firm.

Consumers have been driving social media as a customer service channel for many years, with high expectations as far as response rate and time, which has left brands feeling the pressure to acclimate to this new normal. While this has been generally successful, will consumers continue to dictate the rules of engagement or will brands get to a point where they take control again? This article draws from a study that sought to uncover insights into the current state of affairs and give some clues to what comes next.

Ann Michaels & Associates initiated the study focused on customer service in social media in 2012 as the phenomenon started to emerge. The study was replicated in 2015 and vast improvements were noted. It was clear that brands realized that the consumer was driving this need and it was only going to become more significant and they responded in a positive manner. By 2017, great strides had been made but just how far had brands advanced in their handling of customer feedback submitted via social media?

The 2017 study sought to answer this question. In addition to evaluating response rates and response times across social channel and time of day, the study also looked to identify any potential gaps in social service and uncover any potential opportunities to further enhance the customer experience online.

Ten companies within three verticals within the retail industry – specialty retail apparel, department stores and drug/grocery stores – were selected for inclusion in the study. The three industries were chosen as they represent a nice subset of the retail industry as a whole and obtaining data from different verticals within the same industry would provide a solid overview of performance.

The study focused on two of the largest social media networks, Facebook and Twitter, as well as more traditional contact via e-mail through a company’s Web site. The e-mail response time, while not social-focused, can be used as a control group in some respects, as it was a significant customer service channel prior to the advent of social media.

Mystery shoppers were utilized to contact target companies with a simple inquiry related to their business. Days and times of contact varied to gain additional information regarding response time across a variety of time parameters throughout the day. Each retailer was contacted across each channel three times (once in each designated time period). In total there were 270 contacts made, as well as an additional three contacts per brand indirectly on Twitter – when a customer service inquiry was posted on Twitter, the mystery shopper did not post the inquiry directly on the retailer’s Twitter page, send a direct message or use the @ symbol before the company’s name to alert it to a new notification. This indirect piece was included as a secondary evaluation to determine if brands were actively monitoring conversations and reacting to issues when customers are not talking directly to them.

Results were aggregated by retailer and industry and the results were analyzed across all retailers included in the study, with a comparison made to data from prior studies.

Companies responded

When looking at response rates across all companies in the study, regardless of industry, results show that a response to a customer service inquiry was received 77 percent of the time, meaning that no matter which type of contact was made, companies responded to consumer inquiries 77 percent of the time.

Interestingly, overall response rate across all channels was down 2 percent since the 2015 study but still up from the initial response rate in 2012, which was 70 percent.

Time of day was incorporated into the study, with evaluations being conducted within three timeframes – weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., weeknights between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. and weekends.

What’s very interesting about the current findings is the consistency across all times of day; response rates were steadily around 77-78 percent, with some improvement in weeknight and weekend response rates. Weekdays actually showed a decline this time around, which may signal a focus on non-traditional times and continual realignment of service staff to offer consistent service levels no matter the social channel or time of day.

Consistently decreased

The data for speed of response paint a positive picture: response times have consistently decreased, dropping approximately 50 percent since the 2012 study and quite a bit since the 2015 study. During the 2012 study, Facebook was more predominantly used by brands compared to Twitter and it made sense that the response time was slightly better. During the next study, in 2015, Twitter tended to dominate slightly and the response time decline illustrated a response to this shift. Facebook responses were received in just under 8-1/2 hours on average in 2015, compared to the 7-1/2-hour average response time in this study. Response times decreased on Twitter between 2015 and 2017 (8 hours, 15 minutes hours vs. 6 hours, 30 minutes) as well.

Data was broken out into response times based on whether an inquiry was made during traditional business hours, weeknights or weekends to evaluate company response to the consumer-driven expectation of getting a reply as quickly during business hours as on weekends or weeknights. From there, the results focused on response times by time of day for Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook is generally the stronger of the two channels when it comes to response times; brands tended to respond within a 2-1/2-hour period during weekday hours, which almost matches consumer expectations. The site performed better than Twitter during weekend hours, though response times increased from prior studies. Facebook showed a significant lag in response time during weeknight hours, while this is a much stronger area for Twitter. Weekday response times continues to dominate, following the traditional thought that business hours are the most opportune time for consumers to get assistance quickly. It still goes against the fact that consumers are likely to be most active during non-business hours, after their workday and on weekends. This shows that brands may still be struggling with social media engagement during non-business hours.

Set a brand apart

To stand out in an extremely competitive landscape, a company must quickly identify a potential micro shift whenever a major shift occurs. This little shift can make a huge difference and set a brand apart from others very quickly. One such shift was identified in this study.

A small segment of contacts, which were not included in data analysis, were indirect customer service contacts on Twitter. One example was a simple Tweet that read, “Does anyone know if Retailer X sells petite sizes?” The consumer named the brand (and may or may not have used a hashtag) and posed a question but did not tweet directly to the company.

Contacts were made in this manner to identify if brands were monitoring social conversation outside of their own sites and, if so, were they responding or interacting with these indirect customers?

Expectations were extremely low in 2012 and results were as expected. In fact, the response rate was so poor that the results were not included in any way. In the 2015 study, results were slightly improved but still quite poor (less than 5 percent response rate).

In the years after the 2015 study, social media monitoring emerged, mainly as a means of tracking brand reputation and consumer satisfaction. Did this make an impact on the 2017 results?

Sort of. Only 14 percent of those communicating indirectly with a brand received a response. But it was interesting that the hashtag made a significant difference: 100 percent of those who received a response from indirect contact used a hashtag prior to the brand’s name.

What does this tell us? The brands that were able to identify a customer service issue and reply to these indirect contacts were, at the very least, monitoring their hashtag for opportunities to respond to and assist consumers. What’s even more promising is that, on average, the response time to these indirect inquiries was 38 minutes. This is very much in line with consumer expectations and far less time than averages found across other communication channels in this study.

Facebook has closed the gap

The results from this study support the research that has been done previously with regard to social media, though some assumptions made in 2015 did not fare as anticipated in the current study. Specifically, it was theorized that Twitter would continue to make strong strides in response times but data showed that Facebook has closed the gap on customer expectations more so than Twitter in both response rates and response times. While this data departs from the earlier theory, it does fall in line with Sprout Social’s Q1 2017 index, which stated that, despite the fact that 47 percent of marketers believe Twitter is the preferred site for consumer engagement, Facebook is in fact the preferred site across Millennials, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

Another interesting finding was that, while response times continued to decrease in 2017, the drop was not as significant as it was in prior years. In fact, it appears that response times may be flattening; the gap was still quite wide between consumer expectations and actual response time and doesn’t appear to be dropping significantly.

However, this finding gives clues into the future of social customer service. While the consumer has been driving the process up until now, these findings may suggest that brands are starting to take back control. There will come a point when response times are as good as they’re going to get; the plateau may indicate that the current response times are the best brands can do and consumers may have to realize that they can be satisfied with a four-to-six-hour response time instead of the five-to-60-minute response they would like.

Truth is, companies are overwhelmed. Adding social to the mix as a vehicle for customer service has been challenging. The majority of companies have embraced social media but ROI is still difficult to prove and budgets may not focus on this need.

There also additional challenges, which may include:

  • shifting the perception that there could exist social media staff and customer service staff, each in their own silo;
  • mapping the customer journey in this medium with regard to service issues and tying social contacts to CRM platforms for seamless problem resolution; and
  • ensuring that the right social monitoring platform is selected and utilized to its fullest extent to capture and handle issues across social conversations.

Difficult to meet

For brands, customer expectations have become more difficult to meet over the last several years. The consumer is definitely in the driver’s seat and brands have been forced to acclimate to this reality. However, it appears that most companies are realizing the need to be flexible and adjust strategies as the consumer demands. What is important today may be long forgotten in six months or a year but it’s clear that social media as a form of customer service communication will remain a crucial for many years to come.