A change for the better

Editor's note: Marianne Hynd is vice president of operations at Ann Michaels & Associates, a Naperville, Ill., research firm.

The evolution of social media as a customer service channel has been intriguing. As social media outlets and usage have become more commonplace, what was once used by customers to show loyalty or gain discounts/promotions from their favorite brands has morphed into another means of customer service communication. With this shift came a new, more demanding customer – one who wants to get their issues resolved quickly, using the communication channel they are most comfortable with. The new customer expects a much quicker response, no matter when or where they reach out to the brand.

While the focus at the outset of this trend primarily revolved around social media engagement and marketing, an increase in utilizing social media channels for customer service came into play, most notably through Twitter feeds. Research showed that in 2012, customer service through Twitter was on the rise. Customers were starting to expect assistance to questions, inquiries and feedback with this shift in customer service. Prior to social media usage, e-mail and telephone contact were the quickest routes for assistance; the advent of live chat options was the first step in real-time customer assistance.

With this new customer service medium came immediacy; as customers engaged through social media, a quicker response time was expected. Similar to e-mail communication, customers in 2012 were initially expecting responses within 24 hours of posing a question or comment on social media. By 2015, an inquiry on Twitter, for example, warranted a response within an hour, if not sooner.

A baseline study was conducted by Ann Michaels & Associates in 2012 to determine company responses to this and other shifts in social media usage. Given the results of the original study, a subsequent study was conducted to learn more about how brands are embracing the “new normal” when it comes to customer service. Have response rates and times improved? Are brands responding to customer inquiries and issues consistently throughout the day, whether it is a weekday, weeknight or even on a weekend? How have companies acclimated to the evolution of social media communication? What changes have been put into play to accommodate the “new customer”? Comparing the results of this current study to those originally obtained in 2012 sheds some light on these important questions.


Ann Michaels & Associates sought to replicate the earlier social media response-time study to determine how companies changed in order to adjust to the “new customer.” This study set forth to evaluate response times in various social media channels across nationwide retailers. The results from the current study were compared to those from the 2012 study to additionally determine if increases in responses and/or response times were achieved by these retailers, potentially signaling a direct response to consumers’ social engagement. Identifying gaps in online communication and engagement with consumers will provide a better understanding of the current landscape and provide insight into the evolution of social media interactions between companies and consumers.

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 more traditional, can determine the effectiveness of a company’s overall customer service response strategy and determine if the focus of interaction now lies within social media channels versus the more traditional communication or if companies are successfully managing customer service across all modalities of communication online.


Response time study was implemented across social media venues and retail verticals. Ten companies within three verticals were selected: department store, drug/grocery and specialty apparel.

Retailers were selected in each industry based on several criteria, including geography covered and the presence of active Facebook and Twitter sites. This designation would yield results from those companies that have utilized social media as a form of customer communication within recent years to generate comparative results.

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 days and time frames throughout the day. Specifically, contacts were grouped into weekdays (Monday-Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.), weeknights (Monday-Friday between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.) and weekends (both daytime and evening hours were investigated).

Results were aggregated by retailer and industry and the results of the study were analyzed across all retailers included in the study, with further analysis focusing on each industry selected and each individual retailer.


The data collected for this study was analyzed to determine response rates across social media channels and e-mail communication. Response rates were looked at as a whole of the study and then analyzed on an industry basis. On a secondary level, results were reviewed at an individual company level. Response rates across social media channels, types of contact and times of day were then reviewed to determine if trends exist within these constraints. Finally, the results from this study were compared to data collected in 2012 for further insight into the evolution of social media response time.

Overall results – all companies

When looking at response rates across all companies in the study, regardless of industry, results show that a typical response rate was received 79 percent of the time, meaning that no matter which type of contact was made, companies responded to consumer inquiries 79 percent of the time within a three-day window. This has increased from 72 percent in the previous study, indicating a seven-point improvement in overall response time.

Each of the retailers in this study was ranked based on overall response rate across all social media channels. In the initial study, only one retailer achieved a 100 percent response rate across all three communication channels; during the current study, six retailers achieved a perfect response rate, with the majority of the others showing improvement as well.

Time-of-day analysis can give deeper insight into response levels based on time of day and time of week. Overall, performance was fairly consistent across times of days, with weekend and weeknight response rates slightly lower than weekday response rates. Weekday response rates overall were 89 percent, whereas weeknight and weekend response rates were only at 73 percent. A vast improvement was seen in this area as well when data was compared to the 2012 study; at that time, weekday and weeknight responses were provided 71 percent of the time and weekend responses were only provided 67 percent of the time. While lower percentages were seen on weeknights and weekends, overall findings show the improvement in the off-hours periods (nights and weekends), indicating that companies better understand the need for providing consistent customer service through social venues.

Looking specifically at each channel of communication, Web-based inquiries received the highest response rate, at 82 percent, during the first study and that trend continued in the current study. The most significant finding during the 2015 study revolved around the response times on Twitter, which revealed a 28-point percent increase between the two research periods (49 percent in 2012, 77 percent in 2015). It is apparent that the “value” of Twitter as a customer service channel has been realized. Figure 1 illustrates the percentage of responses gained through each of the channels for both studies.

Web-based “contact us” forms were evaluated to compare social customer service to the more traditional point of contact. While response rates were down slightly from the 2012 study (82 percent to 81 percent) this channel still received the highest response rate percentage. However, the gap has definitely closed between the traditional and newer, social-based, channels.

While Facebook responses were the second-most successful communication channel, percentage of responses fell by 1 percent, from 79 percent to 78 percent. What is interesting to note is that some companies, most notably in the specialty retailer category, did not openly invite customers to post on their timeline, as indicated by the lack of a “post a comment” box at the top of the company’s timeline. In these instances, customers are required to use the private “message” function to ask questions and get assistance. While the brand is still reachable, it may be inadvertently sending a message of a different kind to its Facebook page users: that the brand does not openly welcome comments on its page.

An industry comparison was conducted to determine if any one industry was more successful than others. With regard to overall response rates, drug and grocery stores showed the strongest overall response rate at 86 percent. This is a vast improvement since the 2012 study (72 percent). Specialty stores ranked second, at 75 percent, up from 61 percent during the prior study. While department stores showed an improvement over the last study, their overall response rate fell by three percentage points, from 77 percent to 74 percent.

The “Response Rate - 2015” and “Response Rate - 2012” charts show response rate strength across the three channels of communication for each industry for both the current and former research.

It is interesting to note that the significant jump in response rates can be attributed to Twitter responses; whereas e-mail and Facebook responses remained the same or declined slightly in some cases, Twitter responses increased dramatically between the two study periods. This indicates again the value of Twitter as a communication channel and the fact that companies have taken the advice of those speculating on the shift in social media as a means of customer service since the first study was conducted.

It appears that the value of Twitter from a business perspective has increased exponentially in the last three years, with many companies not only using Twitter as a customer service channel but even going so far as to create a secondary Twitter page dedicated to customer service issues.

Speed of response

One final component that was evaluated was speed of response. During the first study, it was theorized that responses to inquiries on social sites would generate a faster response time than e-mail/Web inquiries. This, in fact, was true, with Facebook and Twitter responses being received in about half the time as e-mail responses (12.5 hours on average vs 17 hours, respectively). Facebook responses were received slightly quicker than Twit-ter responses (11.5 hours vs. 12.5 hours, respectively). This was not surprising given that, at the time of the initial research, Facebook was a more dominant social site than Twitter.

The initial theory was that these numbers would change in the current study, with Twitter outranking both Facebook and e-mail in response rate and speed. It was undecided as to how the e-mail response would change, as etiquette during the pre-social media era dictated a response within 24 hours but came in at 17 hours on average during the initial study.

Overall response time across all channels decreased by approximately four hours. While the highest percentage of responses received were from e-mail inquiries, this channel yielded the slowest response time compared to Facebook and Twitter and the response time actually increased by just under an hour during this recent study. The time to receive a response from Facebook and Twitter inquiries decreased significantly. Figure 2 depicts the hours to receive a response via each channel for both studies.

The average response time across all channels decreased to an average of 8 hours and 45 minutes, down from 12.5 hours in 2012. Facebook and Twitter responses were received within 5 to 5.5 hours, on average, with the response time on Twitter showing the most significant drop from the 2012 study (12.5 hours to 5.5 hours, respectively).

As social media was evolving in 2012, a concern for companies revolved around the fact that social media “never sleeps” and studies indicated that customers’ expectations with regard to receiving a timely response was independent of time of day and day of week; that is, they expect the same, quick response during off-peak times, such as weeknights and weekends as they do during regular business hours.

Data was broken out into response times based on whether an inquiry was made during traditional business hours, weeknights or weekends to determine if this customer expectation was being met and then compared to data from the original study.

Response time decreased dramatically during the traditional business hours and weekends (Figure 3). This is yet another positive sign that overall, companies have understood the importance of availability at all times when it comes to customer engagement on social media.

Industry-specific data was not significantly different; each of the three industries performed similarly with regard to response time across channel. All industries showed a decline in response time from data collected in the 2012 study. Department stores saw the biggest drop, with average response time declining from 15 hours and 20 minutes in 2012 to only 8 hours and 54 minutes in 2015.

The overall results suggest that in general, companies have embraced social media as a tool for consumer communication. The results of this study indicate that companies are responding to changing customer expectations and offering flexibility when it comes to responding to customer inquiries. This finding accentuates the fact that social media has become a game-changer in customer service and its importance has not been overlooked.

Industry-specific results

Three industries were selected for this study – department stores, specialty apparel retailers and drug/grocery stores. Ten companies were selected for each industry and a total of nine contacts were made via Facebook (3), Twitter (3) and Web-based contact form (3). Similar to the overall results, each industry was analyzed based on response rates by time, across channel and across time of day/day of week.

Specialty apparel retailers.

Overall response rates were evaluated and companies were ranked based on overall response rates within this study. As an industry, companies responded to customer inquiries across all channels 75 percent of the time, up from 61 percent.

When looking at response rates by communication channel, e-mail contact via a company’s Web site form yielded the strongest results, with an 83 percent response rate. Twitter closely followed with a 73 percent response rate and Facebook responses were the least successful, at 70 percent, which is still a strong percentage of responses.

Of interest to note is the improvement within Twitter. While this has been a prominent theme in the current study, it is important to show the dramatic increase in Twitter responses within this vertical. Figure 4 illustrates the significant uptick in Twitter responses in the specialty apparel industry.

Time of day was investigated to determine if there is a disconnect at any point. Overall results show that response rates were higher on weekdays than weeknights and weekends. This pattern is more typical of what was seen during the original study and has shifted, indicating that companies in this vertical were more responsive during the “non-peak” hours, though overall response rates were significantly higher. Only weekend response rates stayed stagnant across both studies. Figure 5 shows a comparison between the data from both studies.

In summary, the specialty retailer industry as a whole is embracing social media channels as a form of customer engagement, most notably with regard to Twitter usage. Of the two social sites, Facebook dominated in this area in the earlier study; Twitter has far surpassed Facebook with regard to improvement. E-mail remains the most consistent method for responses. That being said, the dramatic increase in Twitter usage shows the importance of social media and company response to this shift in consumer expectation.

Drug/grocery. Overall response rates were evaluated within the drug/grocery vertical. As an industry, companies responded to customer inquiries across all channels 86 percent of the time, up from 73 percent. This vertical had the highest overall response rate across the three in the study.

When looking at response rates by communication channel, e-mail and Twitter contacts had response rates of 87 percent; this is down for e-mail contact but a significant increase in Twitter responses from the original study (93 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Facebook response rates improved slightly, from 80 percent in 2012 to 83 percent in 2015.

Time of day was investigated to determine if there is a disconnect at any point. It was initially thought that weekend and/or weeknight responses would be weaker than weekday responses in the original study. At that time, response rates in this vertical were fairly consistent, with weekday response rates slightly higher than week-night/weekend response rates (73 percent and 70 percent, respectively).

Current results show improvement across all three times of day, with the largest jump in response rates during business hours (up to 93 percent from 73 percent) and weekend hours (up to 87 percent from 70 percent). Week-night responses also showed a nice seven-point improvement, from 70 percent to 77 percent. Results suggest that this vertical has adjusted to the demands of the new customer nicely over the last three years.

In summary, the drug and grocery vertical has shown the most significant improvement in response across all channels but specifically within social media sites. Similar to findings in other verticals, Twitter usage has increased exponentially and response rates improved greatly. While e-mail response rates have declined slightly, this is not worrisome or statistically significant. It appears, based on current findings, that this vertical has also embraced the demands of the new customer and has embraced it well.

Department stores. Overall response rates were evaluated and companies were ranked based on overall response rates within this study. As an industry, department stores responded to customer inquiries across all communication channels 74 percent of the time, down from 77 percent during the last study. It is interesting to note that this vertical had the strongest response rate during the original study and fell to the bottom of the pack during this study. This may be attributed to the fact that there were some issues with sending e-mail responses to one particular retailer – there were several attempts to use the contact feature on the site but doing so yielded no response. It is unclear if it was a known error or if the Web site was having technical difficulties during the time the study was conducted. When the e-mail response rate for this retailer is removed from the overall data, this vertical’s response rate comes in at 77 percent, which is consistent with the earlier results.

When looking at response rates by channel, Facebook again yielded the strongest results, with an 80 percent response rate, falling from 87 percent during the original study. E-mail and Twitter contacts remained the same as the original data, with 73 percent and 70 percent response rates, respectively. It should be noted that e-mail response rate increased to 81 percent when data for the outlier retailer’s e-mail contact was removed.

Companies in this vertical showed a consistent performance overall. It was theorized that, at the time of the initial study, this vertical had started to acclimate to the new customer expectations at a faster rate than others and the other verticals would catch up in this most recent study. However, this does not explain the overall de-cline in response rate. While the technical difficulties with one retailer’s contact site impacted the overall data, even removing this portion from the overall statistics shows results that have remained largely unchanged since the 2012 study.

Finally, time of day was investigated to determine if there is a disconnect at any point. It was initially thought that weekend and/or weeknight responses would be weaker than weekday responses, which was found in the original study.

Overall results from this current set of data show that again, response time across times of day and day of week remains fairly consistent, with slightly lower rates of response generated during weeknights and weekends. Compared to earlier research, response rates improved during business hours but fell slightly during weeknights (from 77 percent to 70 percent) and weekends (from 73 percent to 70 percent). Figure 6 illustrates response time data for the two study periods.

In summary, this industry did not fare as well as the others with regard to consistent response rates and growth was not evident. While starting off strong three years ago, it was anticipated that companies in this vertical would yield the greatest improvement, as they had started strong and have had three years to refine and perfect this aspect of customer service.

Exciting to see the transformation

At the time of the original study, social media as a customer service channel was emerging but was not well-defined. At that time, it was theorized that companies would realize the importance and impact of social media usage for customer service and that, over time, response rates would improve. The results of this study certainly support those views and it is exciting to see the transformation social media has taken.

While response rates and times have improved, there is still room for more improvement. Continuing to focus on creating social sites that encourage customer engagement is vital. While Twitter usage has become more prominent, Facebook engagement has declined slightly and some company pages in this study have made it clear, either through intention or unintentional actions, that customers may get a quicker response on Twitter. This was evident when company pages on Facebook did not allow followers to post directly to their timeline; instead, only private-messaging options were available. This was also evident by the significantly strong response times on Twitter compared to Facebook. As consumers tend to engage where they feel most comfortable, companies need to be aware of making engagement easy on all social sites.

One striking finding suggests that longevity of consistent engagement may be a concern, as seen in the department store vertical. This segment outperformed the others originally and has since maintained its perfor-mance or, in some cases, showed a decline. This may be an indication that, while important to the customer experience, it may be difficult to maintain without the proper planning and strategic alignment.

Overall data suggests that great gains have been made in social media communication; the next step for companies to embrace for continual improvement revolves around pinpointing customers who are talking about them on social sites yet not directly on their social sites. By utilizing a social media monitoring program, companies can benefit from finding indirect conversations and engaging with those customers. While this was not specifically looked at during this study, future studies may focus more on indirect contact and how it is managed or acknowledged by companies.

Customer satisfaction is becoming more of a challenge but it appears that companies are adapting to the “new customer” and their expectations. The results are promising and show that companies are in fact realizing that, in order to be successful and maintain high satisfaction levels, they need to adapt as social media continues to evolve.