Editor's note: Marianne Hynd is vice president, operations, at Ann Michaels & Associates, a Naperville, Ill., research company. She can be reached at mhynd@annmichaelsltd.com. This article appeared in the April 8, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.

Many companies have successfully embraced social networks over the last several years. They have provided companies with platforms to engage with consumers on a new level and consumers have responded positively. Social media strategies have shifted from solely serving as a one-way communication platform in which companies create a "personality," relate messaging and offer discounts and promotions to a more consumer-centric customer service tool.

To that end, companies have had to change their thinking from simple, one-way engagement and communication to a balance between communicating the brand message and responding to consumer inquiries, concerns and complaints in a very public setting. Like all other points of communication, response time is a key factor of success in customer satisfaction. This has been a struggle for companies as social media have evolved. Managing multiple social media platforms in addition to more traditional methods of customer service communications has proven to be a 24/7 task requiring careful planning

Came into play

While the focus of 2012 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. In 2012, customer service through Twitter was on the rise and customers began to expect more immediate assistance with questions, inquiries and feedback. 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 and now customers expect responses much quicker on social sites - within 24 hours of posing a question or comment.

This initially created a challenge for companies, as most monitored social media sites during business hours, leaving customers engaging on evenings and weekends with delayed responses. However, companies have risen to the occasion by increasing company engagement during non-business hours.

Many companies have embraced social media monitoring, knowing that there are customers who will talk about their brand, ask questions of their friends and family about the brand and share their opinions on sites they are already comfortable with. Acquiring these conversations through social media monitoring and responding can greatly improve customer service and perception. While the importance of monitoring and responding to customers outside of the company's social media sites is growing, most companies have not yet delved into this area of social media research.

Launched a study

To better understand how social media work as tools for customer service, Ann Michaels & Associates launched a study to determine response rates for retailers across a range of online communication outlets.


The study aimed to determine the following:

  • ranking of retailers based on overall response time across channels;
  • ranking of retailers based on response time specific to each social media venue; and 
  • determine if differences exist across various types of retailers (e.g., retail, drug and grocery, etc.).

While the study focused on two of the largest social media networks, Facebook and Twitter, a third component was added to measure the indirect contact. This portion of the study set out to pinpoint the rate at which companies seek out and respond to indirect contact from customers in the form of a question posed on a customer's Twitter feed. This component evaluates social media research practices of the various retailers and was designed to encourage a response from those companies actively monitoring the social media space for such inquiries. Finally, e-mail communication was incorporated into the study to compare social media interactions with the more traditional form of online communication.


The response-time study was implemented across social media venues and retail verticals, including department stores, specialty apparel retailers and drug/grocery retailers. Companies were selected based on geographical presence and active Facebook and Twitter sites.

Mystery shoppers were employed 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 through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.), weeknights (Monday through Friday between 6 p.m and 10 p.m.) and weekends (both daytime and evening hours were investigated).

Each retailer was contacted across each channel three times within the period of this evaluation, with the exception of Twitter contacts. Each retailer experienced a total of six Twitter contacts - three directly asked on the company's Twitter page and three indirectly asked on a mystery shopper's Twitter page. Approximately half of the shoppers used a hashtag along with the company name when posing indirect questions on Twitter, while others used the company name within the question. This yielded a total of 360 contacts.

Mystery shoppers were responsible for contacting specific retailers across each channel with a simple inquiry that required a response from the company. The inquiry set remained similar across retailers and social media channels to maintain consistency in engagement content.

Results were aggregated by retailer and industry and analyzed across all retailers, with further analysis focusing on each industry selected and each individual retailer.


Overall results - all companies

When looking at response rates across all companies, regardless of industry, results show that a typical response rate was received 72 percent of the time, meaning that no matter which type of contact was made, companies responded to consumer inquiries 72 percent of the time. This initial finding may also suggest that companies are doing a good job of keeping up with customer inquiries across social media, though there are times when inquiries may be lost in the shuffle.

Each of the 30 retailers was ranked based on overall response rate across all social media channels and various times of day. Department stores led the top 10 spots, with five department store brands responding to customer inquiries across all channels at least 80 percent of the time (Carson Pirie Scott, Macy's, JCPenney, Von Maur and Nordstrom). Four in the drug and grocery category placed in the top 10 (Rite Aid, Jewel, Winn-Dixie and Hy-Vee), while only one specialty retailer, Coldwater Creek, cracked the top 10.

Overall, performance was consistent across times of days, with weekend responses slightly lower than weekday and weeknight responses. Weekday response rates overall were 71 percent, as were weeknight response rates. Weekend response rates were slightly lower at 67 percent. This statistic shows the increase in company engagement during off hours.

Looking specifically at each channel of communication, Web-based inquiries received the highest response rate at 82 percent. Facebook responses were the second most successful communication channel, with 79 percent of responses received within three days. The lowest response rates revolved around Twitter responses, most significantly found within the indirect Twitter contact. Across all companies included in the study, less than 1 percent responded to consumer questions. This is significant in that it illustrates the need for increased social media monitoring to locate and engage with consumers. Forty-nine percent of mystery shoppers' questions posed directly on the company's Twitter feed received responses. This is a lower percentage than what was initially predicted, as research has shown an increase in attention to Twitter as a means of customer service.

Speed of response was evaluated to determine a correlation, if one exists, between the response rate and speed of response. Despite the fact that the highest response rates were yielded via e-mail communication, Facebook inquiries received the fastest response time, at an average of 11 hours, 50 minutes, with Twitter responses slightly behind at an average response time within 12 hours, 47 minutes. E-mail response times were slightly delayed at an average response time of 17 hours, 25 minutes.

Industry-specific results

The three industries were compared to determine if any one industry was superior with regard to customer response rates. Department stores showed the strongest overall response rate (77 percent). Drug/grocery retailers followed closely behind (72 percent), while specialty retailers yielded a much lower overall response rate (61 percent).

For department stores, Facebook response was stronger than e-mail, though Twitter response was higher than the other two industries. Drug/grocery retailers yielded the highest e-mail response rates (93 percent).

The average response time across all channels was similar for each industry, with an average response time within 12.5 hours. Facebook inquiries received the quickest response, while Twitter response time was not far behind. E-mail, as anticipated, yielded the longest wait for a response but fell well within the 24-hour window that was once considered standard practice.

Specialty apparel retailers yielded the lowest overall response rate, yet in the channel they responded best to (e-mail), they yielded the fastest response time. This same finding was true with department stores: The quickest response time was found on the social media channel they responded to best (Facebook). The drug/grocery industry showed an opposite trend. That is, the channel they responded to most often (e-mail) yielded the longest response time of the three communication channels.

Untapped opportunity

The results are promising with regard to utilization of social media channels as a form of customer service. Results show a trend toward actively engaging within the more popular social media channels but that companies still have work to do when it comes to monitoring indirect contact from consumers through social media.

The theory that direct communication via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter would yield strong results while indirect communication would yield weaker results was expected but the non-existent response to indirect means of communication was still a surprise. This signals a strong opportunity and need for companies to proactively monitor the online space for company mentions and conversations, which will allow for companies to better identify their customers online and engage more effectively.