Consumers, leery to engage with companies online in the early days of social networking, are increasingly comfortable engaging in social. In fact, a growing number have come to expect a certain level of service when interacting with companies online.

Researchers recently found that 32% of consumers expect a response within 30 minutes when contacting a company through a social media account. Forty-two percent expect to hear back within 60 minutes; all told, 67% fully expect a response from the company within one day (The Social Habit).

The Social Habit - Expected Customer Service Response Times

Businesses must try to meet this demand, yet some simply haven’t found a way to make it work. Just this month, the fourth largest cable provider in the U.S. shut down their social media customer service team, closing their Twitter account and leaving fans out in the cold. Charter Communications Inc. told Reuters they are done trying to resolve customer service issues in social forums.

Is that really the answer, though? Customers are telling businesses what they want and social service is definitely important to a growing number. Thankfully, it is possible to not only meet the needs of increasingly connected customers, but to exceed them and even provide the kind of experiences that convert detractors to brand advocates.

How the S.O.S. Team Breaks Down Boundaries to Provide Better Customer Service

Jason Duty, leader of Global Social Outreach Services at DellJason Duty, Director of Global Social Outreach Services at Dell, has built an entire team dedicated to providing service to social customers spanning 14 languages and a range of social media networks. Whether responding to concerns or actually seeking out customers with unmet needs, his team achieves a 95% success rate in resolving customer issues, even when those issues were recognized but not resolved previously.

In 2010, our S.O.S. team was made up of just 10 people; demand quickly outstripped their ability to keep up, resulting in the team’s growth to 125 team members today. In addition, Duty and his team have worked on certifying thousands of other support team members in Dell offices around the globe in social media.

When his team launched, they were largely responsible for monitoring the @DellCares Twitter account, as well as S.O.S. accounts in other languages. At that time, he notes, they were largely going out and looking for people they could help, based on brand mentions. As their service has become known, the dynamic has changed; most activity is now directed to the S.O.S. team’s channels. “Now, it’s less about going to find people and more about making sure that as they find us, we have a really good experience – and a consistent one – for them,” Duty notes.

Who Are the Dell S.O.S. Team Members?

Becoming a member of the S.O.S. team is a rigorous process that involves meeting with Duty himself and participation in a detailed training program that dives into tools used by the team, their social media policies, and policies across our company as a whole.

Managing a team across multiple languages and locations is no simple task, yet the ability to do so and still provide a consistent customer experience is incredibly valuable. Duty explains that S.O.S. team members participate in online forums and use conversation tools that allow them to connect across languages, cultures and geographic boundaries. Taking advantage of the technology available to them and encouraging its use has helped him bring his global team together, especially since they’re moved beyond using communication tools solely for business purposes. “We do some fun things with it,” Duty says, adding, “We use our tools to share stories about the holidays team members celebrate in different countries, for example. It’s been a fun way to bring the team together, virtually.”

His background in mechanical engineering and psychology, coupled with over 14 years experience with the company, has lent well to Duty’s success leading the S.O.S. team. He worked across our organization, in sales operations, program management, marketing and services. “The common element there is figuring out how processes and people intersect, then designing systems to be the most optimal and efficient,” he says.

Potential S.O.S. team members need the same type of well-rounded experience, Duty notes, though he says with a laugh that if you’d asked him a few years ago what a social customer support team member needed to have, he would have answered differently. “Our number one priority today is that you have to be passionate about the customer,” he notes, continuing, “If someone has that, we can teach them social media… Beyond that, we look for experience at Dell in support roles, because we have some standard procedures at Dell, yet the situations we encounter sometimes fall outside of standard procedures.” Having experience in the company over time allows team members the knowledge and insight to quickly find the resources, teams and processes best able to resolve a situation quickly.

Finally, he says, potential team members absolutely need good relationship-building skills. Solving problems is an important aspect of the job, but so is building solid relationships with customers.

S.O.S. Across Platforms, Reaching Customers When & Where They Need Assistance

The @DellCares Twitter account is their most active social channel in terms of volume, though the on-domain Dell Community forum follows closely behind. Facebook, other social networks, forums and community boards also drive traffic to the S.O.S. team. Team members sign tweets in response to customer inquiries with their initials, so you know who it is you’ve been speaking with about your concern.

@DellCares on Twitter

They’ve also experimented with a number of tools across different social platforms, in order to better connect customers with the information they need. “We’ve used Google+ Hangouts to show people who are doing self-support the nuts and bolts of a system and how they might go about things like replacing internal memory,” Duty explains. “We’ve also used Hangouts and video at the other end of the spectrum, in more thought-provoking conversations such as, how do you do social media support for consumers and how would that be different for businesses, as an example.”

Their mandate is clear, says Duty: use common sense and resolve customer issues. To that end, team members are empowered with information and authority to:

  • look at each situation objectively,
  • assess the unique needs of the customer,
  • and resolve the problem.

“We strive for a culture of empowerment by hiring good people, empowering them to make good decisions, and supporting them in those decisions,” Duty explains. It’s important that social media customer service team members can provide feedback to the rest of the company, as well, he says, noting that, “Great service doesn’t mean never saying no. If your people have to abide by your policy, you better make sure it’s a customer-friendly policy, because if you’re out there defending it and no one likes it, you’re going to get called on the carpet for that.”

Duty’s S.O.S. team works closely along those in our Social Media Listening Command Center, who actively monitor the web for conversations about the brand. It’s important for them to act as close partners, he says, as his team members often hear things the ground control team or others in the company need to know about. The exchange of information between the two teams is significant.

How Can You Use This Strategy To Better Your Own Business?

Working on the S.O.S. team is full of surprises, according to Duty. He’s participated in customer events held by Dell, where he witnessed some of our harshest critics converted to brand advocates after seeing how their feedback spurred change in product development and company policies.

“You see these people, they’re saying, ‘Hey, Dell actually listened and they’re doing something about it…’ Now, many of those people not only don’t hate us, but they’re advocating on our behalf and even supporting other customers on our behalf! They’re saying, we believe in you now, so enable us to help us to do more of this,” says Duty.

Clearly, mastering social media customer service has huge business benefits. Follow these best practices to improve your own customer service and build a loyal community around your brand:

  • Listen actively, attentively, and across the social web
  • Respond quickly, with empathy
  • Empower customer service agents with the information and resources needed to resolve issues
  • Train customer service agents and provide clear guidance on an ongoing basis
  • Support the decisions of front-line customer service agents

Effective social customer service requires flexibility, dedication and the ability to quickly adapt to the changing social landscape. How does your company manage customer service on social networks? Share your experience in the comments!