Outsourcing: Customer service edition

There has been a lot of talk lately about the idea of outsourcing community management activities (see this study by Jerimiah Owyang at Altimeter and a recent @cmgrchat). Outsourcing is generally a scary word for most people. It means fewer jobs and responsibilities and less control.

But that isn’t what outsourcing is to a community manager. For us overloaded, bandwidth exceeded, in the weeds every day CMs, outsourcing can be a lifesaver. At my company we don’t outsource many activities (partly because I’m a control freak), but we do outsource one big one: customer service.

We didn’t always do this. When I first started at my job and we were still ramping up our social strategy (this was only about 9 months ago, mind you) all responsibilities fell on the community manager. Who just happened to me. How lucky.

One of those responsibilities was handling customer service requests that came in through our social media channels. And here is how it went:

  1. Sees customer service issue on wall or Twitter feed.
  2. Doesn’t know the answer to question or can’t solve the problem without help from someone else, like a member of our product safety and usage team.
  3. Emails our main customer service contact in-house and asks them to forward on to the “right person” who may or may not exist.
  4. Waits….
  5. Starts freaking that complaint/issue/question will catch on and spread like a flesh eating virus to other users.
  6. Waits…
  7. Hears back that email has been forwarded to XX in YY department. “Should hear back soon.”
  8. Waits…

You get the picture. Now times that by three Facebook walls and two Twitter accounts. I had no control.

And you know what outsourcing our customer service gives me? Control.

We have a pretty straightforward process when it comes to how we structure the work of our customer service reps. One company handles all customer service for our company – traditional channels (like phone calls) and non-traditional channels (like social media). Each of our company’s pages is assigned a single representative who is in charge of answering all questions.

Confession: When we first started this process, we relinquished a little too much control. We asked all our reps to actively monitor the wall and answer questions as they arose. We did this thinking they had the same investment in the success of social media as we did. Well, that was wrong. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say I was repeating step five above. A lot.

So we switched things up a bit and had the community manager serves as the traffic cop. We actively monitor the walls and Twitter feeds, which we’d be doing anyway, and flag any issues that come up directly to our customer service reps. We include notes and directions that may or may not include the words “ASAP” and “Please answer this immediately before it brings down the entire company.”

Then (my favorite part) our customer service rep answers the question on their own. We give admin rights or login information to each rep so they can access our pages and feeds and post as the brand. This point took some time to get to, though. We couldn’t just send our reps into the trenches without any training. We trained them on everything from voice and tone to acting like a human.

There you have it: outsourcing customer service. The process still isn’t perfect though. And has taken a lot of patience and adjustment. We have had to train our reps from start to finish on how to act on social media – and explain why every step of the way. We’ve also had to give up some control, which CMs know can feel like the end of the world.

We also haven’t identified the perfect SMMS for this. Ideally, I’d like a system that would allow me to flag issues by sending a notification to my customer service rep that they could then “check-off” once they completed. If you know of a system that can do this, please let me know. Or if you have a big chunk of change you’re looking to get rid of and invest in developing said system, definitely let me know.

Overall, it’s been beneficial. It’s freed up a big chunk of my time, which allows me to spend more time listening to and engaging with my community. And that’s what being a community manager is all about.

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