Social media is changing the way we do business in a big way, but this is perhaps most obvious in customer service. When your customers are on social media talking about your brand, ignoring them isn’t an option. To find out just how social and customer service best interact, we reached out to companies that were already doing social customer support successfully on Twitter: JetBlue and Microsoft.

JetBlue’s 1.7 million strong Twitter following asks questions ranging from flight schedules to ticket problems, while Microsoft’s @XboxSupport account holds the Guinness World Record for being the most responsive brand on Twitter — high honors, given that we believe being present and responding to customers in a timely fashion is among the most critical imperatives. So just how do they do it?

Bringing Customer Service to Social Media

Customer service meets social
As anyone who works with it knows, social media can be a chaotic environment. It can be a real challenge to keep up with people who are talking about your brand, much less aiming to answer their customer service requests. So why have so many companies taken customer service social?

“It was our customers who decided,” say Laurie Meacham, JetBlue’s Manager of Customer Commitment. “Our customers were already talking about us and, in many cases, to us. There were a lot of questions that were very much customer support related, regarding things they may have normally called the 1-800 number for — and instead they were turning to Twitter.”

Xbox Community Support Manager Ray Salas has a similar story: “We strive to provide our community with a support option that fits their preferences. Twitter enables us to interact with our community on a communication medium they already enjoy using.”

And why Twitter? Meacham says that while JetBlue’s customers comment on their Facebook Wall, there are fewer service opportunities there. For Microsoft, while they have a strong presence on Twitter, they also maintain an active forum community where customer support representatives and community members both answer community questions.

How Companies Can Keep Up With Social

“We see between 1,000 and 1,500 mentions of JetBlue per day, which would be people talking about us as well as to us. We find on average that 15-20% of those are things we need to respond to,” Meacham explains. “A lot of them are questions but mixed in with that 15% are opportunities to engage with a person: someone who might be flying with us, or thinking about flying with us, or just talking about us. People are not only asking frequently asked questions but also seldom asked questions — things they probably wouldn’t have called about — but they’re willing to ask it through social media because it’s an easier channel.”

Keeping on top of the chatter is all about teamwork for JetBlue, with several people watching social feeds and monitoring messages as they come in to identify opportunities. Each mention of the company is assigned categories, tags expressing sentiment (positive, negative, or neutral), and topics. Sometimes the opportunities the team highlights are a chance to respond or interact while other times they’re just collecting feedback from customers to share within the company. If something requires a response, the team aims for a 15-minute response time.

“On average we send about 2,000-3,000 tweets a day. We take a lot of pride in our response time and we work hard to respond to all tweets within 5 minutes,” Salas tells us of @XboxSupport. And what kind of response time did they need to get the Guinness World Record for being the most responsive brand on Twitter? “In March 2010, we responded to over 5,000 tweets with an average time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds!”

The Type of Team It Takes to Keep Up With Social Customer Service

JetBlue has had a Customer Support Center team dedicated to providing answers and information on social channels for three years now. Currently, it’s staffed by 24 customer support crew members who monitor social media 24/7. “We’ve tasked them with approaching this with a dual mindset,” Meacham explains. “They have to think about the customer service side, but they also have to have a PR mindset because the answers they’re giving aren’t just being seen by one person. Their responses are being seen very publicly, so we try to answer in a way that adds value to anybody who might see that.”

The team working social support for Microsoft’s Xbox is smaller, but no less dedicated. The company has 15 team members who answer questions from 6AM to 12AM on weekdays, and from 9AM to 6PM on weekends. “Every tweet is read by a person, not a bot,” Salas tells us. “It helps that every person on the team is an Xbox enthusiast, so keeping up with the latest troubleshooting steps is something we enjoy doing.”

What’s Right for Your Company?

Every business has different needs, and only you can decide the right strategy for your company. But as we’ve seen, people are already using social channels to talk about your brand, sometimes to complain and sometimes to ask for help. While you may not be able to contend for the title of “Most Responsive Brand on Twitter,” ignoring questions asked on social channels only limits your options.

Finally, social media support works in tandem with traditional customer service channels. “We can answer a variety of questions, but sometimes there might be a misconception from our customers that we can solve any problem,” Meacham tells us. “There are still people on the spot who may be able to do a better job solving a problem than someone who’s working remotely via social media.”

For example, if a customer has left something on a plane, talking to JetBlue staff at the airport will get it back much more quickly than tweeting @JetBlue. “Social media looks like an easy solution, but it’s really just a communication channel.”

[Image credits: DellDell (2), Rosaura Ochoaprayitno]