Social Customer Care is Real (But Not Spectacular) at LL Bean, Zappos; Horrible Elsewhere

Brian Cantor

Have we not reached the point at which dismissing poor social media strategies on the basis of the channel’s youth is getting insulting?


Another day brings yet another report on the extent to which major brands are failing to successfully deliver customer service on their social channels. Only two of the top 25 retail brands replied to all Twitter inquiries within a 24 hour period, and only one, Zappos, delivered an average response time of less than one hour, according to a study by STELLAService.

LL Bean, the only other retailer to address all social inquiries on a daily basis, still took a whopping average of three hours and fifty five minutes to respond. The retailer is clearly on the right track by adhering to a 100% response rate, but a four-hour response window is not at all a sign that the retailer has reached an apex of customer-centricity.

Across all of the brands, only 44% (11 of the 25) offered an average reply time of less than 24 hours.

Think about that concept for a second. Fourteen of the most prominent online retailers took more than one day to respond to a customer support issue. Can you imagine if a call center, which typically benchmarks against response and resolution timeframes of seconds and minutes, respectively, took 24 hours simply to acknowledge the fact that a customer was calling?

By measuring response times over a 24 hour period, the standard for social customer care is hardly lofty. It is a game of tee-ball compared to that of the other channels. And, yet, the majority of elite retailers are that groan-inducing kid who somehow found a way to a strike out.

The most recent American Express Global Customer Service Barometer revealed that social-savvy customers value great customer care experiences to a greater extent than their non-social peers. The social segment is one that clearly spends more money when it receives great service, and yet the majority of retailers respond to that revelation by delivering bad service?

Is that really the way to treat the most valuable customer segment?

It simply does not make sense.

Nearly a month ago, I wrote that social customer service does not really exist. My premise was not that firms cannot, do not or should not provide customer service over social channels but rather that the idea of treating customer care as a distinct element of the social experience is fundamentally flawed. It presumes that there is a way to be "social" on social media without engaging in two-way communication with customers, and that is simply untrue.

That logic must dictate how organizations approach social media. In this spring’s Call Center IQ social benchmarking study, 51% identified a lack of resources as an inhibitor to an improved social media strategy, while more than 40% blamed their shortcomings on lack of staff training and expertise and lack of budget.

Organizations undoubtedly have the ability to do better than they are doing; there are few scenarios in which a major retailer with a customer management team can justify not responding to 100% of social customer inquiries within a single day. But, yes, it is probably true that bandwidth limitations get in the way of wildly outperforming Zappos’ 100%, 55-minute response rate.

That, unfortunately, is an explanation rather than an excuse. Customers are engaging via social media because they want to be heard and because they want to hear back, and though the channel is not quite as "real-time" as a live phone call or chat, it is definitely meant to be a quick, convenient avenue for interacting with a brand. It is not a wishing well—it is supposed to be a direct line of communication into the brand’s customer service and marketing functions.

When a company "goes social," it enters that agreement with customers, regardless of whether or not it formally planned out its "social customer care" initiative.

Relative kudos belong to Zappos and LL Bean for their perfect response rates, and to Best Buy, and Dell for their near-perfect response rates (89%, 98% and 98%) and relatively-solid response times (1:47, 1:54, 2:29).

But think about what we are praising.

Social media is meant to be a quick, near-instantaneous channel. It is meant to be convenient, and it is meant to use the weight of "public discourse" in pressuring brands to confront customer issues.

We also know statistically that social-savvy customers are more likely to bring increased value to an organization that delivers excellent care. They are both a lucrative and judgmental portion of the audience.

Given all that, it is alarming that so few companies can rally behind an initiative to respond to customer issues within a single day, let alone within a few minutes.

Customer experience leaders and social strategists, what are we doing?