As a marketing tool, social media seems to get bigger by the day, but for customer service, the numbers are still pretty modest.
According to a recent survey from SAP and Social Media Today, a huge share of companies, 41.2 percent, use social media to answer five percent of their customer service issues or less. Not even a fifth of the companies surveyed—17.7 percent—said they use social media to address a quarter or more of their customer service issues.
Shel Holtz of Holtz Communications + Technology says the survey reflects reality pretty well.
"This study only reinforces what I've seen from several other studies that look at the same question," he says.
So why don't more companies turn to social media for customer service? Holtz and other experts say it's because companies haven't caught on to all the potential social media holds. Others say customers simply prefer other avenues.
A narrow view
Business leaders tend to think of social media as strictly a marketing channel, Holtz says, so they're not pressuring customer service teams to jump onboard. At the same time, "customer service departments aren't clamoring to change the traditional call-center approach to customer service," he says.
Frank Eliason, director of global social media at Citi and formerly the "ComcastCares" guy, agrees that the focus is too narrow.
"We are still thinking of social as either PR or marketing and we have not begun to think more holistically or from the customer's perspective," he says. "We have to start focusing on the needs of the users. People do not join Twitter or Facebook to connect to brands, no matter how much we like to think that is the case."
Annalise Kaylor, director of social media at Intrapromote, says a lot of brands that have extended into customer service on social media haven't done a particularly great job of it. They do "little or nothing to create a space that is both welcoming and efficient," she says.
"Further, businesses often forget to create a consistent voice or experience for people across all of their customer service channels," she says. "Consumers know that if they call a toll-free number, someone is going to answer within a reasonable frame of time."
Business leaders also fret about the "virtual paper trail" that answering customer service questions on Facebook or Twitter creates, Kaylor says. Until they get used to that level or transparency, they won't be able to do it effectively.
Arik Hanson, principal of ACH Communications, says he sees the results as a sign that people prefer to resolve their issues with a company by phone, email or over a website.
"I think social is an after-thought for most when it comes to places they can express their concerns," he says. "Most people aren't following brands on Facebook to vent and resolve customer service issues. They're there as a point of pride, to find deals or for giveaways."
Likewise, Eliason says he has found customers don't tend to turn to social media when they encounter a service problem, at least not at first.
"More often than not customers turn to social after they are frustrated by other channels," he says. "We are seeing this grow in recent years and I expect it will grow further."
Customers are learning what social media is good for, Eliason says. If they don't like a response from a company, they go to Facebook or Twitter to blast that company publicly. It's working for them, too.
Eliason points to cases involving insurance companies Progressive and Aetna as examples of big changes companies have made in response to complaints on social media.
"Many would lump these situations into PR, but the reality of it is these are both examples of customer service and the results will lead to more challenges for brands," he says. "As customers win deep change in companies, they will take to the space in louder means. Companies have to look at the root cause and find ways to create the right experience before it gets to this level."
Holtz adds that some customers definitely do want to use social media to complain, and companies would be well-served to have an apparatus there to serve them.
"They lumped some very important networks such as You Tube, answer websites, and reviews into 'other,'" he notes.
Holtz says it's easy to explain why Facebook is at the top of the list—it's the biggest social media site. Most companies already have people who run Facebook pages, so those folks can answer customer service questions, too. Likewise, Twitter is free and lots of companies have people to run those accounts.
Even so, Holtz says, "People are just getting accustomed to using Facebook for this kind of thing, even if companies aren't savvy enough to figure that out—and figure out that it can be far more efficient than the call center."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.