The U.S. wireless industry has a conundrum: Namely, saturation.
With mobile penetration exceeding the population count, it’s become a switching game for carriers, meaning that keeping customers happy and willing to stay on has shot to the top of the long-term viability priority queue. And that has given rise to social engagement as an important differentiator and strategic mandate to inspire loyalty.
On the most basic level, social media is a critical (and by now this should be obvious) part of understanding public sentiment, and is a key avenue to becoming more engaged and responsive overall with one’s subscriber base.
“You have to go and be where the customers are looking for you to be,” explained Marci Carris, Sprint’s (News - Alert) senior vice president of customer management. “In the last year, we have been focused on building out our capabilities, especially when it comes to going out and reaching out and making sure we have listening posts available in a range of places.”
She added, “Whereas 10 or so years ago all you had to worry about was inbound calls and maybe a few letters, there are now multiple ways to reach out—customers tweet, Facebook, use YouTube videos, they may post on Reddit—there’s just a multitude of ways they can approach you.”
But, carriers often have a challenge in marrying social engagement with actual customer care.
“Online service has been around in a pretty developed form for at least 10 years, but social media relatively nascent channel,” said Nibha Aggarwal, director of the customer management group at Amdocs (News - Alert). “Some service providers are just now starting to get the hang of it. It’s not uncommon for them to hire ‘social media ninjas,’ who are tasked with monitoring sentiment and brand and perception. But, these guys don’t know how to answer customer care enquiries.”
Most of the time, the ninjas will tell customers with care questions to call a certain number or visit a certain website—adding another layer of hoop-jumping for subscribers to get their needs met. And further, on the backend, all too often there’s no visibility across the channels of interaction.
“Some are tying it all together and tying social activity to the call center, but unless the backend systems are tied together info isn’t going to follow the customer,” Aggarwal cautioned.
Carris said that the social care channel is the fastest- growing for Sprint, and a priority. As a result, the carrier has invested in a new social care platform that displays a profile page for service reps that shows a subscriber’s latest tweets and public postings from a variety of forums. Crucially, it also links this activity with other touchpoints—what a customer did in a retail store, for instance, or whether there was a chat interaction online at the website.
There are other challenges as well. Carris points out that you don’t always know who the customer is that you’re talking to, for one—sometimes the only identifier is a Twitter handle. The other issue is that it’s not private or confidential. Sprint reps are trained to move Twitter conversations into the DM (direct message) realm quickly, but often socially savvy subscribers would prefer to have things play out in the court of public opinion.
This is especially true if they’re angry.
“The problem is that people complain, and before you know it, there’s a whole long litany of complaints out there in the Facebook or Twitter feed,” said Bill Ho, an analyst at 556ventures.com. “It’s negative PR and it doesn’t go away. So it becomes a medium for public shaming—and as a customer, it feels good if you don’t get satisfaction that you can continue to publicly shame and hashtag. It’s immediate gratification.”
On the plus side for competitors, this can turn into a poaching opportunity as well.
“All of us listen to each others’ customers online,” Carris said. “Our competitors will jump into the conversation and even offer compensation to them to switch carriers, to make that process pretty frictionless. So you can acquire business via social if you watch a customer and respond to them before their carrier does.”
Ho said that the Big Four carriers all approach the social channel slightly differently, with AT&T (News - Alert) and Verizon taking a more conservative approach than Sprint and T-Mobile.
“The telcos use Twitter as a front for PR, and they have multiple handles for promotion, investor relations, and then a support site,” he explained. “If you complain, Verizon (News - Alert) or AT&T is likely to come to you directly and ask you to send a DM—or they’ll want to handle it in a different channel.”
Sprint and T-Mobile (News - Alert) on the other hand have their execs more involved, he said, and are more chatty.
“It’s not uncommon for a care handle to tag the CEO,” he said. “And when Sprint does earnings calls, the executive team is there tweeting away and fielding comments.”
Bottom line? Inspiring loyalty and reducing churn is absolutely paramount in today’s wireless landscape—and claims of coverage and network quality are increasingly not enough to do it. Pricing is being commoditized as well, and device exclusivity has gone by the wayside. That leaves customer care and engagement as the last traditional differentiator standing. It’s obvious that without a savvy social strategy, carriers will lag behind—but it’s a field that’s still maturing.
“10 or 15 years ago we didn’t know how to capture email addresses effectively and that was a big challenge,” Carris said. “Now, the questions are things like, how do you tie tweets and phone calls together? We also want to know the full story across the customer’s series of interactions with us – what did they do in the store, did we chat? Did they tweet? Did they call? This is the new key to loyalty.”