Conversocial CEO on getting social out of marketing and into customer service

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 16, 2014
Joshua March founded the company in 2009 and already has a string of big name customers

Joshua March
Conversocial was founded in London in 2009 by Joshua March, a guy in his mid-twenties with a plan to transform how enterprises interact with their customers in the age of social media. Fast forward five years and that plan is very much a reality. Not only has Conversocial now opened an office in New York, where March spends much of his time, but the company also has a string of big name customers that should make other software providers stand up and pay attention - Barclaycard, Tesco, Waitrose, Hertz, to name a few.

Hosted on Amazon Web Services, Conversocial is a cloud based solution that sits as an agent on customer service desktops and plugs directly via APIs to Twitter, Facebook, G+, YouTube etc. The tool aims to bring all of that social media content in and thread together all the different messages from a customer into a conversation, so that rather than dealing with individual tweets, it is presented as a single stream of dialogue. Conversocial also relies upon its priority response engine, a machine learning system, to identify when conversations are a customer service issue – rather than just “marketing chit chat”, as March put it. Analytics then sit on top of all of this to allow customer service teams to monitor their response times, what problems they are getting, which agents are online etc.

The company is growing fast and has recently picked up around 40 new US clients after March's move to open offices in the States – he said he is planning global domination.

“We started the company because I had this strong belief that communication is shifting into social. Shifting away from desktop computers into smartphones, people getting more comfortable with communicating publicly – shift from anonymous identities, to real identities via social profiles. I saw that was going to get bigger and bigger and it was going to fundamentally change how companies are communicating with their customers. 

“When a customer has a question or a complaint about a company, instead of emailing or phoning, they are tweeting the company or writing on the company's Facebook page. Social is going to become a primary channel because people prefer to use it – the fact that it is public it means that companies will respond, which is going to encourage even more people to use it."

And this isn't about marketing. This isn't about pushing out positive messages via Twitter, it's about an end-to-end customer service using social.

“The status quo of how companies were managing social was through marketing activity – we realised that this wouldn't work. If someone needs a refund or if somebody has an issue with their product, you can't community manage that. The only person that could help is a real customer service agent.”

Customer requirements

March explained that Conversocial was lucky to pick up some big clients in its early days, including UK retailer Tesco, which meant his team could spend time in client contact centres getting to really understand how customer service works for a large enterprise. Getting to grips with a serious customer service operation. This is when Conversocial realised that for social customer service to work, it needed to be full integrated with the company's current processes, analytics, workloads and technologies.

One example of a company now using the Conversocial's tools is banking giant Barclaycard. It wanted to be able to reply to customer complaints via traditional channels, but also on social platforms. During 2013 Barclaycard received over 31,000 Facebook messages, which was up 171% compared to the previous year. The bank is using Conversocial's priority response engine to cut through the thousands of online messages and prioritise the most important ones – messages that require an immediate response. According to Conversocial, the response engine ensures that nothing goes amiss and every customer issue receives some form of response.

With customers signing up, I asked March whether it is now possible to easily put a business case together for social customer

service and whether or not the ROI stands up. Although he said that this can still be a bit tricky, the company is making use of its analytics to show that using social is more efficient than traditional platforms. He said:

“Because we can measure efficiency now, we can now compare the efficiency of agents using social compared with email, phone etc. Make the case for investment – the buyer may not care about social, but if they can see it is £1 cheaper to resolve an issue over social compared to email then it makes sense.

“In the preliminary work we have been doing with clients – it does depend on the brand – but generally we have found the cost to be less. Because of the limitations of social, people tend to keep it short and sweet.”

“Most of our clients, for any one particular issue, are able to get everything they need over social. Start and end the conversation over social. We did a study on this in the US where we looked at the rates of deflection to traditional channels, and even for massive companies, 98%+ of all issues are dealt with just within social, without asking customers to move to email or phone.”

Trust is key

There have been numerous examples of companies making some awful 'mistakes' dealing with customers via social channels – most recently US Airways, which tweeted a pornographic photo in response to a customer complaint. These mistakes create a problem of fear in dealing with customers in such a public forum and there has to be a great deal of trust with your customer service agents before going down this route.

March said that companies are getting there and simply warned that the complaints are going to happen anyway, so you might as well be trying to deal with negative feedback proactively.

“One of the biggest hurdles to get over is actually just enabling the agents to respond publicly on social. They are used to one on one private interactions, with a small marketing team handling everything public, and they have got to get to the stage where they are happy with agents responding publicly on Twitter. Select your agents, train them in the right way and you've got to trust them.”

“It depends on the company, there are some that have just readily embraced it, really created a massive change. In truth these conversations are happening anyway and if you don't engage it's far more negative than if you do engage. 

“We have seen great results from companies that have turned whole volume of criticism and negative messages into a much more positive conversation, just because they are engaging properly and customers can see that they are helping. Some have embraced it more than others, but the ones that struggle we do offer services, training and support. We will help train their agents in social media, to help relieve some of those worries and reduce the risk.”

Excited about social IDs

One area that is tricky when dealing with customers on public social platforms is being able to identify someone as a real customer with a real customer complaint, as anyone can set up a profile on Twitter or Facebook and start churning out negative messages. March said that often companies will ask for a customer's account ID in a private message, but what he really hopes is that it becomes more common for companies to integrate social profiles into their CRM systems and then using that as a primary identifier across all platforms.

March said that he is beginning to see some companies incentivise customers to hand over this information by, for example, offering them more points on loyalty schemes if they use Facebook as an ID. He said:

“If a company has selected social ID into their CRM system, for example using Facebook sign-on to get onto their website, then they can get the match between the customer record and the Facbeook ID. That's really valuable because then you can go towards a single view of the customer. 

“I'm really excited about this. Your email address might change, you change work, your phone number might change – your Facebook ID will always be exactly the same, even if you change your name. It's already logged on on your computer, on your iPad, on your smartphone – it's there as an identity mechanism, wherever you are, that's unchanging. That's a very powerful form of identity that could help companies move towards this pipe dream of a single view of the customer. It's a struggle for companies to do this across traditional channels. 

“We are getting there – there are obviously some trust issues. But we are gradually seeing companies start to do it and people become more comfortable with it.”

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