A Tale of Two Teams – how Norfolk County Council made Twitter a genuine customer service channel
In October last year colleagues of mine in our customer service team took over responsibility for replying to enquiries we received through Twitter. I’d like to say it was my idea but actually the desire to do this, and the foresight of how it could be developed, came from customer services.
And the reason I’d like to say it was my idea is because, four months on, it’s been working brilliantly – I’ve been surprised by how brilliantly. Enquiries are up, feedback has been great and we’ve had several people who, having come to us to complain on Twitter originally, have been so pleased with the speed and manner of the response that they’ve ended up complimenting us and telling their followers how great we are.
Up until October the @NorfolkCC account had been managed by the media team, and this had worked pretty well for 18 months or so. The handier we got at it though – the more frequent the tweets and the better we adapted to the medium and its ways – the more people came to us with comments, complaints and enquiries, and almost from the very beginning we sought to respond to most tweets.
This interaction hadn’t reached unmanageable levels by October but bringing customer services into the social media fold when we did has professionalised the enquiry service and made it a genuine alternative means of getting in touch with us.
So here’s how it works. Two members of the customer service team, Ben and James, now monitor Twitter from 9am to 5pm on normal working weekdays and respond to the vast majority of enquiries, compliments and complaints we receive through the account. Examples have included enquiries about late buses, cold callers, faulty streetlights and our libraries’ ebooks service. We even had one gentleman get in contact recently to tell us he was considering coming to Norfolk on holiday (smart man) who asked whether we had any recommendations.
During these working hours these tweets are treated the same as any other customer enquiry and will always be responded to on the same day (as long as they’ve been received before 5pm), even if that’s just with an acknowledgment.
The media team still interacts with people on Twitter, which I think is important as otherwise we would risk losing touch with our followers and influencers, and simply not use it to best effect. So we retweet, get into conversations where appropriate and acknowledge kindness. If a question or comment relates to a political issue or something that’s been a hot topic in the media then we’ll also generally be the ones to respond.
If an enquiry falls into a grey area we’ll pick up the phone and check with each other what we think is the best way to tackle it – and it’s really great to be able to share views and expertise like this. It isn’t foolproof and we have duplicated a couple of responses but I think for it to work there has to be some flexibility in the shared management of a social media account, as well as a desire to work together and support each other – and I’m really glad to say this is what I feel we’ve achieved, we are a little team of our own.
As mentioned at the start of this post, I feel we’ve really enhanced the council’s reputation by developing the customer service aspect of the account. Most people who come to us, even those who are complaining, are really pleased to get a quick, friendly and professional response to their enquiry – and I think this in part is because, at this stage, they’re not expecting it from a local authority on a social media channel. But I can’t help but feel that we’re heading towards a tipping point, fairly rapidly now, where that expectation will start to be the norm.
We’ve had several instances now of people who have initially come to us with a complaint single us out in Follow Fridays and praising us for handling their enquiry so effectively. Retweets of our tweets have also significantly increased and our follower numbers have been shooting up – in the past month alone we’ve gained more than 500 followers to take us to around 5,300 followers at the time of writing.
And the interactions we’ve had on Twitter have effected ‘real world’ change too. After seeing a tweet promoting our library service, one lady enquired whether she could join online, we sent her the link to the relevant webpage and hey presto! She came back to tell us she had become a library member! To flip it round, during the recent severe wintry weather one of our most frequent enquirers questioned why Norwich Bus Station hadn’t been gritted. Our winter maintenance team saw that he had a point and so added the bus station to the gritting routes with immediate effect. I think these individual results are just as important as the broader reputational gains we can make on Twitter, because they’re positively impacting on people’s lives. And how nice that we get to hear about them too!
I should also mention that we also have a ‘Norfolk’ Facebook page which is also joint-managed between customer services and communications in a similar way, but this was only launched in November and is still establishing itself, therefore we have had relatively few enquiries in comparison to Twitter.
If I’ve learned one thing about social media in the past few months... I haven’t been listening very hard. But one thing I definitely have learned is that there is no one size fits all approach for all organisations or even all councils. I’ve heard about some fantastic things that are happening at other councils, some of which I think we really need to consider and others that I don’t think would work for us, because our culture is different, because our media landscape is different, because the way our teams are set up is different.
Undoubtedly, sharing our @NorfolkCC account with customer services has been a great move for us. It’s allowed us, as employees with different abilities and responsibilities, to play to our strengths. It’s brought us closer as an organisation to people who I feel quite probably wouldn’t use other channels to contact us. And I’m sure it’s made a lot of people have a much better understanding of what we’re about and quite simply like us more.
The customer service team perspective from James Richardson, Customer Service Administrative Assistant
"When it was mentioned that the customer service centre would be taking responsibility for enquiries received via Twitter both my colleague Ben and I jumped at the chance to be involved.
Along with our team leader Chrissie we were given formal training on how to use Twitter, both in functionality terms and in the way the authority would like incoming tweets to be handled. From there it was just a matter of applying our customer service skills to a new media."
"We were both nervous sending our first few tweets but soon were as comfortable taking these queries as we would be by any other of Norfolk County Council's numerous access channels. We have been resolving tweets on a wide range of issues and contact through Twitter more than doubled last month compared to the previous month.
"We both feel we have had a very real input in to how the Twitter account is operated and feel very proud to be trusted with this new service."
Here are my seven top tips for sharing social media accounts between customer service and communications teams:
1. The eXcitement Factor – I think I can speak for my customer service chums when I say Ben, James and I really enjoy using and learning about social media and it feels like a privilege, not a burden, to incorporate it into our work for the council.
2. Stay in touch with each other and work as a team – Very early on I went to spend a few hours with Ben, James and their manager Chrissie and then they came to see me in the press office, and this really helped to form us into a team. It’s very easy now for any of us to pick up the phone or email each other to get and give advice on a response and ensure our approach is coordinated.
3. Try not to be precious! – Sometimes it’s not easy to relinquish control but ask yourself – is it likely to improve the service you’re offering? If the answer’s yes then it’s probably worth doing.
4. Softly, softly – We did a ‘soft’ launch of the Twitter enquiry service for a month or so first to make sure we could iron out any problems we encountered. As it happened, we didn’t really have any but I’d still recommend it as it took the pressure off. We now publicise our Twitter account as an enquiry channel in our account bio and in our residents’ magazine. Ben and James also do occasional tweets to remind people that they can contact us and get a response on Twitter.
5. Be flexible and don’t worry too much – This is an important one. I think you have to be prepared to work some things out as you go along. I’m still learning about Twitter and the way I tweet has changed since I started as I’ve become more confident and got used to the format, and I think it will continue to evolve. Sharing a Twitter account and making it a reliable, responsive service is another step along the road and it will be a learning curve – but a very rewarding one hopefully.
6. Pass feedback and ‘wins’ onto departments – In the past I haven’t been as good at this as I should have been but it’s my new vow! When I told an assistant head of the library service about the lady who joined the library online after we tweeted her the link she was really delighted, so it can do wonders for raising the profile of social media and what it can achieve internally. There’s also an official log of comments received through the customer service centre which is fed into relevant departments, and tweets are now recorded here too.
7. Remember to respond to praise as well as criticism – When you’re busy it can be easy to prioritise responding to complaints over compliments, as the reputational risk is greater from the former. But praise is really nice to receive and it takes more effort for people to remember to do it. So when it does come, do try to acknowledge it. As in the real world, a simple thank you really can go a long way!