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Increasingly, citizens demand to be heard on social media

In the last days of the 2013 federal election campaign, then-shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a Coalition government would move all its major services online by 2017. Their destination is the myGov site, which was launched under Labor in 2009 and is billed as a one-stop-shop for everything from Medicare claims to tax returns.

But as the processes move online, so too the questions and complaints. “Cheers for making tax returns more frustrating and difficult then [sic] they need be,” wrote one Facebook user as the myGov site struggled under the July 1 rush.

That’s the thing about the digitisation of customer (or citizen) services: as necessary as agencies’ own online service channels might be, it’s familiar channels like Facebook and Twitter many people turn to in the end. Social media has become an integral part of the customer service landscape, and the change has implications for public service processes, policies and skill sets.

Social media typically begins as the domain of the marketing and communications department. Low-cost, unmediated and used by one in two Australians, its marketing potential has been embraced by most government bodies.

But social media channels are two-way, and marketers working with Facebook or Twitter often find themselves spending a lot of time fielding customer inquiries. Digital Agency The Online Circle has researched social media customer service in Australia. Its lead strategist, Lucio Ribeiro, says the leaders in the field have adapted by making internal changes.

“We’re seeing some brands really moving social media out of the marketing department into the call centre as a fully-fledged customer service channel,” Ribeiro told The Mandarin. “They’re training them in techniques to service customers via social media.

“And don’t get me wrong, it’s not just about where to click on Facebook or where to click on Twitter — it’s not just the technical training — but also understanding the legal perspective, understanding the corporate affairs perspective, understanding the branding perspective. So it’s almost like a new profession or new discipline will be born in the future.”

Telstra is one company already employing these new professionals. With 300,000 inquiries coming via Facebook and Twitter in the past year, the telco employs around 40 people to provide social media customer service. Telstra Digital director Monty Hamilton says they must combine strong product and service knowledge with a familiarity with digital communication.

“Investing in the right people to connect with your customers in digital is something your customers expect,” Hamilton said. “It’s hard work, but tenacity pays off and mistakes are easily forgiven.”

While The Online Circle’s research into response rates and times found the telecommunications sector at the head of the pack, government was lagging towards the back. Posts to the government social media accounts studied were responded to 43% of the time, in just under eight and a half hours on average.

Police were some of the fastest government responders, with the Queensland Police Service fulfilling community expectations by responding in 48 minutes on average. Members of the public were most likely to get a response from the Department of Human Services’ Student Update Facebook page, with 93% of posts responded to.

The department’s general manager, Hank Jongen, says the public nature of social media inquiries has the potential to reduce demand for one-on-one support.

“Not only can we provide answers to specific and common questions for many people to view, communities are able to crowd source answers to provide assistance to each other, in effect multiplying the impact and reach of our customer information,” Jongen said.

Privacy concerns and character limits require some inquiries to be taken away from Facebook or Twitter. But Jongen says the department expects the number of people asking for help on social media will continue to increase.

“The approach is a critical plank in effective communication into the future.”

More at The Mandarin: The virtual town hall: making digital engagement work

Author Bio

Iona Salter

Iona Salter works in digital communications in local government. She has written for The Guardian Public Leaders Network, Asia360 News and Crikey.