Musings on social business ROI for support…

This entry was posted by on Monday, 16 May, 2011 at

Having troubles providing ROI for your social business efforts in a client support context? Yeah, you’re not alone. As support workers, we deal with intangibles every day. It is actually a big part of how we solve problems at times; using that support intuition and gut feelings which come from experience and a roll up of all the differing variables at play, not to mention some well-implemented educated guesses. But how do you quantify all that into a reportable metric to show the value returned from the efforts?

Martin Hill-Wilson over on TheSocialCustomer.com had some great insights to share as they relate to ROI and Customer Service. He makes a point of showing that the intangibles of support can’t be measured, yet are still as critical (a fact which those of us working in the space already know):

“… the inability to directly measure something does not mean it is worthless. Quite the opposite. In fact the most abstract topic that has continued to evolve up the greasy pole of corporate favour is culture. This is illogical from the perspective of corporate Vulcanlogic. You can no more directly show me culture that I can show you that unicorn. Yet huge amounts of cash are invested by the C-suite to improve corporate cultures.”

Everyone who is working today in the social business spaces knows there is value. We feel it in our bones with as much certainty as there is coffee in our mugs (which is to say, a lot). If we were not so convinced of the value and need to be social, to engage with our clients and colleagues in these spaces, you can rest assured we’d not be spending time here. But we’ve all been tasked to find that one thing that evades us, the holy-grail of social business: tangible metrics to show real returns on the time, energy, and capital we have invested to be engaged in the social spaces.

In the marketing worlds, these intangibles are a bit easier to quantify through what Martin calls ‘proxy metrics’; linkages between tangibles and intangibles that indicate correlation if not causation. Imagine a television ad running for a week’s time, and measured sales increasing over the same period. You could make the correlation there that the campaign had a particular return on investment.  And while, yes, we do have proxy metrics in the support world, connecting these linkages from investment to returns is a far greater leap. In marketing, there may be a three jump difference from a campaign to sales increases. But what about support where we aren’t focused on driving revenue?

In client support, the number of jumps grows exponentially from any given activity to revenue recognition, be it direct product sales or maintenance renewals. Does a single tweet containing an FAQ solving an issue translate directly to revenue recognition? No, no more than a television ad for a new car can translate directly into a sale. Both provide the potential, but with so many other factors in play, how can you say that this one piece of content made the maintenance renewal sale? I imagine even ad agencies and dealerships find it difficult to prove that TV ad was the deciding factor for that new car purchase!

Unless the clients are providing direct feedback, noting the explicit reasons for their maintenance renewals, or lack of need to open support tickets, we only have indicators at best to help guide any potential ROI measurements. Martin comments on these client-satisfaction proxies as well:

“But remember, at best these are indicators and should not be assumed to be true in every market. In some, the nature of the product, the price point, the availability of alternative choice, are stronger drivers as to whether customer are predisposed to hang around a brand for any length of time.”

Without that direct client feedback, within support we can only rely on indicators like “visits to content” and “audience base” (followers counts) to show us reach and potential for increased revenue or call ticket avoidance. While call ticket trends and content visits can be easily tracked, I’d argue that connecting the two directly to social business efforts is a dangerous practice. Like so many other aspects of business, trends in revenue and client problem tickets are not tied to a single variable. Changes in the economy, product stability, support staffing, along with any social business campaigns or overall program efforts can combine to drive trends up or down, or even cancel each other out of one effort is successful while another variable may be causing problems (think improved products in a down economy causing sales to plateau rather than increase or decline).

In most instances, de-constructing these trends into their various, granular pieces is simply not possible. You simply can not isolate the various trends and look at the measurable components in a vacuum. Each piece needs to be weighed against the entirety, as a collective effort; each portion doing its own work and supporting the other pieces at the same time. We do not live in a black and white world, why would we think our various efforts are effective in black and white ways?

What does that leave us to gauge our efforts? Transactional data; simple indicators of progress or failure which may, or may not, be entirely accurate or reliable. Yes, we should continue to track those quantifiable items like visits, click-throughs, and followers, but not to the detriment of longer term benefits. Taking the television ad analogy again: that ad spot may not directly impact a purchase decision tomorrow, but the benefit may be seen 6, 9, 12 months, or even years later as part of an overall affinity for the brand. How do you connect such a compound and complex result with a single ad or campaign to show direct value for that single investment? Translating back to the Support arena, how do you connect an intangible, something which doesn’t exist (like the lack of a problem submission), with an individual tweet or larger social program to show any causation and direct return on that social investment?

Let’s look at a shift in thinking for a moment: what if we use transactional data as simple indicators, and then reset our focus to work and efforts designed to build overall relationship value? After all, isn’t that the social part of Social Business? Building that trust, and personal connection with clients is a key part of ensuring not only their success, but our mutual continued business relationships. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to measure those highly valuable but intangible connections. Activities alone won’t show that value… sometimes a handshake is just a polite greeting, other times it is the start of a long term complex relationship with decided fiscal impact, but there’s no way to attach value on the handshake alone.

Obviously I don’t have the answers here. If I did (and I’ve joked to my boss a number of times) I’m quitting my job and going on the lecture circuit for 6 figures per engagement… because that is how big of a deal this is to the industry. Find that silver bullet, that perfect ROI formula, and you’ll be set for life. As it stands, we’re all inching closer, but we’ve still got a giant chasm of a gap to bridge.

Until then, we stand with the belief that within a support context raising visibility to our content to help prevent problems, and providing solutions just in time when problems do arise is one more way we can ensure client success through our social business program. But more importantly we believe that open, transparent communication is simply the right thing to do for our clients and our business.

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Martin Hill-Wilson’s source article, as linked above: http://thesocialcustomer.com/martin-hill-wilson/37698/customer-service-roi-provable?utm_source=tsc_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter
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Full transparency: I am an IBM employee. This post is wholly my own and does not necessarily reflect any official IBM policy, opinion, or position. Read more about the guidelines which I follow at IBM’s Blogroll Policies and Guidelines for Blogging

3 Responses to “Musings on social business ROI for support…”

  1. Jason,

    What you’ve just explored in your post may be “wanderings of a beleaguered mind” but you’ve managed to grab the issue by the scruff of its neck and given it a good shake.

    I think what this current generation of social commentators can facilitate is to put the importance of human relationship back into the centre of what an organisation aims to be great at.

    It’s been forgotten to the extend we believe loyalty could be bought with freebies at the petrol station or its equivalent. Whichever generation of leadership finally accept that point will then see the ROI: as a natural function of operating from a new context.

    Keep chipping away!

    Martin

  2. Martin-
    Thank you for the comment :) Obviously I agree that the intrinsic value of businesses being social is seen in the relationships built; in the long term not the transactional. As business continues to strive to improve our efforts in the social spaces we can not let our focus on value rest solely on the short-term value-adds, but rather on how these spaces can help us improve our client relationships through those more intangible of interactions.
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate it!

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