Josh Polk and Emerson Cunningham share how they built American Electric Power’s social care team

American Electric Power’s Principal Social Media Strategist, Emerson Cunningham, and Social Media Manager, Josh Polk, recently worked together to create the organization’s social care team and the accompanying physical social care center.

AEP owns seven different power brands across 11 states, so structuring a team for fast, efficient social media customer service was a massive undertaking.

For years, all of AEP’s social inquiries had been handled by their corporate communications team or by each individual operating subsidiary — until it became apparent that there was a need for a more structured, centralized customer care team.

There's a new generation of customer that doesn't necessarily want to interact with us on the phone. They prefer to do it digitally. Josh Polk
“There’s a new generation of customer that doesn’t necessarily want to interact with us on the phone. They prefer to do it digitally,” Josh said. “We needed to adjust to today’s customer.”

So in 2017, AEP began to develop the idea of a social media customer care center to meet the demands of today’s customer and manage their inquiries more effectively on social media.

Getting the buy-in needed from executives at each of AEP’s companies took years of work.

Since 2009, the social team has been sending out a daily summary of customers’ social comments to executives throughout the organization.

“They’d see the kinds of things that customers are saying about us and realize that we weren’t doing anything about it, and we really should be,” Josh said. “It was also about protecting the brand and making sure there’s somebody around seven days a week to address any issues like safety or emergencies being mentioned on social.”

Then came the challenge of building a team of multi-talented social media care professionals.

“Emerson worked at Georgia Power, where he wrote the strategy and operations plans for their newly built social media center before he came here and joined the AEP team in the first year of the project,” Josh said. Because of Emerson’s previous experience, he headed up interviewing and training AEP’s new social care specialists.

The idea was to hire people who were experts in customer care, and we could train them on social media and brand protection. Emerson Cunningham
Emerson explained they had the opportunity to funnel in customer care professionals with various skill sets — which didn’t necessarily include social media skills.

“They had everything we needed in the system of care arena — from experience in payment plans and outages to account information,” Emerson said. “The idea was to hire people who were experts in customer care, and we could train them on social media and brand protection.”

Emerson developed a training program to help them excel on social. “We outlined what we thought would be issues and topics that would come up, and that they might not have had experience addressing,” Emerson said.

That list included things like community management, brand protection, when to move inquiries to a private channel like a PM or DM, and keeping a corporate image while also handling customers’ concerns directly.

The care center was built for efficiency.

It’s fully operational seven days a week — Monday through Friday, 7 AM to 11 PM, and Saturday and Sunday, 8 AM to 5 PM. And it’s staffed by five social media customer care specialists and a supervisor, who sit alongside four people from the corporate communications team.

We may not have been the first to try this model in the electric industry, but I think we're the first to do it at this bigger scale. Josh Polk
Josh and Emerson emphasized the importance of having both the social care team and the corporate communications team under the same roof, working just feet away from each other.

“We may be from two different parts of the company,” Josh said. “But inside the social media center, we’re on the same team. We’re working together with the same overall goals, just with different responsibilities and expertise. The teams are stronger working together.”

Emerson added that having the teams in one place decreases response times.

“When experts are in the room to answer customer questions, there’s a very quick turnaround time,” he said. “We like to respond to customers within five minutes.”

According the Emerson, this team model also functions as a way to protect their brand. “Having PR professionals sitting there too helps make sure our brand won’t be tarnished,” he said.

Since building the social care center and team, Josh and Emerson have seen a noticeable change in sentiment toward AEP’s operating subsidiaries.

Emerson explained that each of the seven companies have their own individual corporate communications teams. But, in the past, they haven’t been able to answer every question on social as quickly as they’d like.

We may be from two different parts of the company, but inside the social media center, we're on the same team. Josh Polk
“They would have to reach out to customer care experts in their organizations and then get back to the customer at a later time,” he said. “So the turnaround time for some of the answers was quite long, and some of the questions were not answered to the level of satisfaction that we would have liked.”

Now, the new social customer care center processes allow them to respond to customers in a fraction of the time — which has evoked positive feedback from customers and from the communications teams at AEP’s operating subsidiaries.

“We’ve seen an uptick in our operating companies’ J.D. Power customer satisfaction scores,” Emerson said. “We’re also seeing an improvement in positive sentiment versus negative sentiment from customers over time.”

The team uses a case methodology in Sprinklr to measure changes in customer sentiment.

Josh explained that all interactions with a single person within 24 hours counts as one case, including everything from the customer’s initial outreach on social through the resolution.

When a case comes in, it’s marked with a ‘sentiment’ — according to Josh, most customer service inquiries will automatically receive a negative sentiment. Once the case been resolved, the platform requires a ‘closing sentiment.’

The team’s goal is to move every negative sentiment to at least neutral — ideally positive — by the time the case is closed. “That’s one of the big numbers we’re reporting on right now until we really can see what our baseline is,” Josh said. “Because at the end of the day we do hope that every customer is happy with their end result.”

According to Emerson, educating leadership on the need for this type of integrated customer care center ended up being one of the biggest challenges of the project.

He explained that getting some members of the company’s leadership on board with an integrated, two-team care center was difficult. “We just had to find that balance and respect each other’s interest in this whole social media arena,” Emerson said.

We're seeing an improvement in positive sentiment versus negative sentiment from customers over time. Emerson Cunningham
Josh added that training their customer care employees to develop the right instincts when using social media was a challenge as well. “Having any customer care person that’s used to just being on the phone respond on social, and knowing what they’re saying could potentially be seen by thousands or millions of people; they just had to understand that there’s risk involved,” he said.

For Josh, that’s why having a specially trained team that understands that risk and can answer questions for each other has been so important.

While different models may work for different industries, Josh and Emerson feel they’ve developed a model that works for their industry.

“We may not have been the first to try this model in the electric industry, but I think we’re the first to do it at this bigger scale,” Josh said. “It will potentially become the standard model of social customer care in the industry.”

But, Josh also emphasized that their care center is a not a one-size-fits-all solution. “Before starting something like this, ask people that are already doing it, and see which model would work best for your business, because there may be other ways to do it for your organization,” he said.

Emerson suggested that companies should closely examine talent in the web responder, chat responder, and product specialist arenas — and recruit from there. “Then you can add the skill sets around brand protection and brand enhancement. That could be the key to them being successful in a social customer care center,” he said.

He also advised against hiring social media contractors. “This is an important job. Individuals that just have social experience will still require lots of support from experts who do this every day,” Emerson said. “They’re representing your voice on social, you want that to be an expert voice.”

Josh Polk and Emerson Cunningham have been members of SocialMedia.org since 2017 and 2018, respectively. You can connect with Josh and Emerson on LinkedIn.