Western Union may be an old company, but it's definitely not standing still. One of the original components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the company started more than 160 years ago with the introduction of the telegraph, leading to the demise of the Pony Express.
"It has such a storied history, but it's had a pretty successful history of reinventing itself as changes happen in technology," says Tim Langley-Hawthorne, Senior Vice President of Technology Governance and Global Customer Care Operations. Indeed, the telegraph led to the telegram, which led to commercial satellites and now the transferring of money via social media.
Today, Western Union operates in 200 countries with 500,000 physical locations. Its focus is on cross-border money transfer and bill payment, which presents an "interesting and complex customer care operation," Langley-Hawthorne says.
The Social Care team, managed out of an office in Mexico City, is a "small but growing part of the business," employing 15 people who handle social media inquiries in 5 languages (Western Union provides voice support in 45 languages). Average response time is an excellent 11 minutes, a source of pride for Langley-Hawthorne and his team.
Many questions can be answered publicly, such as those looking for the nearest Western Union location or inquiries about fees. But "you would be surprised about the level of personal information that some people put out there into the social media space," says Langley-Hawthorne, noting that at that point customers are directed to offline channels for a resolution. In addition, money is often being sent for emergency, medical, or educational purposes, which adds an emotional weight to many inquiries.
He added that while a large portion of Western Union's customers are "unbanked" - without checking or credit card accounts - they almost universally have smart phones, so "social can become a very approachable means of customer care" for them.
One interesting observation that Western Union has had is that its customer base identifies more with "their diaspora and their communities" vs. their country of residence. So a Philippino living in Canada and a Philippino living in Singapore would both rather visit a Western Union Facebook page targeted to Philippinos, Langley-Hawthorne says. This builds a "stronger bond and stronger affinity to our brand".
Just as Western Union has adapted to technology in decades past, so too is it adapting to today's marketplace where e-commerce happens in real-time: Recently announced agreements with Viber and WeChat will allow customers to send money via social channels. This, of course, creates new social care challenges.
"How do we provide care to this new Western Union consumer that is only going to use social to transfer money?" Langley-Hawthorne asks. "We see that as a really promising area for us. People who are sending money in these apps, they don't want to pick up the phone or send an email. They want care in the app, or they want care through social."
Langley-Hawthorne spent some time talking about Western Union's social care program with me during the 30th episode of the Focus on Customer Service podcast.
Here are some of the key moments in the episode and where to find them:
00:46 - Tim's professional background
2:23 - A brief history of Western Union
5:30 - How the overall customer care team is organized around the world and where social care fits in
9:17 - The argument to put resources behind social care when it's so relatively small
11:21 - The types of questions that Western Union sees on social media
15:42 - What's changed in the past two years that Tim has been managing social care
21:00 - How Western Union handles questions in unsupported languages
22:54 - The process of integrating social care with the rest of customer care operations
24:45 - A particularly memorable customer interaction involving a famous band
27:33 - Tim's advice for starting out in social care