Brent Council has been the object of derision this week after it decided to replace its receptionists with a hologram, at a cost of more than £12,000. Virtual assistant ‘Shanice’ will appear to sit behind a desk, but will actually be projected onto a glass screen. However, sci-fi fans and the public at large may be disappointed by her limited artificial intelligence. It is reported that she will only be able to answer a handful of basic questions.

Officials claim that Shanice will eventually save the cash-strapped council about £17,000 a year. “We’re constantly having to look at innovative ways to cut costs,” says Brent Council’s James Denselow, a sentiment no doubt shared by every retailer looking to deliver excellent service at the lowest cost.

The rollout of ‘holographic assistants’ is symptomatic of how quickly consumer expectations of what constitutes customer service are evolving. Research from software company Ambassador found that a third of UK consumers would rather contact a company via social media than over the phone. But these online consumers demand a rapid response, with more than 40% of Twitter users expecting brands to reply to them within 60 minutes.

“Social customer service is intensive and detail-oriented”

Many brands are struggling to keep up the pace. Ambassador’s research found that only 36% of consumers think they are receiving effective customer service from brands via their social media channels.

While finding a solution to every problem may not be possible in an hour, customer queries should be acknowledged as quickly as possible. This means having dedicated online monitoring in place to identify issues and using CRM software that can allow a complaint to be tracked as it moves across departments.

Provide clarity and create a dedicated customer service feed on Twitter, rather than using your primary brand feed to deal with customer complaints that drown out your other conversations. On your Facebook page, be clear on your hours of business and state a realistic service-level agreement for responding to complaints - and stick to it. And remember, not every query should be dealt with on your public Facebook wall take complex and difficult conversations private by using direct messaging or email.

Social customer service is intensive and detail-oriented. Ensure staff on the front line understand that they have your brand’s reputation in their hands and empower them to manage it through effective training.

Above all, unlike Shanice, consumers online respond best to brands that use their customer service to display both personality and a personal touch to keeping their customers happy.