Hays Travel has recruited 48 agents to work in a digital contact centre after a staggering rise in social media enquiries from a “new breed” of customer.

The full-time recruits will handle enquiries from platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and on Hays’ live chat and email, joining an existing team of 10 in Sunderland.

Their contact with clients will be exclusively via digital channels until the point of booking, which will take place over the phone.

“We’ve invested a lot in our digital strategy in the last two years and we’re getting a lot of clients through live chat, email and direct messages [on social media],” said Hays head of digital and marketing John Milburn.

Digital enquiries have grown by 300% in the last two years, meaning Hays’ separate call centre and 150-strong homeworking division have had to step in to deal with overflow.

The first 22 digital sales consultants, who began training last week, will start on July 8. The rest will be ready to take enquiries from July 22.

“Digital clients are a new breed of customer we’ve seen more of recently,” said Milburn. “So we need a new breed of agent to cater for them.

“It’s not the same interaction as with someone who immediately picks up the phone. They are often younger, and want advice on chat before they call. With the digital contact centre, they will be dealing with the same agent from start to finish.”

Milburn said live chat and direct messaging was prevalent in other industries, such as broadband and TV, so customers were used to interacting this way, adding that phone calls of “a few minutes” helped close sales and were required for secure payments.

“We originally wanted to hire 100 people,” he added.

“That’s a long-term target, but we had to tell ourselves to slow down.”

Social media is a growing sales channel across the industry, with homeworkers and independents widely using it to generate leads.

Tui uses social media and live chat for customer service and its agents began using chat to answer customer questions in the sales process last year.

Thomas Cook uses live chat to communicate with customers during the booking process, but requires payment to be made by phone, web or in store. It uses social media for customer service.

Barrhead Travel introduced a social media sales team last year at its Glasgow head office. President Jacqueline Dobson said digital enquiries had grown “substantially”. She added: “It started organically but it’s opened up a new sales channel. People check Facebook more often than email. It’s less formal.”