A personal view on the state of social customer service

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Martin Hill-Wilson presenting social customer service

The mere fact that June and July have been themed ‘social customer service’ month in two major industry sites mycustomer.com and ICMI call centre says much about where the topic now sits in our collective awareness.

When I put my first presentation on social customer service together in 2010, I discovered the topic was completely new to call centre audiences. In fact I can vividly remember the reaction at a Prague conference. Relative to yet another conversation about average handle time, this sounded exotic and unexplored. It became a ‘lean to’ conversation. As a presenter, that’s a leading indicator of a topic’s capacity to engage.

Fast forward to today and we are now in the thick of first generation issues:

  • Response times
  • Alignment with the culture and infrastructure of existing customer service
  • Gradual recognition as to what a ‘good’ listening platform looks like from a customer service perspective

We are also now awash with opinion and the obligatory ‘6 steps to…’ phase of market education as everyone finally responds to that email and begins engaging with yet another round of self learning. Try Googling ‘social customer service’ or ‘social support’ or even ‘webcare’ and you will see what I mean.

The significance of social customer service depends on your perspective

Legacy vendors will claim to have had their social channel add-ons for a couple of years now. Generally their mindset is that it is just business as usual in a now even more extended multi-channel world. In other words it’s a software upgrade.

What progress have they made? One of them recently told me that so far they had upgraded 5% of their global customer base to include social channel capability.

Then there are the new vendors who bring fresh thinking as well as new solutions. These are more typically rooted in the ethos and back story of social media. For them, the links with Marketing and the broader corporate agenda on social media is an obvious context for their positioning.

Hence they have focused their conversations with social media teams who find themselves increasingly involved in managing service requests and recognise that they now need to evolve what was initially a Marketing/PR only activity. This group is tunneling through the silo from the other side of the argument. Namely that service is the new marketing.

Since these vendors are just getting started, they are still discovering how they fit into the whole customer service ecosystem and what integrated functionality is expected from them to survive long term. Legacy vendors may have already ‘been there and acquired that’ in traditional customer service but this is still prime time for the younger group as they attempt to extend to a full service solution.

They are on the right track. This is becoming increasingly important as it dawns on everyone that social and traditional customer service has to be joined at the hip. For instance, Lithium, the peer-to-peer community platform vendor, bought Social Dynamx this year to add live advisor capability and universal queuing for social traffic. Meanwhile Conversocial recognised they had to ensure the interaction history being generated by their workflow was easily integrated into existing CRM solutions.

Yesterday, I received my first email from a social customer service consultancy claiming the way forward based on 20 years prior experience in call centres. Unsurprisingly they are offering a free audit as bait.

So far their new found capability appears US-based. But it is a sign of the times.

Social customer service can be high stakes poker

But let’s return to the topic of integration between social and traditional service. In customer experience terms this really matters. Often the customer journey will need to move between the public and private domains of social and traditional. Keeping context between channels translates into less customer effort. Therefore knowledge, customer ID and advisor continuity need to move seamlessly between channels. For instance an increasingly common dance routine, as pioneered by @AskCiti, might be:

  • From Twitter into chat (for privacy) and back again to Twitter (to encourage word of mouth – WOM) and thus ensure ‘Service as the new Marketing’ plays its role in delivering user generated validation

This example is live right now and worth reviewing. Since it is still on Frank Eliason‘s watch, the service works impeccably. Just one example of how cross channel journeys will need to be tightly architected.

The broader lesson is that the transparency of social interaction produces greater upsides and downsides.

For instance, it is worth bearing in mind that much social traffic is caused by a failure of traditional customer services. So attention to customer effort is especially important. I heard the evidence for this recently when presenting in Amsterdam. A local research agency TNS reported their studies showed 70% of traffic could be traced back to dissatisfaction with the initial call centre experience.

In other words, we are already one strike down in terms of customer patience. In the old days, no-one could hear you scream in the IVR. Today, if a customer feels unfairly treated, they can gather their own attack party and come after you. One service director who was interviewed by Carolyn Blunt, my co-author for a forthcoming book we’ve written on “Delivering Effective Social Customer Service”, remarked that the experience of that incoming assault felt like he was being ‘mugged’.

Thus we find ourselves in the era in which ‘Customer Service Is Now A Spectator Sport‘.

Of course, matters can be proportionately even worse. Crisis management is not often part of the Customer Service remit. Now it is. Any organisation can suffer. From ‘Acts of God’ to self inflicted disasters. There is much to prepare in getting your response right and really deserves a separate post to do it justice. Suffice to say, monitoring social traffic acts as radar to any incoming tsunami.

What does all of this mean?

For anyone agitating for a new era in customer service, the introduction of the so called ‘social customer’ is a breath of fresh air. Much will now change as a result:

  • The culture and people profile will draw new talent to our industry
  • The strategic relevance of service to brand management means we have now found a long lost twin in Marketing
  • A new attention to excellence built on continuous improvement becomes vital since you’re only as good as your last positive sentiment
  • We must learn how to fit into our customers’ lives – a tough lesson for alpha brands

From my perspective, social customer service while still under 10% of volume has 100% significance. It is truly a game changer that demands a new mindset. So I’ll leave you with a quote capable of doing just that.

As the wonderfully energetic and talented Bian Salins, Head of Social at NowTV remarked last week at Social CRM 2013 “What if marketing became more helpful and customer service more engaging?”

Indeed, what if?

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