Building the Social Customer Service Experience


Share on LinkedIn

Over the next couple of years, more and more companies will take the plunge into delivering a more “social” customer service experience, to better engage with customers while also improving efficiency.

Software vendors are ramping up, and customer-centric leaders are charting the future—like iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba, a vacuum-cleaning robot that roams around your house cleaning floors automatically. We don’t have one of these beauties in our house (yet), but there are three million in the field today, according to Maryellen Abreu, Director of iRobot’s global technical support. Along with other robots that wash floors, clean pools and handle military applications, iRobot found strong demand for these automated helpers.

As call volumes ramped up, outsourcing their call center seemed like a good idea to save money. But iRobot found that wasn’t enough, because they needed tighter integration with other parts of their operation, and faster access to analytics for decision-making. So, iRobot selected RightNow to provide a SaaS-based customer service solution, to serve as “the glue between organizations,” says Abreu. Furthermore, iRobot integrated a Lithium-powered user community, which gets a million hits per month! If a user searches a forum and doesn’t find an answer, an incident is automatically created in the RightNow system.

This technology marriage enables users to help each other while also leveraging a knowledgebase and the more structured tools of modern customer service systems. Customers are more engaged and get their problems solved quickly. The company provides great service at a lower cost. That’s the win-win that every customer-centric business should strive for.

Rock, Meet Hard Place

To save money on customer service, companies have either outsourced or automated service processes. Done wrong, this can be “penny wise and pound foolish.” In CustomerThink’s 2006 study on Customer Experience Management, we found that IVR systems and off-shoring helped cut costs but at the detriment of customer experience quality. E-service was found to be more effective, but fell far short of being an unqualified success.

The conundrum is that while customers want lower prices—which drives enterprise investment in automated systems to cut costs—they don’t necessarily want to use those lower-cost channels.

Service quality is a key part of the overall customer experience, which CustomerThink and other research has found relates to improved business performance. According to Forrester (“The Economic Necessity of Customer Service,” January 2009), “good customer service experiences boost repurchase probability and long-term loyalty,” while bad experiences lead to defections and negative word of mouth.

Fortunately, costs are being cut more wisely in this downturn, according to numerous industry experts and vendors I’ve questioned over the past few months. Ashu Roy, founder and CEO of multi-channel customer service stalwart eGain, says there is a much higher awareness of the importance of retaining customers, and that “a good customer experience is also efficient customer service.”

The conundrum is that while customers want lower prices—which drives enterprise investment in automated systems to cut costs—they don’t necessarily want to use those lower-cost channels. Despite all the advances in e-service technology over the years, including speech-enabled IVRs, natural language search, live chat and more, a Forrester study of 5,000 consumers found that “45 percent of consumers still prefer to speak with a customer service agent on the phone.” Say what?

Oh, and the second most popular choice? Going to a physical store (36 percent). Combined, that’s 81 percent preference to not use those nifty automated channels like email, web, chat and IVR.

Well, it’s probably just the old folks that want to take up your agents’ time on the phone or in the stores, right? Wrong. While Forrester found some variation by generation (see chart below), young people also prefer human interactions.

While the key to success in driving down costs is to “deflect” calls to automated channels, the automation better deliver a great experience and solve customers’ problems effectively—or the phone will ring anyway. Better yet, as customer service guru Bill Price advises in his book The Best Service is No Service, fix the root cause of the problem that creates a need for customer service. Don’t just automate, eradicate.

Building Collaborative Customer Relationships

Creating more social or collaborative relationships is the third major wave of thinking in customer-centric business management over the past two decades. In the 1990s, so-called Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was mostly about managing customer information, a company-centric view of the relationship.

But there’s more to a customer relationship than data management and process automation. The limitations of CRM’s internal orientation and technology-obsession led to the rise of Customer Experience Management (CEM), which is focused on designing and delivering loyalty-building experiences. And CEM is not just about using technology. Think about the retail shopping experience, for example.

And now we’re entering into the third wave driven by social media, part of what I call Customer Collaboration Management (CCM), which is about engaging with customers in a real dialog. “Customer co-creation” is also part of the CCM wave.

Social Business Applications

The fact remains, though, that customer service organizations are under intense pressure to do more with less. Social technology can help customers help themselves and collaborate with employees through integrations with CRM and e-Service solutions. In addition to the RightNow/Lithium integration noted earlier, here a few examples.

  • Charlie Isaacs, Chief Customer Officer at KANA, says a small but growing number of customers are integrating with Jive and other specialists in community software. For example, forum users can be prompted to search the KANA knowledgebase, or forum threads can be automatically created if an answer isn’t found.
  • Earlier this year, made a big splash with the “Service Cloud,” which includes the ability to integrate with Facebook groups. Orange, a French telecom company, uses a community voting process to pick the best answers in a group about Orange products, then adds these answers to the system.
  • Parature has prospered selling an integrated suite that includes a type of social technology commonly known as forums. VP of Marketing Gary McNeil says the social movement in customer service is “absolutely resonating with customers” and that Parature will be adding more capabilities in the future.
  • Fuze Digital Solutions offers an on-demand customer care suite that includes a knowledgebase and multi-channel self-service modules. Founder/CEO Chuck Van Court says they enable a community to provide input to supplement their knowledgebase, with a points system to motivate contribution.
  • nGenera has feet planted in both the CRM and CCM worlds by virtue of 2008 acquisitions: Talisma for customer service and Kalivo for community interactions. Tighter integration between the two is coming, according to EVP Brian Magierski.
  • Debbie Ingram, who handles Strategic Marketing at service desk software maker Numara Software, said they are actively implementing social media plans in the marketplace and forming partnerships to expand their connections with current and future customers.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list. Over the next year I expect to see the largest CRM (e.g. Microsoft, Oracle, SAP) and contact center vendors (e.g. Avaya, Cisco, Genesys) dip their toes into the social waters. Some will add lightweight social capabilities to enterprise solutions, while others will choose to integrate with newer social business applications from Jive, Lithium and many others. Some of the social business pioneers will no doubt be acquired by enterprise software heavyweights.

Join the Conversation

If you’re still not convinced that the revolution in social customer service is coming, take a close look at your customers’ complete service experience.

You’ll probably find that it starts in the social web outside your official service processes—when your customer searches on Google or interacts on a Facebook group. Or, with interactions with other users on your support forums. And the service experience could also end outside your organization—when the customer tweets about what happened on Twitter or posts a blog.

Granted, this economy may be a challenging time to venture into uncharted social waters. But I believe the next big opportunity for customer service executives will be engaging with customers in the chaotic world of social media. Your customers are already there. When will you join the conversation?

Further Reading:


  1. Greetings Bob:

    I could not agree more that leveraging community insights is indeed a critical component in effectively, efficiently and consistently delivering service quality.

    To that end, we believe that a vital component to both self-service and assisted-service customer care is certainly the content, which must continually evolve and reflect real-world and practical insights gained from the people that design, build, maintain, support, market, sell and use the product or service the content supports. Clearly the involvement from the folks in Sales and Marketing should be focused on understandable communications rather than marketing hype.

    That’s how Fuze’s approach is different than our competitors. Instead of merely interconnecting community and knowledge base technology, we have built the community directly into the knowledge base to facilitate, motivate, recognize and reward relevant people internal and external to an organization to create and evolve the KB content. The other approaches can only hope to utilize community insights to create new KB content, but does nothing to engage the community in evolving existing content.

    Knowledge bases clearly can serve an important purpose since staff and consumers often want to quickly find accurate, thorough and well written content that resolves their particular issue and that they know a company will stand behind, but without direct community involvement they are doomed for failure since people also expect the content to evolve based on real-world application.

    More can be found on this topic at
    Enterprise-grade customer care and knowledge sharing without the enterprise price.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here