Customer support today is vastly different than it was just 10 years ago. Early in my tech career, the phone was the primary method of support, and the big “cutting-edge” technology involved automated phone trees that would seek out the right engineer at 3 a.m., wake him up and connect him to the customer needing help.
The idea of self service and of customers helping themselves was limited to “RTFM” (pardon the expression) and precious little else.
Back then, I vividly remember being pitched by a customer support sales guy on the merits of a fax-based document management system. The theory was that our customers would call in and select the document they wanted by listening to a menu of choices and then punching in the corresponding number. A few minutes later, the document they requested would roll off their fax machine and right into their hands! It was cool technology at the time but positively archaic in hindsight—and certainly nothing like the online knowledge bases and document repositories that we all expect now.
Today we live in a multi-channel world, and customers want to talk with us through a variety of different media. Some prefer the fast response and personalization of the phone, while others like the convenience and non-real-time nature of email. Live chat provides a bridge between these two and gives the customer and support agents the best—and worst—of both worlds!
Of course, many customers today also embrace some form of social communication, and this has changed the way companies interact in many ways. Below are three significant trends I have been monitoring, in which social communication dramatically affects the interaction between companies and customers.
Trend #1: The Customer’s Pulpit
While the technology of how customers interact with companies for support is one aspect of social, a potentially larger impact is that customers now have the ability to broadcast their dissatisfaction with your product to a larger audience—and in real time.
If you don’t keep your customers happy, then they will let everyone know very quickly—and this can be incredibly damaging to your bottom line.
Surprisingly enough, this is not a particularly new trend. Companies that serve tight vertical markets with well-connected customers have been facing this effect forever. Of course, it used to just be called “word of mouth.” In prior companies where I served, I can attribute many sales to the good reputation we had in a particular market, and conversely many sales our competitors lost because of their poor reputation. It was very common to hear “I won’t do business with those people at XYZ Company—Charlie down the street purchased it and has had nothing but problems.”
In my particular case, this involved software systems that we were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fact that someone wouldn’t purchase a product from a particular vendor just because of their bad reputation is a great example of how powerful this effect can be.
Today the rumor mill has expanded by a few orders of magnitude due to social media. If a customer is unhappy with your product or service, he or she can let the world know in a matter of clicks. It’s hard to remember a world without social media, but customer support operations can’t forget about it. If you don’t keep your customers happy, then they will let everyone know very quickly—and this can be incredibly damaging to your bottom line.
NM Incite, a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey, did a survey last year that brought this issue to point. Their research showed that “a single negative customer experience posted in public can wipe out the effect of up to five positive customer messages.”
Take a moment and read that again just to make sure you understand it.
This is a huge issue and one that affects all of us. Just one disgruntled customer can do more damage than we realize, and every effort has to be taken to prevent this type of negative feedback.
Trend #2: The Customer’s Pulpit
No, I’m not repeating myself! In the previous section, I’ve pointed out the negatives of the customer having a potentially loud voice, but there’s also a corresponding positive.
If you are able to provide outstanding service and support, your customers will let the world know. While companies like Zappos are well known for their customer service, loyal following, and strong positive social media presence, companies of any size can get the buzz going.
Unfortunately, upset customers are far more likely to voice their opinions than satisfied customers. When customers get what they pay for, even with great service, it’s rare they bother telling the world about it unless they are asked. However, if your agents go above and beyond to address issues and make sure that customers are happy, there is no doubt the word will get out.
There is a very simple truism that I’ve seen in every company I have been involved with: If your customers are happy, you will get more customers. More customers, of course, equals more revenue and growth for your company.
Trend #3: Customers Interacting with Your Company and Each Other
A third major social trend affecting support teams is that customers are interacting more with both your company and with each other. In the past, customers were fairly isolated from each other, but oftentimes now they have ways of being connected.
While public social media can play a part in this with things like user groups on LinkedIn and even in-person conferences, many companies have adopted a dedicated forum or community system.
If you can reach a critical mass in your support community, customers will start helping each other.
The idea of a community system is that customers can interact with each other, ask questions, and get responses from other users instead of only from the company. These customer support communities are potentially very valuable assets for a number of reasons.
One way that these communities can benefit is that, cultivated correctly, they can actually both reduce your support cost and increase customer satisfaction. If you can reach a critical mass in your support community, customers will start helping each other solve issues and provide tips and tricks to each other that will benefit everyone. Obviously, this can reduce your support costs by reducing the number of tickets that come into your system and actually leveraging your customers to do some of your support work.
These communities are also a great place to get customer feedback. One-on-one feedback through surveys or email is fine and has its place, but when you can get multiple customers engaged and talking about how they would like to see your product evolve, you get a much better sampling of data (not to mention some great new development ideas). A well-run customer support community can work like a focus group and help your product team better align with your customers’ needs.
Perhaps the most important aspect of communities is that engaged customers have been shown to spend dramatically more on your product or service. In 2012, research conducted by the University of Michigan showed a 19% increase in incremental revenue from customers who were a part of a company’s online community. The interesting thing about this research is that it demonstrates the benefit of having a native community as opposed to relying on Facebook pages or other methods of building communities.
Customer support is an ever-evolving art, but one that is becoming increasingly important as customers connect with each other and the world. Today’s support department has to be aware of the social nature of their customers and realize that everything they do has the potential to positively or negatively affect a customer’s perception of your company. Used correctly, companies can benefit greatly from this and truly become a social support desk.
Interacting with your customers in a social manner is much more than simply having a Facebook page—It’s an entirely new paradigm in how we treat our customers and what relationships we have with them. The old model of providing support through a call center with long on-hold times is long gone; your customers want an entirely different level of interaction.
Social is a way of thinking about your customers and not just a way of interacting with them. Get to know your customers, support them well, and make your customers happy. The benefits to your company’s bottom line will be impressive!