No Excuses! Time to Leverage Social Media Technology in Customer Service


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Early in 2008, Starbucks Coffee Company launched—a social network where users can tell the corporation and each other about ideas for creating a better customer experience at Starbucks coffee shops. Within the first year, the company received more than 70,000 ideas from its customers through the network. It employed some (such as the “Starbucks VIP card” and the free coffee for Gold Card members on their birthdays), and also established a unique platform for explaining when and why it can’t meet some consumer demands.

For example, when customers suggested coffee-flavored ice cubes be added to iced beverages to keep them from getting too watered down, a company employee offered this response:

“… While I personally love this idea, and it works great at home (I’ve tried it!), at this time we are unable to carry out the coffee ice cubes idea because only a small percentage of our retail stores have freezers. So for now, keep up the great ideas and continue to enjoy coffee ice cubes at home! I recommend making coffee ice cubes using our Starbucks™ Gazebo Blend! …”

This level of customer engagement not only helps Starbucks generate ideas that would otherwise need to be harvested from expensive and time-consuming customer research projects, but it also helps Starbucks improve the perception its customers have of the company.

While interactive customer service on a social media platform is a Web 2.0 era strategy, it really ought to be a customer service 101 practice.

The New Consumer

The phenomenal growth of online social networking and mobile communication is creating a cultural shift in our society. Specifically, these new media are creating a more demanding consumer. Because it is much easier to get information on any topic at any time of day, consumers now expect more immediacy and convenience. Because there are multiple, if not endless, sources available to validate or negate information from businesses, consumers also demand more honesty. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, because the community aspect of social media fosters strength in numbers, consumers demand to be heard.

While interactive customer service on a social media platform is a Web 2.0 era strategy, it really ought to be a customer service 101 practice.

Overall, social media and mobile communications enable the consumer to operate more on their terms. They can—and do—choose when, where and from whom they get information. And they have a stronger voice for sharing information in return. Companies that are looking toward the future of interaction should communicate with customers through the same channels by which customers gain information and communicate with other people in their lives. Companies that do not evolve according to their customers and leverage the same media that their customers are using, are at risk for falling into a huge channel gap.

Obsolete Front Doors

Until recently, a company’s Web site and contact center were its proverbial front doors. Consumers would use the homepage or the contact center IVR tree as a starting point for getting information about a company—store hours, pricing information, order status, etc. Because these channels served as the main channel into the business, organizations naturally spent a lot of time making sure they eloquently framed the company’s products and services with carefully crafted marketing messages.

But now that social media and mobile communications are the reality, consumers are more gratified by communicating on their own terms. As the trend toward these new channels continues, consumers will spend less time using old methods of communicating with businesses. They will be less willing to spend time navigating the old channels. They will even exchange tips and tricks with friends for navigating around your complex processes. In 2005, consumers spread Paul English’s anti-IVR zero-out list around social networks, helping one another get quicker action and faster service than what the methods in place were providing.

It’s Time to Join the Crowd

Since consumers have embraced new interaction alternatives, businesses need to listen to what customers are telling them. Companies must reach out beyond their traditional front door to meet consumers in their new world. There are no doors, but rather a free flow of information that companies can gather and process through a variety of personal cognitive filters in order to create a meaningful customer feedback loop.

Fortunately, these channels are just as easy for a business to leverage as they are for the consumer. For example, during the busy tax season, TurboTax hosted a Twitter profile for its customer service department. Customers could tweet their questions to representatives standing by to get help with their taxes. It was a simple way for the company to engage customers on their terms and enable back-and-forth communication using the consumer’s preferred channel.

Some businesses are hesitant to embrace social media and join the communication revolution taking place around them.

Many technologies are available for businesses to connect with customers via social media and mobile applications. For example, companies could embed a widget on a Facebook site to allow the consumer to notify the company that they have a concern, and that they want someone from the contact center to call them. Or, companies could create applications for mobile smart phones that allow users to access information they care most about, or trigger a callback from the contact center. Many possibilities exist.

By giving customers the power to choose their interaction channel, businesses better meet the needs of the new consumer. But once these channels are in place, companies also need to queue-up specialized agents to address the conversations taking place.

No Excuses

Some businesses are hesitant to embrace social media and join the communication revolution taking place around them. Ironically, some of the reasons for holding back are concerns around staffing issues or potential negative exposure, which actually are reasons for embracing these new channels. When considering how to launch social media or applications for service, here are some common questions and answers.

  • “We don’t even have enough agents in our contact center to meet peak call volumes. We cannot afford to staff this too.”

    It is true that you need people to facilitate social media interaction. Only humans, not batch programs or scripts, can filter and interpret the lay of this virtual land. But when technology is implemented correctly there is no more demand on agents than before. In fact, it’s likely that agents can serve multiple requests simultaneously using social media channels thereby raising overall customer handling capacity. One important step is integrating all incoming interactions into a centralized queue. With correctly trained agents, you can assign channels and areas of expertise that will allow for a faster and higher quality response.

    Moving interactions to electronic platforms can also even out peak times, because consumers can choose the channel that they prefer. Implementing other supporting technologies, such as virtual queuing can also help balance interactions. By offering callbacks from either phone or electronic requests, agents can provide high quality service without feeling the pressure of hold times. The ultimate result is that companies transform into places made up of people again who, in turn, are there to interact with and develop real relationships with their customers.

  • “We don’t want to expose ourselves so much. People might say negative things.”

    Participation on social media platforms does require a degree of transparency that will make some companies a little squeamish. But that is why social media is so powerful—it is an honest exchange. Honesty fuels participation and synergy which spawns positive (and sometimes negative) ideas and opinions. Those conversations will continue, whether or not the individuals or businesses being discussed are included. So it is best for businesses to join the conversation and address the concerns. By joining a frank and honest conversation with customers, companies convey their honesty which leads to good customer relationships and sales.

    One company that has embraced this strategy is Skittles. The marketing department does not shape the brand on—they allow customers to provide commentary which supports the brand. The Web site does not boast about how wonderful Skittles candy is. There is no list of “features and benefits,” no e-mail address for more information and no phone number for the contact center. Instead, thousands of people who eat the chewy, rainbow-colored snack are endorsing the brand freely.

Since consumers are talking online about the companies they work with anyway, it makes sense for those companies to tune in and join the discussion. A colleague of mine recently had an experience that proved the case. He had purchased an item from an online/catalog retailer. Almost immediately after clicking “Submit Order,” he had buyer’s remorse and tried to cancel it both online and through the customer service phone number. When he didn’t get a straight answer, he did what most consumers today are doing—he complained. Online. To more than 300 people following him on Twitter. Those 300 people also had their own followers, potentially creating a chain reaction of thousands of people hearing about one minor annoyance.

The good news is that someone from the retailer also was listening—conducting regular searches for any mention of the company name. Upon finding my friend’s Tweet, the customer service representative sent a follow-up note and helped resolve the issue. My friend posted a “thank you” Tweet, and the company’s reputation was restored.

Ready When You Are

Consumers are evolving and will continue to evolve in their communications. Today, social networks and mobile communications have created a new communication reality in which immediacy, convenience and honesty are imperative to successful customer relationships.

Enlightened companies know that they need to evolve in their communications as well and meet their customers in their communities on the other side of the companies’ corporate walls. They must join networks and create mobile communication applications. More importantly, they must start monitoring and responding to their customers through these media as soon as possible. Otherwise, they will be missing out on an important conversation that will take place whether or not they are involved.

The advantages of making communication easier for customers far outweigh the hypothetical safety of not leveraging these new channels. And with the technology solutions available today, there is no reason why companies can’t get involved.

Consumers have evolved with the times. Technology has done the same. Have you?

Eric Camulli
As Vice President for 7signal, Eric is focused on helping organizations bring high quality and highly productive experiences to people using Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In today's connected economy, our dependency on robust, reliable Wi-Fi is paramount. Eric is dedicated to ensuring that companies deliver peak wireless performance so that they can compete in a marketplace exploding with wireless devices.


  1. So much is changing with this generation. Pretty soon parents across America will be as inept at modern technology as their parents were with VCR’s.

    It seems a natural match that companies who sell to the general public would begin using social networks to improve their product offerings and customer service.

  2. Hello Eric,

    I agree with you that Social Media can be a great “channel”. I do believe though that before a company enters into Social Media with any strategy, they should develop the Listening competence first.

    I wrote a short post on this before and there was quite some good interaction in the comments. You can read it here:
    Social Media Does not make a Good Listener

    Please let me know your thoughts.

    Wim Rampen
    Follow me on Twitter

  3. Great link Wim and great point. You are correct, it starts with being a good listener! Folks need to be skilled in “attentive behavior” and start by learning about how to simply engage and acknowledge their customers. Solving their issues comes next.


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