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The last eighteen months have witnessed a huge shift in the way that customers seek help for their customer service queries, problems and complaints.
The continued mainstreaming of social media has been catalytic in transforming this once settled landscape from a closed one-to-one transaction to a more open and conciliatory experience characterised by empathy.
In this new paradigm, traditional constructs, ways of communicating and business processes are being constantly questioned by customers. The challenge businesses face is that this questioning is taking place at the margins, on independent platforms, where their presence is neither required nor requested.
Sites such as ComplaintCommunity, Cofacio, GetSatisfaction, Amplicate, Vark, Plebble, alongside their more established counterparts like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TripAdvisor are shifting the power of voice back in favour of customers. A company’s ability to remain relevant given the changing needs of an increasingly vocal customer, requires companies to actually demonstrate their customer centricity, rather than treat it as a box to tick on a ‘to do’ list.
The drive towards creating a multichannel service experience is now a more complex undertaking. The convergence of social media and smartphones has added a multiplatform dimension to the online proposition, resulting in the proliferation of ‘unstructured’, yet highly influential, ‘now’ conversations between people. Telephone, email and letters (yes they still exist) are being replaced by video, audio, microblogs, instant chat, SMS alternatives. Communicating with our 'friends', real or perceived, is exciting, visual, participatory and even voyeuristic.
In this new paradigm, customers are bypassing the necessity to engage with a company altogether. Instead, they are turning to each other for help by posting questions on third party sites or simply self-helping through their own (re)search, on forums or via blogs. People have created their own networks and ecosystems built on social platforms where the sharing of information between trusted 'friends' is paramount. In a sense, customer service is moving outwards, it is decentralising into the hands of customers themselves. If you have a problem, who better to ask than someone who has recently had the same experience.
For companies it means finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to work with, and even at times, compete against, not just so called 'citizen experts' such as KachiWachi, but customers and people providing answers to the very services and products they supplied in the first place. The increasing ubiquity of the smartphone (and, soon, tablets), serves only to exacerbate and hasten this inevitable erosion of the role the company has to play in the customer service dynamic.
Companies that recognise this trend have begun to redefine the way they engage with customers. In time, this will likely result in the transformative re-engineering of business processes, what Jeremiah Owyang refers to as ‘seamless integration’. He qualifies this ‘highest state of nirvana’ by saying it ‘doesn’t yet exist’. However, BestBuy with their (r)evolutionary platform using the simple hashtag – #Twelpforce – perhaps gives us a glimpse of what nirvana might look like.
Furthermore, the use of the smartphone enables help to be sought at the moment of greatest truth: now. It gives us all the possibility of wresting control of the brand away from the company and placing it firmly within a public space, accessible to all. It condenses the experience, and the momentary touchpoint encapsulates the sum total of how a company views and engages with its customers.
Ironically, this decentralisation of customer service is not only placing it firmly at the frontline of a company's customer advocacy efforts, but it is also forcing on it a PR potential that has always been there, but never really sought. Social media is a natural ally for the call centre, empowering it with a public voice and the right to reply. The only proviso being that agents do so, on their customer's terms, and in an open and empathetic dialogue.
Social media by its very nature is highlighting the need for businesses to break down their departmental silos. Stakeholders from sales, marketing, customer services, brand, PR, compliance, business operations are having to come together to redefine, not their social media policies, guidelines or what Charlene Li refers to in her latest book – Open Leadership – ‘sandbox covenants’, but the way they fundamentally look at their customers. Social media gives the notion of customer-centricity a chance.
The resulting framework gives rise to the possibility of creating a truly cross-channel cross-platform customer experience that allows businesses to deliver on their customer service promise.
In this paradigm, the customer experience becomes the service. Indeed, in many instances, a positive experience supersedes the need for a positive resolution, as in the example below, blogged by a customer following their negative experience:
‘…in desperation – I turned to Twitter to try to penetrate what felt like the huge, uncaring behemoth of Carphone Warehouse. And I found Guy Stephens, the company’s Knowledge and Online Help Manager, who appeared to be tackling customer rage in a passionately empathetic way on Twitter. I tweeted him at 8pm; by 8.07pm, I had a reply, rendering me unconditionally blown away. Three months of periodic call centre torture had got me nowhere, but via social media I felt listened to within minutes and my problem solved within a few days.
‘True, I was a departing customer, but not before being turned from a ‘hater’ to a fan of what Carphone Warehouse is doing to improve its customer experience via social media.'
Such examples are becoming more commonplace. And this is no bad thing. If the emergence of social media has resulted in a wake-up call to customers that a better customer service experience underpinned by empathy and empowerment can exist, be demanded for and expected, then that is no mean result.
For so long, customers have been the victims of the drive for cost-reduction and operational efficiency within the contact centre. But exemplars of customer service excellence such as Zappos are now rising above the mundane.
Their uncompromising and unstinting approach to a type of customer service underpinned by delivering ‘wow’ through emotion and innovation gives hope to others such as ComCast, BT, The Carphone Warehouse, ASOS, EasyJet, BestBuy, JetBlue, Virgin Trains, whilst paving the way for those yet to start their journey and operating within the more regulated industries of finance, insurance, utilities and law.
After all, why should talking to a customer until their problem is resolved be anything other than what we should all expect, whatever the channel? ‘Listen to your customers’ has finally been pushed to the fore by the social media revolution, and it was about time too.