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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.

Guy Stephens

Published 23 June, 2010 by Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens is a Social Business Consultant at IBM and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter (@guy1067) and check out his blog

7 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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sim stewart

Thanks Guy for a really interesting post, lots to think about. Examples such as Twelp force raise the question of whether it's preferential for everyone in a company to be client facing and accessible through social media. In your opinion are there departments that should be limited from engaging in social media, and how important is training in all this, can you train everyone to be social and say the right thing?

about 6 years ago

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James Sorensen

I think the fact that customers are bypassing the necessity to engage with a company altogether is disturbing. Is it because there are so many different avenues customers can use today or is it because customers are not able to easily contact a company and when they do the experience is less than average. Today customers want answers now, they do not want to wait on hold, speak with someone that is obviously reading from a script and is not empowered to resolve their issue. In the example of the customer using Twitter after three months of call center torture to get answers tells me there is a breakdown with the way front line employee's are handling customer concerns. It could be as simple as a breakdown in procedures that needs to be corrected or employee coaching. If more companies put their efforts into empowering their first line employees to deliver exceptional customer service then the necessity to use social media in desperation for solutions can be minimized.

about 6 years ago

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Paul Roberts

Good post, Guy. Social Media is indeed changing the way service is administered to customers. That said and the way I see it, many of the principles of good customer service still apply. When contacting a company, customers are seeking competent service; hoping to get their problem resolved 1st time. Social media introduces more channels through which to contact that company and administer service. The challenge for the company is to integrate its channels and processes to ensure that service is consistent across all customer touchpoints (phone, web, retail, social media etc) and as you point out; make it a dialogue that is taking place on the customers terms and with the desired resolution. That challenge is not an easy one. A recent Ovum study suggested that 90% of consumers contact companies for service across multiple channels, yet less than 10% of companies are ready for it. Lots of room to differentiate on service for those companies that do it well! :)

about 6 years ago

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Julius Duncan

Really enjoyed this post, Guy. It covers alot of ground, and gives a clear view of where customer service and Social CRM is headed.  Interesting to see in some of the comments that there is a temptation to treat Social as 'just another customer service channel', rather than the gane changer that it is. For the social brand agencies out there trying to guide companies on appropriate strategy it is the internal barriers created by the silos of old, that remain the biggest challenge. At a PRWeek #prdigital event earlier this week, looking at how social media is affecting PR, the convergence of PR and social CRM was very apparent. We had the example of how to do it well, Vodafone, and the example of what happens when you ignore it, the Eurostar crisis of December 2009. At the event Mary Walsh, Comms Dir from Eurostar, was asked - "What were the cultural barriers that meant the company was so ill prepared for the social reputation storm in December 2009?". Her answer was simply that social media had been 'given to the marketing department' and 'no one had thought to see the importance of it for customer service and reputation management'. They are fixing that now, but it took a massive crisis to get them to breakdown the old ways of working!        

about 6 years ago

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Kate Nasser

Wonderful post Guy. You cover many aspects of this "revolution" or "evolution" depending on how you look at it. Julius' comment about Eurostar underscores how leaders in companies allow org. structure to constrain them. Yet there is no denying that it wouldn't constrain them if Customer Care were one of the key business drivers. If Customer Care (and the Customer Experience) were on everyone's mind in every department and at the highest levels of management, social media or anything else would make it across org. lines because of the importance and stature it carried. CEOs are known to watch the stock price. Did they ever watch what's happening with customers with the same vigilance? That is what social media has revolutionized. It is making "customers" a key business driver. As for your comment on "empathetic dialogue" -- you nailed it. Trash the scripts, trash the 'protect the company' zeitgeist, and connect with your customers. Customers want it authentic, committed, and ***easy! Here's a post that captures this thinking: -------- http://katenasser.com/ace-your-next-customer-service-moment/ -------- Bravo to your post and thanks for sharing. I will RT on Twitter. Kate

about 6 years ago

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Barry Dalton

Guy,

First let me commend you for what is one of the most comprehensive, yet unacademic, uncomplicated, real world assessment of the overall state of customer service with respect to the impact of social media.  Well done.

With respect to the 'real world', the practical state of affairs, from what I'm hearing from clients is that the highest state of nirvana represented by seamless integration is, for especially larger enterprises, probably going to remain more water cooler fodder than reality for quite some time. 

Here's what I mean.  First, being the old codger that I am, I have heard this promise before, in the early days of CRM.  The customer-centric enterprise still exists primarily on cool PowerPoint slides than in the actual processes, metrics and rewards systems by which these large enterprises run their businesses.  Very few have really blossomed and executed flawlessly a true customer centric business model.  The Zappos of the world would be a customer service rock star with or without social media.  Its just the kind of culture around which Tony Hsieh has built that company.

As a data point (albeit a single small sample), I was at a consumer affairs industry conference recently.  And of the attendees, heres how they reported their roles within the organization as relates to social CRM:

Of 53 participating CPG companies, none of the customer service functions were responsible for social media customer service engagement strategy.  PR and Marketing are now suddenly interested in customer service and are defining the engagement strategy. Customer services is being directed to tactically handle complains, but not driving or participating in strategic level decisions.

So, while I 100% agree with the potential enhanced strategic importance of customer service in the customer-company ecosystem driven by social media, I am concerned that we may be sitting here 20 years from now with only a handful of demonstrable case studies to point to.  And, maybe that's not such a bad thing.  I don't need more choices as a consumer as much as I need better choices.  

about 6 years ago

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Maria Ogneva

Customer service has definitely evolved, and as you mentioned before, new paradigms have emerged where customers are helping each other. However, I don't necessarily agree that the company involvement is unnecessary. It's marginalized, yes, and often help that users can give other users is better than the company could give. But a good community manager should still participate in that community, strengthening relationships with those people who help others use your product - they are your brand advocates - love them, make them feel good, invite them to collaborate with you on your product.

Completely agree that social media is a natural ally to the call center. We (at Attensity) believe that too, which is why we have V-O-C solutions for the call center, email support, as well as social media.

Really really good post. I'll keep tweeting and sharing, as your example of what's possible re: turning a "hater" into a "believer" is so very very spot on - and very real. Happened to me a couple times :)

Maria Ogneva, @themaria

almost 6 years ago

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Charlie Isaacs

Nice post, Guy. I especially liked: 

"Furthermore, the use of the smartphone enables help to be sought at the moment of greatest truth: now. " Customers want instant gratification, satisfaction, and answers to their issues. If they can't find it from their current provider, they are a click away from another choice. Nirvana is in the palm of your hand. Some companies are even delivering on that statement. :-)

almost 6 years ago

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Bob Thompson

Excellent post, Guy. Like the empathy angle. Customers want to engage with people that care, and if the company is not prepared, then they'll find that helping hand elsewhere -- with their peers. Social media introduces yet another complication to managing cross-channel customer experiences. I wrote about this recently on CustomerThink: http://bit.ly/b3ktVe

almost 6 years ago

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Marty Diamond

This is a great post. The importance of businesses having and keeping up with their social media is increasing. Keeping up with it is the key. Being able to have someone available to answer questions and help via these tools is so crucial. 

almost 6 years ago

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Dj Shah

Compromise gets a disintegrating hit encompassing the concurrent States. going hangdog anything below than the biggest, the best, and the greatest reflects weakness.

However, at the office, hoaxing encompassing teams amongst divergent happenings disciplines creates situations anywhere there are anti opinions almost how to carryout a follower’s goal.

almost 6 years ago

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Writing Questionnaires Examples

I feel social media has really made every thing look simple. Millions of users behind facebook and twitter! 

over 5 years ago

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