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.