Two weeks ago we presented the findings of a report, commissioned by first direct from social media think-tank ItsOpen, on the future of customer service at the Social Media Leadership Forum in London.

These regular events bring together organisations that have a track record of innovation, success and progressive thinking in engaging with stakeholders through social media.

Customer service, since the beginning of recorded history, has been very simple. It is just about information and the power to control it.

In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg produced the first printing press and in doing so broke the church’s monopoly on the production of written media. This began a process of democratising access to media that, over the last 600 years, hasn’t faltered or changed direction. 

You only have to look at the levels of censorship practiced by oppressive regimes to understand that people who have access to more information are empowered by the access.

The ability to consume and produce media easily has turned traditional power structures on their heads, a fact made very clear by the Arab Spring.

We are, in a very real sense, living through the first social media mainstream revolution. Now, more than 44% of adults use the web to discuss customer service issues, and this has forced a profound shift in both customer expectation, and more importantly, power. They are becoming more powerful than we are.

We’re always looking to embrace where and how our customers want to be spoken to, and two weeks ago we started our dedicated customer service Twitter stream.

This is the focus that consistently underpins everything we do. When we sat down 21 years ago to create first direct, we started with a white sheet of paper with the word “customer” in the middle.

Then, just as now, research was telling us that we were on the cusp of a distinct change in consumer attitude and presence. Customers were flexing their muscles, telling us that they didn’t want to be tied to the old bricks and mortar banks, that they wanted a new model, more access and more flexibility.

But, since then a lot has changed. The media industry is barely recognisable. First Facebook and blogs began to lower the barriers to production, and then micro-blogging came along and reduced the amount of time you needed to invest to reach similarly large audiences.

The large open-source publishing platforms like WordPress meant that anyone with a small amount of technical know-how could essentially run their own online magazine, and then long-established media responded by ploughing money into online content and search experts. 

Now it’s almost impossible to tell professional publications apart from bedroom amateurs, but the one thing that hasn’t changed? Power. Or more accurately, the relentless march of the empowerment of the individual.

Brands no longer have the choice as to whether to engage in social customer services

And that is what the report outlines. It is a choice that has already been made for them by their digitally empowered customers. The social customer has given rise to the social company. 

While this trend may have been evident for some time, the report found 2011 to be the tipping-point, the year where customers began to force senior organisation executives to view social media as more than a passing fad.

But why did they ever see it as the latter? Facebook got within sight of a billion sign-ups world-wide, Twitter began to boast 100m active monthly users.

It was also a year of diversification as users sought niches of people with similar interests and prompted an explosion in the number of specialist social networks.

iPhone photographers with an interest in retro filters flocked in their millions to a fledgling network called Instagram, whilst more than 11m people visited a scrapbook community called Pinterest every week. 

Customers in 2011 decided what, where, when and why they wanted to interact, with every individual blog post, comment and tweet being indexed and immortalised by search giants like Google and Microsoft.

The more powerful people get, the more they demand, the more we need to give them, but (and it is an enormously important “but” ) the more they have to offer us.

Customers are more powerful than they used to be and this works both ways, so whilst they can (and sometimes do) present us with a more difficult challenge, they can also make much more advantageous allies.

In a practical sense, customers can take on some of the responsibilities traditionally held by marketing and customer service. Brands can listen and respond to customers in real time and collaborate on future developments. 

The report laid out that the real challenge in 2012 would be working out how to comprehend cultural, functional and technical organisational changes that are required to respond to customer power and create a social enterprise.

It all really lies in working out how to dismantle the apparatus of an almost feudal system, to best communicate with our customers, and with them, build a new partnership.