The Evolution of Customer Service

April 22, 2011
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I think that some (maybe a lot) of businesses are struggling to understand what customers want from their customer support organizations. Customer expectations seem to have changed over the last few years, or maybe what’s changed is the customers’ ability to do something when an experience goes wrong.

I think that some (maybe a lot) of businesses are struggling to understand what customers want from their customer support organizations. Customer expectations seem to have changed over the last few years, or maybe what’s changed is the customers’ ability to do something when an experience goes wrong. In fact I don’t think customers expect, at least at a high level, anything different than they did before the social web; a good brand experience and adequate customer support, are, at least to the customer’s mind, the bare minimum required to get and keep our business.

Is that different today versus ten years ago? No. There are differences though, and those differences touch several areas in support interactions; what a customer expects, what a customers response is to an interaction, where the customer wants to interact and in the channels that are available for companies to deliver service and support. These changes offer some interesting opportunities for companies that are looking for innovative ways to create a better customer experience.

I should start at the basics though. Social customer support is an add on to existing support systems and processes, not a replacement. In other words a company must first have a way to know who the customer is, manage customer data, collect and manage transaction data and collect and manage customer issues. If a company can’t systematically do these things then they need to focus there first. And by systematic I don’t necessarily mean that a business must have some elaborate CRM system, although it’s great if you do. Systematic management of customer support ranges from relatively simple and low costs to full blown integrated CRM systems, but the common thread is a consistent underlying policy, process and trained personnel. Social support channels rest on this foundation, if it’s solid then you can effectively add “social” but if it’s not, no amount of “social” can solve your problems..

From the customers perspective the social web has brought the ability to use trust filtered networks for product / service research and advice. Peer to peer interaction about a brand and its’ products and services gives customers a very comfortable way to seek input, information and advice. From the companies perspective this may feel like loss of control (not that you really ever had control) of the communication channel and the messaging. With multiple social communication channels and the broad reach of these channels a customer’s ability to share “bad” experiences and to know about “bad” is greatly magnified. Take the common and well known example of Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell. My bet is that before his customer service incident with United that you had never heard of him or his band. In fact even now you might not remember his name but if I said “United Breaks Guitars” it is likely that you know of the song and Dave’s story. His ability to reach millions of people with his music video on YouTube outlining his plight is now a social media legend.

If a company has the underlying customer support infrastructure and processes how can they add “social” on top? From a customer support perspective there are really two major areas where social can add significant value. The first is in peer to peer support communities and the second is in the expansion of your support channels to include the social web. Peer to peer support through a company managed customer community can provide a very rich customer experience and strengthen the customer’s relationship with the brand. This may sound a little odd on first look, since I’m suggesting that moving some of your support burden to the customers themselves can actually provide a better customer experience but this can be the case. Customers want to have relationships with the brands that they find important and satisfying. This is not limited to luxury or high price items either one of the most interesting examples of a loyal customer community is run by detergent manufacturer Tide. In a customer community members offer peer to peer support, information about products is essentially crowdsourced and the company can harvest the information to improve its own training and support material. The company also can see varying degrees of reductions in customer support calls as a result of the peer to peer support community. All in all it’s a win for both the company, which reduces its support costs, increases customer loyalty and gets access to high quality product information; and for the customer who gets access to answers quickly and painlessly. It’s important to note that the support community sits on top of the existing support system and the integration provides a method for escalation of unresolved to make sure customers get the answers they need. Several vendors are providing community management solutions including Lithium Technologies, Get Satisfaction, SwordCiboodle, and Jive Software

The second area for moving into social customer support is expanding support channels beyond your current methods like voice, web form, email, and IM/chat to include social networks like Facebook and communication channels like Twitter. Several CRM vendors are providing out of the box integration to the current crop of major social properties. The key to this expansion is to deploy a solution that is fully integrated into your support backend to provide scaleability and closed loop issue tracking while being flexible enough to incorporate new social channels as they gain momentum. Vendors like Oracle and Salesforce.com are already offering this type of integration.

Social customer service and support is simply an extension of your current offerings, which must be in good health to provide a good foundation to expansion into the social CRM world. Today this means adding and managing customer communities and expanding your communication channels to include social networks and communication tools. Providing a good, integrated customer experience is still about solid infrastructure, trained personnel and customer focused processes, this hasn’t changed. What has changed is the breadth of opportunity to interact effectively with your customer and learn more about what they want, need and desire from your brand. For the customer this new added approach give them the opportunity to interact with your brand when, where and how they choose, a win for the company and for the customer.

Is your company using social customer support? What initiatives have worked and what haven’t?