• June 1, 2009
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

The New Interaction of Social Media

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

What’s the most commonly used channel for customer support? In the formal sense of a customer reaching out directly to a company, statistics show the answer is still the telephone. But, taking a broader view and reframing the definition a little, I’d guess the most-used channel in the world for customers trying to get information about how to operate, repair, or modify specific products would be Google’s search engine.

Think about your own behavior: I would bet that most of you first turn to Google when you want to find out how to turn off international data-roaming on your iPhone, how to clean your glass-ceramic stovetop without damaging the surface, or how to properly cook a turkey. While Google may return gobs of extraneous noise in response to such general searches, wading through that clamor is often much more pleasant than calling 800 numbers for Apple, Bosch, or Butterball—or even using those companies’ self-service options.

When customer service executives talk about multichannel support, they are usually referring to adding Web-based chat and some company-specific Web-site functionality to the telephone support they already provide. But, if Google is actually the most likely method for a customer to get support-type information, the search engine obviously should also be included in the definition of multichannel. In fact, I see Google as only the forward wedge of emerging channels that hold the promise of altering the face of company-customer interactions.

Facebook and other social networking sites draw so many users that it was almost inevitable that companies would begin to seek ways to use those sites for marketing products, but the savvy companies should also recognize that social networking can be another channel for customer support. Ditto for other new technologies such as Twitter, and even the virtual worlds that seemed terribly au courant a few years ago.

Each of these nascent customer interaction channels has its own strengths as a customer support channel. Twitter, for example, requires no changes or alterations to its core functionality to be used as a tool akin to outbound interactive voice response, providing notifications to users. But, because Twitter is by nature an opt-in channel, it could be used as an outbound notification tool aimed exclusively at high-value customers (classified as such since they are sufficiently brand-loyal to sign up to follow your company’s tweets).

Much of the focus around these up-and-coming channels has been centered on demographics—how the so-called millennial generation (seen as the primary user base of social media) differs from older generations in tastes, habits, and desires. And while companies will need to grapple with those differences eventually, the use of these emerging tools has never been confined to younger people. As purely anecdotal evidence, my Facebook friends range in age from 20 to 71. Simply repurposing older contact paradigms using new methods, such as outbound notification via Twitter, can give companies new chances at building customer intimacy in the short term. This also gives companies some experience in these tools while not requiring a radical reworking of internal processes.

I have always recommended that any chief executive officer (of any company, no matter how large) take the time to call her company’s telephone self-service system with a set task to perform—change an address, add an account, transfer a balance, etc. The idea was simple: If the self-service system contains minefields of frustration, the CEO’s displeasure could actually effect some form of change. In a similar vein, I am now recommending that executives in charge of customer interactions (not just contact center managers, but also the heads of accounting, shipping, etc.) sign up to some social networks and understand what these tools can do. And these executives should strive to understand how these tools are already being used by—and within—their own companies.

Ian Jacobs (ijacobs@datamonitor.com) is a senior analyst at Datamonitor. He can be found on Twitter at @iangjacobs.

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