Social Customer Service Remains "A Breed Apart"

Many sales and marketing professionals have been making use of social networking technologies now, twittering and facebooking away in an attempt to dig deeper into consumer behavior -- and wallet share. New research from New York–based research firm Datamonitor finds that the customer service side of the house is also beginning to delve into social networking -- but there are many barriers still to overcome before its use there is the norm rather than the exception.

Ian Jacobs, senior analyst for customer interaction technologies at Datamonitor, CRM magazine columnist, and author of the study, "The Rise of Social Networking and Emerging Channels in Customer Service," explains that, while there are some famous cases highlighting the use of social media for service, like Comcast's use of Twitter, he wanted to determine if there was a role for formal contact centers in these new channels. "For the most part, very few companies are using formal contact center agents to handle customer service interactions via these emerging and new channels," he says. "Generally, they are social media specialist groups within companies. Some of them may have contact center experience or even physically sit in the same room with agents, but they are a breed apart."

This may represent a good start, Jacobs says, but companies are finding that scalability is a challenge. As more consumers use channels including Twitter, Facebook, and Second Life to conduct service transactions, companies will have to find ways to coordinate those interactions with existing CRM data in order to provide a better experience. "The question," he says, "is, 'How you do this without annoying customers?' "

Some industry verticals are more inclined to utilize social networking in their service repertoires right now, Jacobs says, citing as examples small entrepreneurial organizations as well as any high-volume B2C companies happily unencumbered by any significant privacy or security concerns.

In his report, Jacobs spotlights one trailblazer in particular: the police department in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Mountain View's police officers, he recounts, are using Twitter for emergencies such as street closings, police actions, and even confirming the validity of Census Bureau workers visiting neighbors. "Essentially, they're using it as a free outbound interactive voice response system," Jacobs says.  

Jacobs is quick to note, however, that the example has to be seen in the proper perspective: The town, after all, has fewer than 80,000 people. (Or, to be precise, 70,708, according to United States Census data listed on the City of Mountain View's official Web site.) The real challenge will be scaling similar efforts out to hundreds of thousands of users -- a concern that, according to Jacobs, vendors including Salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies have started to address.

"Once you start to see integration between CRM systems and these emerging channels, you will get the benefits you normally have in the contact center, like auditability," he says. "You can actually track everything that's happened, judge performance of agents, and track whether the interactions have escalated. One of my big pieces of advice is to stop thinking about multichannel, and think of it as cross-channel."

That, Jacobs says, will be easier said than done. In addition to any technological modifications required, it's the cultural shift that looms larger and presents numerous barriers:

  • reassessing the balance between specialist and multipurpose contact center agents;
  • surrendering the anonymity of customer service representatives (CSRs);
  • adjusting hiring practices in the contact center;
  • managing social networking with offshore contact centers; and
  • finding a way to have marketing and customer service truly work together.

Looking ahead, Jacobs says that he doesn't see widespread formal use of social technologies in the contact center for at least a few more years -- but we can expect to see experiments with CSRs in the next six to nine months. The only way that companies will succeed, though, according to Jacobs, is if they practice what they want to preach.

"If you're thinking about providing support via emerging channels, you need to use them first," he says. "You actually have to use social networks. Have the CEO use customer self-service channels the company has [in place] to try and accomplish a task. Not a lot of companies want to do that. They would rather just say, ‘We have to do a social network, give me three of those,' and not take the time. This is one of those cases where you do need to take the time."

[Editors' Note: For more on Jacobs' perspective on social technologies in the enterprise, see his Customer Centricity column from CRM magazine's June 2009 Social Media Special Issue.]

News relevant to the customer relationship management industry is posted several times a day on destinationCRM.com, in addition to the news section Insight that appears every month in the pages of CRM magazine. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top; to contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com.

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