How Social Media Is Reinventing Customer Service

Social media already changed how companies measure success. Now, it's changing how companies deal with failures.

It’s hard to ignore the major impact social media is having across the globe. As of 2012, users were uploading 72 hours of video to YouTube every minute. Celebrities have accumulated millions of Twitter followers, without paparazzi, in an online medium where they control their own message. Facebook consumes tens of millions of hours of attention every day. LinkedIn has become an essential tool for both recruiters and job seekers. These developments feel almost normal after less than 10 years.

Apart from the big, obvious changes, some important second-order effects are starting to emerge for businesses.

First, measurement requires new skills, new relationships, and new yardsticks. Nielsen wrote the book on TV measurement until time-shifting (TiVo), social viewing (GetGlue), and mobile (HBO Go) changed the media landscape to the point that Nielsen needed to reinvent its whole model.

The speed of customer response has also pushed companies to monitor social media 24/7—and have community managers empowered to address sometimes-sensitive issues in the moment. The Oreo Super Bowl tweet during the power outage grabbed mass attention to the brand’s responsiveness, while a short while later Maker’s Mark whiskey rapidly reversed a decision to lower the proof of its under-produced hand-made liquor—i.e., water it down—after a social media uproar.

The final, and perhaps most notable, transition is the power shift from brands (which sometimes do little more with social media than try to collect "likes") to customers, whose voice can now be amplified. In the world of travel alone, diverse businesses including Carnival Cruises, United Airlines, and Vail Resorts are experiencing mass dialog with customers, across multiple channels, with decidedly mixed results.

In light of these forces, each of which carries real risks, how are leading companies adjusting their customer service strategies?

At the speed of social, talent matters.
Gone are the days of hiring solely on the basis of labor costs. As social media decreases timelines and amplifies customer word of mouth, more and more companies strive for faster, simpler resolution, in large measure by empowering front-line service employees to make a situation right rather than stick to a script. Crowdsourcing has come to customer service, much as it did for Amazon product reviews. User communities, for example, can become an irreplaceable resource for building self-help knowledge bases using collective expertise and opinion. Given the volumes of data generated by these user communities, ubiquitous sensors, social media, mobile devices and so on, hiring the right talent to dig into "big data" for meaningful insight is becoming a race for the best and brightest: demand for high-end analytic skill far outpaces supply.

Connect, integrate, and orchestrate the customer service dots.
Social media skills and data are now critical to all business processes. In the case of product recalls, for example, Twitter is likely to be far faster, with both facts and rumors, than the company web site or internal contact management feed. Any respectable effort at channel integration must address data quality issues, seeking to unify the customer identity rather than fragmenting her across sub-functions. Is the A.N. Jones in the accounting system Anna Jones or Adam Jones in the warranty database? Until such continuity is the norm, cross-channel customer service will require heavier overhead (in the form of lead times, planning complexity, preparation, and hard-wired connections) than it should.

And customer service is still not quite there yet as too often it is the customer who must connect the dots—making repeat calls, being bounced between queues and systems, reconciling multiple conflicting answers, orally correcting erroneous order histories. There is, however, an appetite for seamless customer service across all channels, including social. A recent survey of consumers found four in ten would rather have companies use social media for good customer service than to promote their products, yet few companies have seized this opportunity to span the customer lifecycle.

There’s no dollar sign in a like or retweet.
Tweets and Likes do not appear on the top line, the bottom line, or any line of the income statement. What are the measures that truly represent and motivate quality customer service? How do branding, service, and fulfillment work together to improve financial health? The fact that nobody has discovered definitive answers means higher rewards for the early innovators who crack the code first. Barriers to experimentation are low, with significant and multiple forms of payback.

What can customer service learn from social media? To listen, to react faster, to value the customer’s time and expertise, to innovate, and, ultimately, to bring some of the ethos of social media inside the value chain.

—Stew Bloom is the CEO of Aspect, a leading provider of fully integrated customer interaction management, workforce optimization, and back-office solutions, bringing over 28 years of experience in enterprise software and professional services.

[Image: Flickr user Neal Fowler]

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5 Comments

  • Mack McCoy

    Good write-up.  As a customer, I've certainly found some companies MUCH more responsive via Social Media: KitchenAid's Facebook page was a FASTER way to get help vs their 800 number after oven repairs went on for months.  Aloe Gloe completely ignored pics of their contaminated product on Facebook & Twitter, so they clearly weren't monitoring it back when I posted them.

    Ultimately, it depends on what a company is trying to do. Treat Social Media like just another Marketing or Sales channel and lose the respect of your most engaged customers. But inform, entertain, and engage with customers and you just might build something very valuable. Only time will tell.

    --Mack
    www.gen-E.com

  • Gaurav Gurbaxani

    One customer, Jennifer Hellum, sought customer service after the glass top on her Pottery Barn table shattered in the extreme Arizona heat last summer. Calling the customer service line and the store where she bought the table didn’t get her anywhere. A few weeks later, she posted photos of the tabletop explosion on Pottery Barn’s FB fan page. Within 30 minutes she had a call from a customer relations representative who worked with her to find a new tabletop and reimbursed her for it.

  • Tony Lama

    It’s likely that Jennifer was
    happy with the result.  Did they secure future business from her? I’m not
    so sure about that.  Forcing a customer to change interaction channels is
    just as bad as ignoring a tweet from a customer.  The effort to resolve a
    customer’s issue should be consistent across all media channels.  I would
    add that forcing your customers to go social with a negative review as a result
    of not addressing the issue over a voice interaction is just as bad, if not
    worse, than not responding to a customer’s first attempt to get some level of
    support over social.  Again, support should be consistent
    across all media channels…not just the public/visible channels. This ties right into Mr. Bloom's statement on seamless  and consistent customer service across ALL media channels.

  • Shep Hyken

    Social customer service gives us real time data, allows us to publicly respond and turn a problem into a positive PR experience, allows us to push valuable content to our community and more. Companies who don’t take advantage of social media are missing an excellent opportunity to engage and connect with their customers.

  • Robert Bacal

    I think there are a lot of misconceptions about social media as a means of offering customer service, in part because of the incredible marketing hype, and many companies, I think are simply wasting money. The core issue here is whether customers PREFER social media as a contact point, or they only say they do because phone, email, even in-person contacts are so darned frustrating and horrible. 

    In a poll we are conducting on customer channel preferences at: http://customerservicezone.com... the results are startling for social media advocates. Only THREE percent of respondents say they'd prefer Twitter and Facebook over more traditional channels given all things being equal in terms of quality.