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Can social media transcend traditional service channels?

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7th Feb 2013
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Gopal Devanahalli examines how social media can become a powerful community-based self-service opportunity.

There's a customer service interaction on social media between a major US cable brand and a thespian that has since gone viral. It starts off as a regular, albeit mildly theatrical, but unmistakable appeal for service assistance from the actor. The brand reaction, though impressive in alacrity, was to ignore the articulated need, sidestep the opportunity for resolution and deliver instead a standard mechanical response worthy of automatons. To cut a sad story short, the conversation rapidly attracted an eloquent band of 'badvocates', including another A-lister, and ended with the star being 'rescued' by the brand's competition.

Most businesses were quick to recognise the en masse movement of consumers to social media platforms as an opportunity to interact and engage with marketing messages. But recognition of the reciprocal possibilities of the same platforms was forced by the increasing consumer adoption of social media as a customer care channel.

There are numerous reasons why customers will increasingly turn to social media rather than traditional channels for service and support. It's contemporary; if commerce is social why not customer care? It's convenient; no interactive voice responses and automated emails to deal with. It's also quick; there's an implied immediacy compared to the 24-hour cycles of traditional channels. And it has a compelling 'misery loves company' crowd dynamic to it.

Social service

Statistics from research in the US supply the social care imperative for businesses – nearly half of all social media users enjoy social care and nearly a third prefer it to phone-based customer service. A positive social care experience increases the likelihood of advocacy by a factor of three, according to recent research from McKinsey. Compared to traditional channels, social care increases customer satisfaction while decreasing support cost.

However, the mere addition of a social care silo is just not enough. For the value to be seen it has to be seamlessly integrated with traditional channels like web, chat and phone to create a unified customer service experience across channels. This is essential to preserving customers' interaction history across channels, so that they have the choice of switching between them without losing context. 

For most customers, the need to repeat information each time a service call is switched between channels or even agents is currently one of the most frustrating aspect of customer service. A seamless multi-channel service experience will mean faster resolution for customers and higher efficiency for agents.

Apart from resolving incoming service issues through social channels, businesses also need to assign resources to proactively monitor conversations about the company or its products and services. Dedicated and trained conversation leads or social care agents should be assigned to manage, influence or resolve issues raised in social forums.

It is also imperative to clearly define the operating parameters for these agents, not only in terms of the issues and responses that they are authorised to handle but also in terms of a more strategic engagement model. For instance, the cable example mentioned earlier, being a specific delivery issue rather than a broader discussion on product or service, could have easily been shifted to a private channel on the platform or even converted to a personal interaction on the phone. This would have allowed for a resolution away from the full glare of public view.

Self-service

But social media has the potential to be more than just another customer care channel like phone or email. With the right resources it can be transformed into a powerful community-based self-service opportunity that could relieve service pressure by reducing incoming queries across channels.

Currently, the majority of customers won't even try self-service options, as they perceive them to be inaccurate, unreliable or incomplete. But a significant prercentage of customers express a willingness to use online knowledge bases if they are tailored to their needs. Using powerful knowledge bases, updated in real-time as and when new scenarios are created, and through topic-based service communities, customers can access the most relevant solutions as recommended by their friends and peers.

Apart from delivering social care, companies can also make use of social data to audit and improve customer service. By identifying the pros and cons of service delivery as expressed in social media conversations, companies can isolate key drivers and perceptions that need to be addressed for a better customer experience.

Referring back one final time to the cable company anecdote, that conversation concluded with the competition delivering a resolution that corresponded to the issue under discussion. So clearly, social media is an opportunity for companies to monitor competitive activity not only as a means to benchmarking but also as a lead generation tool for new customers.         

Social care, then, enables companies to enhance the customer experience for inbound contacts.  More importantly, it is about being a constructive and productive part of the external customer conversation on social platforms.  But as a customer service channel it is defined by some unique customer expectations like quicker responses, more frequent updates and faster resolution times. If social care can deliver all that, then there is the opportunity to build customer relationship, advocacy and brand reputation. But if your social care strategy does not engage customers, chances are they will refuse to be engaged by your social marketing strategy.

After all, this is an equal and reciprocal relationship. No less.

Gopal Devanahalli is VP of products, platforms and solutions at Infosys.

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