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Improving contact centre customer service with social networking

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27th Mar 2009
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With a growing number of people communicating via social networking, Datamonitor's Aphrodite Brinsmead explores how organisations are tapping into these conversations to communicate with customers and improve customer service.

By Aphrodite Brinsmead, Datamonitor

Consumers are increasingly sharing information on the web, creating an opportunity for contact centres to utilise social networking websites to improve customer service at low cost by integrating Web 2.0 with other communication technologies.

For instance, Datamonitor predicts social networking websites such as Twitter will become more ingrained into contact centre customer service and CRM strategies, and Google's search capabilities are likely to be used for mining information from relevant websites. This has been boosted by the multiple ways in which customers can now contact customer service representatives, leaving the old badge of the 'call' centre behind.

The new multichannle contact centre

The traditional voice channel is rapidly being supplemented by email, SMS, interactive voice response (IVR) and instant messaging (IM). In the current economic climate, enterprises are more focused on customer retention and cost saving, and these new channels not only represent a convenient way for customers to communicate with the enterprise, but also an opportunity to save on agent costs.

Concurrent with the increased use of new channels for customer communication, enterprises are striving to understand customer issues in order to improve products and service. But while knowledge management tools and customer analytics are more commonplace when it comes to trying to understand customer trends, Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social networking, forums and search engines, are still underused when it comes to sharing information and improving customer communication.

"In 2009, contact center vendors and enterprises will begin to leverage Web 2.0 tools as the vision of a truly multichannel contact centre is realised."

However in 2009, contact centre vendors and enterprises will begin to leverage these tools, as the vision of a truly multichannel contact centre is realised.

For instance, Salesforce.com has been providing on demand CRM applications but its acquisition of InStranet in 2008 indicates its intentions to move into providing customer service support and knowledge management solutions. The vendor has unveiled a customer service-focused initiative called the Service Cloud , which connects social networking with client interaction processes, utilising forums and search engines for customer feedback. Salesforce.com has initially partnered with Google and Facebook, but this list of partners is expected to expand in the near future.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Service Cloud is the ability to push information from a knowledge base into Google. Customers searching for a query can be directed straight to the related FAQ on a business web page utilising the Salesforce.com/Google partnership. The timing of this release makes sense as there has been a significant increase in information exchange via the web over the last couple of years.

Fuze Digital Solutions (Fuze) is another knowledge management and CRM vendor providing a solution to leverage the customer base for information. It offers a web-based interface to its clients so that they have an environment for content editors (which may be product users, designers or support staff) to provide feedback, answer queries and rate the usefulness of information. Suggested content additions go through editorial controls before they are published, based on who uses the particular content. Users are encouraged to provide information in a self-service environment, reducing pressure on agents to answer all queries.

While Salesforce.com intends to push available information out to the web via Google and to share information with partners and customers' Facebook connections, Fuze is targeting specific customers or staff and keeping information within the user community. However, it is still too early to tell how successful these solutions will be.

Tweeting is no longer for birds!

Twitter is a cross between an online forum and instant messaging tool, which enables registered users to post short messages (or 'tweet') on their profile, which can be viewed by those who subscribe to their feed (known as followers). The service has been in the news frequently because of its use by celebrities and by leading retail brands to provide customer support and answer queries. Some of the early adopters that have successfully built up a presence on Twitter include Dell, Starbucks, Samsung and the Bank of America, alongside many media and technology companies.

Twitter allows for only short messages of 140 characters or less, making it a quick tool for posting information and responding to queries. Having a network of customers gives enterprises the opportunity to communicate information to a wide base and helps divert incoming phone calls. Customers can 'follow' all businesses that they have relationships with, which reduces the need to access separate websites for each, thereby saving time for the customers.

The social networking site also creates a community for customers to share information among themselves as a type of self-service. The 24/7 nature and location-independence of the internet, alongside the openness of Twitter, allows customers to converse with each other and answer queries when agents may not be available.

"Some of the key concerns with integrating Web 2.0 channels into customer service solutions include the security in providing information over the web, the authenticity of postings and advisors, and data ownership."

In the UK, Newcastle City Council is one of the first local authorities to have used Twitter to report by-election results. Additionally, during the heavy snowfalls in February this year, the same council posted information about school closures. This way of proactively providing information to customers, similar to outbound IVR, helps to reduce heavy traffic to websites or calls to customer service. Another example is Bank of America's use of Twitter to answer customer questions, while providing customers with the ability to send a private message containing their telephone number to arrange for an agent callback.

The technical challenges ahead

Some of the key concerns with integrating Web 2.0 channels into customer service solutions include the security in providing information over the web, the authenticity of postings and advisors, and data ownership. For example, banks using Twitter must be careful to educate customers about the hazards of posting personal details. Twitter is an open community, allowing anyone to find users and share information, but this can be seen as a disadvantage because there are no controls over who accesses information and the website could, in theory, be used to negatively target competitors' brands.

Although encouraging customers to share knowledge can relieve the pressure on agents, there is also a need to train staff and monitor the information. Twitter is still in the early adopter stage for customer service provision and it is initially contact centre managers that will start trialing the tool. This can be costly in staff time and, once the channel becomes more established, there will be a need to train additional staff. The need for maintenance and quality control will become an issue that could potentially increase the workload of customer advisors.

In addition, although the uptake of social networking is rapidly increasing and internet penetration is high, particularly in developed countries, the number of Twitter and Facebook users is still relatively small. According to TweetRush, which provides estimated statistics on Twitter usage, there are currently around 400,000 active users of Twitter per day, while there are 150 million active users on Facebook.

Also the technologies tend to appeal to a tech savvy audience, as well as the younger generation, who are more comfortable with adopting new web-based technologies.

Web 2.0 opportunities

Overall, consumers are becoming more comfortable in sharing information about products and experiences on blogs and forums. The benefits are clear: social networking websites are quick and easy to use, as opposed to writing letters or finding the correct telephone number. So, contact centre managers should consider innovative ways to use the information from the likes of Twitter and Google searches in order to understand customers' needs more accurately and discover issues with their customer service as well as the products and services they are selling.

"While social networking sites will become more ingrained into contact centre customer service and CRM strategies, enterprises should begin working closely with vendors to discover the best ways to leverage customer information."

Contact centre staff can use these sites to provide technical support, advice and product updates, as well as to find out what competitors are doing. Searching for brand mentions and customer complaints can help businesses to resolve customer problems before they escalate. This may result in extra security controls with opt-in clauses, in order to prevent spamming and protect customer privacy.

But while social networking sites will become more ingrained into contact centre customer service and CRM strategies, enterprises should begin working closely with vendors to discover the best ways to leverage customer information. In turn, CRM vendors should also present enterprises with the return on investment benefits of such technologies as they try to reduce agent pressure and increasingly utilise lower cost self-service.
 

Aphrodite Brinsmead is an analyst on Datamonitor's Customer Interaction Technologies team

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