All change: The four trends reshaping customer service

10th Mar 2010

Social media is gradually pushing, cajoling and challenging companies to redefine, re-evaluate and at times re-engineer the way in which they provide customer service - and, as Guy Stephens highlights, a number of trends have become evident.

The emergence in 2009 of social media as a real catalyst of change signalled for the first time the possibility that customer service had a vital role to play in winning the hearts and minds of customers.
As the year went on, more and more customer service agents could be heard chanting their new found mantra – "I'm sorry, how can I help you" - as they emerged from the shadows of their monolithic corporate structures. Customers no longer complained in private, but engaged in open and authentic conversations with 'customer advocates' willing to listen empathetically to their problems. Companies such as BT, ASOS, EasyJet, O2 and Virgin Trains led the way in the pursuit of helping their customers at their moment of greatest need. These companies recognised that social media, or specifically Twitter, allowed them to do just that, and they were willing to take a leap of faith.
A number of trends have become evident: the rise of help networks, customer service 'on the go', the decentralisation of trust and the 'intermediation' of business processes. All of these trends serve to highlight one simple truth: social media is diluting, redistributing and challenging the dynamics of the traditional company-customer power structure in favour of customers.
In terms of customer service, Twitter is helping to turn customers into people, whilst making companies more human, personable and approachable. People are becoming used to the immediacy of response, which in turn is forcing companies to not only re-evaluate and potentially redefine how they provide customer service, but also to validate their very legitimacy to do so.
1. The rise of help networks
Self-sufficiency has become the name of the game. People are able to create their own networks and ecosystems built on social platforms where the sharing of information between trusted 'friends' is paramount. In this new paradigm, customers are either helping each other or simply self-helping through their own research. Customer service in a sense is decentralising into the hands of customers themselves. If you have a problem who better to turn to than someone who has recently had the same experience.
In the act of posing my question or problem to the Twitterverse, however, I am also directly challenging the traditional model of customer service provision itself. From a business perspective, Best Buy's Twelpforce is the very embodiment of the corporate help network turned outwards. Customers through the use of the Twelpforce platform or by simply using the hashtag - #twelpforce, can literally tweet their way directly into Best Buy's most powerful knowledge base: their people.
Taking this a step further, intermediary platforms such as Vark, Cofacio or Quora are perhaps prescient of a time when companies and people alike collaborate, or even compete, to provide an answer to someone's question, or simply to their own product issue or service complaint.
2. Customer service 'on the go'
The increasing ubiquity of devices like the smartphone, typified buy the iPhone, has seen the rise of customer service 'on the go'. It is the idea that customer service agents are no longer bounded by having to be in one fixed place for a particular period of time to help customers or indeed people. As long as I have a means of receiving information and imparting it, I can answer questions and resolve complaints whenever and wherever I am.
I remember one instance at the beginning of the year when I went onto Tweetdeck on my iPhone and read a Tweet from someone who was trying to find out how to take the SIM card out of their recently purchased iPhone. I remember seeing a YouTube video about it and Tweeted them the relevant link. Unfortunately, the person didn’t have a paperclip. What was interesting about this brief exchange, however, was that this person was on a train in the United States. I was on a train on my way home to Farnham. Geography is no longer a barrier.
The idea that a person with an iPhone, a Twitter account and the inclination to help 'anyone-anytime-anywhere' is a very real challenge to established customer service models.
3. The decentralisation of trust
Knowledge forms a key component of any company’s customer service provision. It is imperative that the knowledge a company provides for its customers and customer service agents is trusted, accurate, current and verifiable. What we are seeing through the advent of social media is the increasing commoditisation and mobilisation of knowledge. Knowledge is being bundled up into discrete highly portable, highly mobile 140 character packages.
Knowledge is more participatory, collaborative, convenient, transitory and illusory than ever before. And although it has the potential to take on a life of its own, the fact that we participate in its generation, is good enough for it to be trusted. We are part of its creation, therefore we are part of its trust creation as well.
For a company, not only is knowledge decentralising, but it is no longer even the keeper of its own knowledge. Is it that Twitter or YouTube are becoming de facto knowledge bases? Think about all those companies with YouTube channels: is this not simply the beginnings of a video knowledge base?
A search on YouTube for ‘change iPhone SIM card’ returns over 900 videos, a similar search on eHow returns 1,430 possible solutions. One YouTube video has been viewed 675,000 times. Proof that knowledge also has the capacity to be viral.
What will it mean to the definition of trusted knowledge when companies run competitions to produce the best ‘how to’ videos on YouTube? Is this the ultimate outsourcing of knowledge, the ultimate sense of trust in our customers?
4. The intermediation of business processes
Where once we talked about disintermediation, so now we see the reverse trend taking place. Business processes themselves are moving into the hands of intermediaries. Take the example of complaints. This is no longer the exclusive domain of a company, limited to their email or a phone call.
I can now complain in different ways – video, audio, blog, forum, microblog, and on any number of third party sites – Twitter, YouTube, AudioBoo, Plebble, ComplaintCommunity, Facebook, and there is even a complaint aggregator – Amplicate.
Social media has given all of us the tools of engagement, enabling us to be far more inventive, novel and vocal in expressing our displeasure when a company has simply got it wrong. Viewed from a different perspective, there has never been a time when the act of complaining was truly an expression of brand engagement: Dave Carroll and the ballad of his broken guitar on United Airlines, Kevin Smith and SouthWest Airlines... perhaps it's just an airline thing?
Social media is gradually pushing, cajoling and challenging companies to redefine, re-evaluate and at times re-engineer the way in which they provide customer service. Indeed, the very definition of 'customer service' as we know it, may need to be redefined and reduced simply to the idea of people helping each other across shared platforms. The only area that a company holds power or control over their customers is possibly in terms of their business processes. But even that may now be up for grabs.
So what's next?
There is no doubt that social media is changing the customer service landscape. Companies will continue to be challenged, not about whether to participate – that is a given, but in having to skilfully navigate a path through an increasingly fragmented multichannel environment.
By the way, your customers are already there in these social spaces talking about you. They don't need an invitation from you to join. Their pursuit of convenience and immediacy will cajole companies into exploring innovative, yet simple, ways of integrating these underlying unique characteristics alongside the reality of cost savings, average handling time and first time resolution.
As conversations turn from customer service to customer experience, against a background of social media chatter, the challenge companies face, if truth be told, is an age old one: no amount of social media pixie dust will make the situation better if a company simply doesn’t want to fix it's broken processes. At the end of the day: everything is the same, and yet nothing will ever be the same again.
Guy Stephens is founder of the LinkedIn group - where social media meets customer service. He has over 10 years experience working in the digital space in online marketing, eCRM, natural search and latterly social media. He is also the Customer Knowledge Manager at a leading independent retailer of mobile phones in Europe, where he is trying to understand how social media can enhance the online help and support/customer service experience. Guy is an avid tweeter (@guy1067) and occasional blogger on

Replies (6)

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Jack Springman
By Jack Springman
10th Mar 2010 10:12

Excellent piece, Guy.  Social CRM enthusiasts talk about its potential for dialogue rather than traditional monologue marketing, but scratch below the surface and most behave as if it is just another channel to broadcast brand messages and stalk customers on social media sites for the purpose of acquiring new leads.  

As long as the traditional marketing mindset prevails - which despite protestations of customer-centricity is pre-occupied with internal considerations such as brand building and the business financial interests - social media marketing will be more of the same.  That would be a great shame because as you point out, it can be a hugely powerful means for delivering great customer service and an enhanced customer experience. 

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By richardhill
11th Mar 2010 11:20

Sorry in advance, but this post just got me thinking. I may be past it as demographic but the more of this I read, the more I see emperors new clothes in the digital wardrobes...

“Self-sufficiency has become the name of the game. People are able to create their own networks and ecosystems built on social platforms where the sharing of information between trusted 'friends' is paramount.”

Groups of ‘friends’ who ‘talk’ to one another is a new paradigm? Come on. Someone I've never met (who may not be who they claim to be) should be more trustworthy than the guy I see everyday who runs my local store?
Customer service and customer opinion are not the same thing. Service is not in the hands of customers (or consumers). Complaining about it is and that’s not new. It’s just really easy to now, rather than walk into a shop and actually face people. So twets on twitter simple create an annoying, anonymous buzz that businesses have to spend time tracking at the expense of more important issues. Like real consumer service.

“Twelpforce is the very embodiment of the corporate help network turned outwards”
Pardon? What does that mean if not the role of the 'customer service' department? Do you mean to suggest that those departments have been placed to protect the organisation rather than help the consumer? Ok, bad question maybe but exemplary customer service departments - real places and real people - do exist (John Lewis, Tech Squad, HiQ, etc, etc).

“If you have a problem who better to turn to than someone who has recently had the same experience.”
So they can fix it for you? So someone you don’t know, with no experience you can check, no responsibility for a warranty and no skills you can assess is BETTER placed to give advice? So if I tell you to go and jump in the lake...
And what if the twit-ter used a paperclip and damaged their iphone? Who’s fault is that?

Ok, ok, enough of my flaming (complaining?). I guess I'm just asking out loud whether the rush towards platform-answers isn't simply a replacement strategy for 'old' media or answers. I'm probably wrong and raging like a king against a tide of '0's and '1's. Wonder what anyone else thinks...

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By guy1067
11th Mar 2010 14:06

 Hi Richard. Thank you for taking the time to comment. You raise some really interesting points and on many levels I agree with you. To some degree social media customer service takes place in a bubble, but it's not about a sudden shift to embrace social media customer service at the expense of what is already in place. The point I was trying to make, and I've obviously not been successful in conveying that is: in addition to the existing customer service channels of call centre, email, going into a store etc, I have also seen the emergence of social media as a customer service channel alongside these others.

What we also need to bear in mind is that customers have been using social media in this way long before companies began responding to them on Twitter. Customers will always be ahead of the curve.

For me, the challenge companies will face is how to integrate not only the unique characteristics of a platform like Twitter with email, phone etc, but also the propensity of customers to complain on third party sites which have no formal connection to the company the individual is complaining about. Does a company choose to ignore these other channels in favour of their existing ones, or do they in some way accept the changing landscape of customer engagement and find ways to take part in. There's no right or wrong, and each company will have to make its own mind up as to the relevance of social media to the way in which it engages with its customers. 

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By Andy Hanselman
15th Mar 2010 15:38

Great article! Can I add my own 'two penneth'or maybe,even 'four penneth' to the four trends?

Traditional marketing theory has for years been based on a fundamental principle known as the 4P’s. It was all something to do with Product, Place, and the Price of fish if I remember correctly.

As you say Guy, we’re in a different world from the one when they emerged. We're in the ‘age of abundance’, massive customer choice, overcapacity, 24/7 connectivity, multi-media, global competition, rapid change, information overload, and significantly greater market transparency – the customer now has much more control.

I honestly think that it’s time to forget those 4 P’s – In my humble opinion, the original 4 P’s are Passe, Past it, ‘kaPut’ and Pointless.

So to support Guy's outlining the emergence of the 4 trends, I offer you a new set of P’s and conveniently, I’ve come up with 4 (pity this isn’t a podcast, because you’d have 4P’s in an iPod!).

Anyway, here they are:

Today’s successful marketeers recognise that it means getting ‘permission’ from prospects and customers. This means making stuff relevant and interesting, it means targeting and building relationships with people who WANT to do business with you. Forget unwanted intrusive, mass marketing to huge databases or frantically giving out and collecting as many business cards as possible at your next networking meeting to build a huge mailing list. Remember, size isn’t everything!

Today’s customers want dialogue, not diatribes. 76% of people don’t believe companies tell the truth in advertisements. Forward thinking businesses are having ‘conversations’ with their customers and prospects.

Winning businesses think in 3D – they are Dramatically and Demonstrably Different. In this world of endless choice, being the ‘same as’ gets you nowhere. Consistency in ‘Performance’ develops ‘trust’ and ‘trust’ creates a bond. This not only means improved customer retention and loyalty, it also produces greater referrals and recommendations.

Good news (and bad) spreads quickly. Remember, word of mouth only works if there’s something worth talking about.  Today’s successful marketeers have a strategy for maximising  ‘proliferation’ – not by overt ‘marketing hype’ but by energising their market place, becoming part of the community, by standing out from the crowd, and creating that buzz – a lot of it comes back to that ‘Demonstrable Dramatic Difference’!

Hope that this doesn't seem like a rant, but if you do want a bit more, feel free to read  a bit more here.

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28th Mar 2010 17:10

 I used this a year ago to build a brand about myself based on my model look only. I did very well from it but then I got fat....


Oh well...

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By Meerika
28th Apr 2010 10:09
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