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 http://beingguy1067.wordpress.com