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Don't put me on hold!

by Andy Scott , 30.05.2012

http://youtu.be/5YGc4zOqozo

We have all undergone a call centre experience – and the word undergone is apt, given that the pain and tedium can make the experience akin to a visit to the dentist, but without the fresh feeling at the end. Service organisations love them though, and for good reason; they offer an efficient, structured and consistent way (for them) to handle a large volume of customer enquiries.

All our customer requests are slightly different and, as such, we need to be guided through the process effectively, something call centres are good at. They also have established structures and metrics to manage them such as call volume counts, time-to-answer, and sales conversions. These frameworks allow companies to exert a large degree of control over the customer interaction; we are subject to dedicated opening hours set by the business, IVR directing the flow customer traffic, having to self-select an issue and choose from a menu delivered by an automated voice, or worse, being asked to vocalise the issue ourselves to a blankly, uncomprehending, synthesised voice.

Time for a change?

This is a transitional period for service companies the world over. Companies are feeling the need to evolve how they engage and interact with customers, in particular as many begin to come to terms with the disruptive influence of social media as a customer experience channel. What’s driving this? Customers increasingly want to interact with businesses on their own terms, in their own language, and in their own time. Facebook and Twitter are becoming the natural environments for communicating for a rising number of the population. The balance of power is gradually slipping away from the corporation and towards the customer.

There have been high-profile examples of companies quickly losing control of a problem as the balance of power shifts. Frustrated by the stock responses offered by standard channels, Dave Carroll penned a song (see video above) to United after their baggage handlers left him with a broken guitar and no compensation. Nearly 12 million views, and a real headache for United’s PR team later, corporations began to wake up to the need to reconsider how they used (or didn’t use) social media.

Faced with a similar problem in 2009, BT tackled the challenges presented by social media head-on. Mike Skinner from The Streets, who has over 100,000 Twitter followers, tweeted his annoyance with BT’s TV service, Vision. A rapid response from BT turned this into a positive for the telecoms company, with Skinner returning to Twitter and becoming a great brand ambassador in the process. This was the catalyst for BT’s engagement with the medium and the development of a more sophisticated approach to social media as a customer experience channel.

It is not just famous Twitter users that are wresting power back from brands. Established customer management models are being shaken up to meet the needs and expectations of rapidly-changing consumer behaviour. With half of the UK on Facebook, and Twitter only a button away for the millions of UK smartphone users, mainstream customers are increasingly empowered when it comes to a brand experience, voicing their feelings to that brand and, just as importantly, the wider world.

Three years after dipping their toe in the water on Twitter, BT now has an award-winning1 dedicated set of consultants on their BTCare site that deal with customer issues, queries and complaints in this most visible of forums. As Bian Salins, BT Head of Social Media, says:

“Companies need to re-organise themselves now and have social embedded into their fabric a lot more closely. Social media has been very disruptive to businesses, and the siloed way that organisations work. Ultimately, everyone owns an interaction.”

A number of major brands have been making rapid headway in the social customer experience space, such as Dell and Best Buy. All organisations who’ve successfully built these new channels have followed some guiding principles:

1. Technology – Software is available that enables a business to see what is written about the brand on social media and, as such, to engage pro-actively with that customer. Early response is a critical factor for social customer engagement.

2. Team - Regular training to ensure that consultants are interacting effectively with customers in a medium which is still evolving as a channel. Tone of voice, for example, is crucial. Customers may be sensitive to an overly formal style more suited to an email, but can also be put off by any perceived flippancy that can be the product of limited characters and a speedy response. Engaging with customers on this platform is a new role requiring a new set of skills.

3. StructureHaving a consistent approach will help customers know where to go with their issues, and assist the business to handle them in the most efficient way. For example, a dedicated Twitter stream for customer service issues is direct and transparent, for both sides.

4. Flexibility - A customer may come to a company with a problem, a 140-character cry for help. The resolution may be better dealt with via other channels though, and the transition should be seamless for customers.

What’s the upside for brands?

Opportunities to extend out one-to-one problem resolution to one-to-many are already being developed on the web via online communities. These are not a static set of FAQ’s that a business may point you to in an effort to avert further call volumes – these are interactive forums with vibrancy, and most importantly, a personal touch.

For some brands, communities are the lifeblood of the organisation. GiffGaff eschews call centres in favour of the community model, where members help each other online through forums. As the brand was built with social integral to its inception, this approach is one that suits its customers’ needs and expectations. And as Salins says, “Companies are moving from a broadcast model to one of collaborating with customers”.

The use of social media is also powerful in times of company crisis, as Giffgaff discovered recently when the network went down. Gone are the days when you can issue a lame message on the IVR and retreat to the bunker and a press release. The inevitable torrent of social media activity could overwhelm any brand, so crises must be tackled head-on in a transparent way. This approach may even reap longer-term rewards as the turnaround is delivered. Giffgaff’s embedded social structure may have been a benefit in dealing with the severe outage problems.

So what are the challenges for businesses willing to adopt a more open and involved customer-experience approach?

1) The business case for more investment in social is not an easy pitch at most client organisations. While some of the softer benefits generated by increased social presence are acknowledged, such as brand warmth and goodwill, explicitly relating these to the bottom line could be difficult.

2) Identifying a senior stakeholder champion who is willing to fight the social corner. As with any nascent approach that disrupts existing business processes, a big hitter is needed to cut through the corporate roadblocks in place.

3) Taking the channel as seriously as any other. If a business engages with consumers with marketing messages on social media, it cannot expect communication to be a one-way street. Consumers will hold a business to its claims; the balance of power is shifting, as Bian Salins points out:

“Social media has lifted the veil on customer experience. If a company does not deliver – it will come back to haunt them”

Sources

1 – Customer Contact Innovation Awards 2012

2 – Best use of Social Media and Comms Strategy, Institute of Customer Service, 2012