Ready or Not, Here Comes Social Customer Service

Ovum's research indicates that about three in 10 IT departments intend to invest in major projects for supporting social customer service within the next year. With such a large commitment of resources, it's time to think about how this new mode of support will look in practice.

My sense is that the industry has decisively moved past questions about whether the technology works. People have accepted that businesses can find legitimate value in connecting social media channels to service. Instead, they are asking a more practical set of questions about how to make it work. They want to understand how they can knit social into their existing voice-centric service structures. They want clarity within their organizations over who should own social service projects (including decision-making over budgets, processes, and key performance indicators). They want a better picture of what success actually looks like in the social world: What makes customers happy? What should we measure at the level of the brand, or the interaction? And how do we measure agent performance in this context?

The dilemma is not whether to offer social as an interaction channel but understanding what is unique about social that makes it function differently than voice or other channels. Unlike voice communications (or even email), social comes with a built-in stumbling block centered around identity and authentication. To treat someone with the concern due him as a customer, you first have to know that he is a customer. In the social sphere, anyone can be part of a conversation, whether he is a customer, a prospect, or a an outside bystander with an opinion. This uncertainty means that any communication has to be vetted for appropriateness and privacy.

To deliver a customer service experience using social media requires businesses to identify the person, understand his relationship to the business (and his value), and then take steps to apply appropriate shielding over the interaction and its information content. You certainly wouldn't want to tell someone her bank balance over Twitter, clearly. At the same time, a business has to ensure that anyone watching an interaction in the public social sphere knows that the business has solved the problem or inquiry with grace and charm. That's a tall order. The technology is there, readily available to help make this happen. But we as an industry still have not settled on a constellation of best practices for conducting personal service interactions in public. I suspect that within the next year or so, as those three in 10 IT departments take aim at the problem, we will start to see some interesting and innovative practices coalesce.

Contact centers, despite their historic tendency to be conservative and risk-averse in adopting new practices and tools, have always adapted to changes in customer behavior. They followed customers from voice interactions into email, chat, and now social media and other digital realms. They have learned from each of those leaps that each new interaction mode brings a new set of processes along with it. You can't necessarily graft voice-channel processes and technology onto digital interactions. Initiating social service programs is an opportunity to start fresh, including the chance to jettison crusty old practices built for voice that clearly won't work well in a modern digital public environment.

When I look ahead a few years, I foresee social media entrenched as a significant but unique service channel. Over time, social media will become integrated into a more complex service environment that includes many channels. The use and choice of channels will be largely guided by consumer preference and by the capacities of their mobile devices. Social will continue to be a channel of last resort, something of a cry for help on the public stage that consumers use to vent their frustration when other, easier options have been exhausted. The stakes will continue to be high for businesses, and the tension between marketing and service departments will be significant as they wrestle over the best way to manage brand exposure.

I also think social will fracture, and we won't be defining social in exactly the same way at the end of this decade. There will emerge, I expect, a different set of processes and practices for handling interactions on Facebook and Twitter than for peer-to-peer interactions in vetted customer communities. It's a good bet that companies owning big brands will try to manage the problem of authentication and identification of customers by gently nudging them into those gated communities.

From the point of view of customers, this could be a good outcome in which the protocols that guide businesses in providing accurate, relevant information change with the context of the interaction. Consumers will get better results, often faster, and social media interactions could cost less for companies to process. Customers will be able to choose the time and place of their contacts, and the communications infrastructure supporting them will take into account their preferences.

But getting to that point will require a lot of experimentation, and along that journey, there will be no shortcuts. This is an area of customer contact that carries a lot of risk because of its public nature and brand exposure. Approach social service with an open mind. You are not being asked to build structures that mimic voice contact. This is something distinctly new, with different standards, so be as flexible as you can, as innovative as you can, and expect to be surprised by how it turns out.

Keith Dawson is a principal analyst at Ovum, where he is the practice leader for customer engagement.