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The Social Piece of the Customer Service Puzzle

By Mark Angel
Dec 17, 2009 4:00 AM PT

A decade ago, electronic communications channels were new to customer service. This discipline was dubbed "eService" and touted as an entirely different way of providing value to customers. eService came in a variety of flavors: Web self-service, email, SMS, instant messaging, to name a few. Many people felt that eService was completely different from a company's overall customer service strategy. They were wrong.

The Social Piece of the Customer Service Puzzle

Over the past decade, companies and their customers have grown accustomed to eService. In most cases, electronic communications channels have been merged into the overall service strategy and are considered by successful business leaders as just another way for customers to interact with the brand. While companies might handle eService inquiries differently on the back end -- compared to the traditional phone channel or in-store experience -- customers still expect the same type of service experience whether it's over the phone or via an electronic channel. In fact, businesses have gotten so used to electronic communications channels that "eService" has become simply "service."

It's important to keep the story of eService in mind when thinking about social media's role over the past few years in reshaping the ways customers interact with brands. Undoubtedly, the influence of social channels has been at least as profound -- and perhaps even more profound -- than that of eService. With social networks, forums, blogs and so on, customers now possess powerful, public channels for voicing their opinions, crowdsourcing and, ultimately, exercising their influence over how brands are perceived. Businesses are no longer in complete control of their images.

Because the popularity of social media engagement has risen with such fervor, many are advocating a need for completely different "social CRM" strategies. However, to be successful in the long run, companies must look at social channels as part of an overall strategy -- much like the evolution of eService -- ensuring that their brand remains aligned with customers across all touch points. Their service offering must be consistent across all types of communications. Business leaders need to devise and implement strategies for their employees to engage customers within social communities while keeping in mind the broader framework and philosophy of service at the organization.

Align Service With the Brand

Before companies extend their brands into the social arena, business and service leaders must ensure that they're controlling customer expectations and properly aligning the service experience with their brands. Customer service needs to be in line with the company's business model and meet customer expectations. In some cases, this means that the highest quality, highest-touch service may not be the best choice for supporting a brand.

If a company's brand offers low-cost, do-it-yourself products, then its customer service offering can reflect that with simple, self-help Web service and limited assisted-channel support. If a company's brand offers expensive products delivered with the utmost care, then its service offering requires multiple high-touch channels, including the phone and live chat.

Determining the type of service that best fits the brand requires careful analysis and understanding of service operations, as well as the nature of inquiries, customer preferences, costs and infrastructure demands. Businesses need to translate their brand promises into measurable service key performance indicators (KPIs) such as cost of service, customer satisfaction, retention and compliance overhead.

To do this, they must accomplish the following:

  • Understand their target market and the customer segments within it,as defined by marketing;
  • Understand the goals and objectives for each persona within these segments;
  • Measure customer satisfaction and loyalty according to the different personas, or segments, by establishing benchmarks for relevant KPIs and using techniques, like the Net Promoter score, market awareness, and customer satisfaction surveys, at the end of each customer interaction; and
  • Alter the customer service experience and re-measure the service KPIs so that business and service leaders are relying on hard data, instead of "instinct," to identify the best service experience for their brands.

Once business and service leaders understand how to align service with the core brand -- and have tested this understanding by improving service KPIs and meeting customer expectations across other, more traditional communication channels -- they can determine how to properly extend their brand into social environments. Businesses must apply the knowledge they've gained in these other service channels to define an effective social CRM strategy that reinforces their brand promise and remains constant across all service channels.

Social Media Moderating and Monitoring

Most businesses today have company forums and blogs that they moderate. The purpose of these social media outlets is to provide an open, constructive environment for information exchange between the community and the company. To be successful, these communities must be in line with the entire service strategy and uphold the brand promise. As with other service channels, businesses must actively monitor KPIs, regularly gauging the effectiveness of communities in meeting service expectations, and tune their offering based on results. Data gathered might be applied to, for example, improving marketing campaigns, updating service processes and aligning product offerings with customer requirements.

Dell's IdeaStorm discussion board serves as a good example of a moderated community. IdeaStorm helps the company determine which ideas are most important and most relevant to their customers. After registering, users are able to add, promote, demote and comment on content. Dell also influences rankings to promote content that it feels is important -- for instance, by polling user interest. The company demonstrates it's listening by labeling content as "implemented" once it has been incorporated into brand, product and service strategy. It's also actively measuring KPIs that allow it to determine whether it is upholding the brand and meeting service expectations.

Comcast is also successfully moderating a community through its Comcast Cares Twitter profile. Social pioneer Frank Eliason established the community a few years back to address the overwhelmingly negative customer feedback the company was receiving across the social network. Because its customer base actively engages within Twitter, Comcast likely monitored the social forum from a distance before choosing to moderate its own Twitter community.

Businesses can also extend their reach of the brand by judiciously monitoring and reacting to feedback from communities that are not under the purview of the company. They are communities where customers express emotions and opinions about brands, products and their service experiences. They often include social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter; rating and review sites like Amazon and Yelp; open source communities; and/or popular industry publications and blogs that solicit reader input.

Social Strategy to Support the Brand

Whether businesses choose to moderate or monitor communities, it's important they create a social strategy that is true to the brand and allows the company to control the service experience for their customers. Like any other channel, these strategies differ from company to company.

For example, a low-cost, do-it-yourself home improvement company with a loyal customer base might want to create a moderated community where customers contribute content. This fits with the customers' expectation of the brand -- one that listens to customer input but doesn't necessarily provide live agents to discuss the ins and outs of product and service offerings. Alternatively, a high-end retail brand that demands white-glove service may choose not to have a social media offering, opting to cultivate a client base in more traditional, face-to-face ways.

So, how can business and service leaders tell which strategy is right for their brands? The way they would for any other communication channel: experiment, measure and refine.

Businesses that haven't yet engaged in the social space should start slowly, picking a handful of communities to monitor. Based on their observation and careful measurement of core business metrics across these social channels, they can decide how, if at all, they will begin moderating communities and actively engaging customers.

Those companies that are already deep into social media should also be experimenting with ways to more effectively moderate and engage. They must continually implement changes, measure results and optimize their strategy based on hard facts. This experimentation loop is of utmost importance if businesses are to ensure that their social CRM strategy is consistent with other communication channels and aligned with the brand.

In the real-time world of the social Web, it's critical that companies drive a dynamic and precise strategy -- one that's just another arm of the overall service offering.


Mark Angel is the chief technology officer of Kana Software. He has worked in the fields of customer service software, knowledge management and search technology development for more than two decades.


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What's most likely to cost a company your customer loyalty?
a major product fail
major unethical corporate behavior
public advocacy of social or political views I oppose
a really bad customer service experience
stagnation -- I'm attracted to innovation
none of the above -- I'll stick through thick and thin