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Using social media and online channels to deliver customer service

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 05 Oct, 2010
Essential Essential topic

Our interview with Guy Stephens on the past, present and future of online customer service

You may know Guy from his work at the Carphone Warehouse where he was Customer Knowledge Manager or Mars Drink UK Global Online Marketing Manager.

I became aware of his passion for building brands through championing customer service when he was at Carphone Warehouse through his Twitter feed and conference presentations.

I'm delighted he agreed to talk us through the challenges and opportunities of using social media to deliver customer service since, in my opinion, he is the one of the world's leading thinkers on this topic as his answers to my questions below demonstrate.

Today, Guy is a Senior Consultant Foviance and is active in sharing his expertise through various channels:

Linked In Group: Where Social Media Meets Customer Service

Social media customer service:



The importance of social media for customer service

Q1. We all know that many customers are using Twitter or Get Satisfaction to "€œself-serve"€ their queries. But how important is it? Will most people still pick up the phone or head for the Help section of the company?

I think it"€™s less a question of importance, as that implies it"€™s the company deciding whether it is important or not, and ignores not only customer behaviour but also the fundamental shifts that are taking place within customer service through the impact of social media. These changes in behaviour require companies to think through:

  • Being heard: Customers are making themselves heard. They have always shouted, but companies are no longer able to get away with as much selective hearing as they once did. It is no longer simply good enough to talk about being customer-centric, companies have to deliver on the promise as well
  • Being there: The shift towards a customer-driven service proposition is highlighting the need for companies to go, to be and to deliver a customer service proposition that can feasibly take place wherever a customer is, whenever a customer wants it and however a customer so chooses
  • Being now: The increasing ubiquity of smartphones and apps is condensing the customer service experience to the point at which it takes place. This brings with it implications on resourcing, agent skill levels, collaborative working amongst others
  • Being seen: Customer service has always had a PR capability, but this has traditionally been overlooked. Social media forces the customer service interaction into a public arena where a fine line between opportunity and risk is an inherent part of operating in this space. The real-time characteristic of this adds a further layer of complexity that needs to be understood.

Social media is changing the way not only customer service is being provided, but how business is conducted between companies and customers. My view is that we will continue to see the mainstreaming of social media, and with it, the gradual questioning and subsequent erosion of the lines between customer service, sales, marketing, compliance, business operations. Where we end up, and how it will work, will emerge as the conversation evolves.

If we move away from the theory and strategic issues surrounding social media as an agent of business transformation, and back to the second part of the question "€“ will customers still pick up the phone or self-serve. The simple answer is: Yes.

Give a customer a phone number and they"€™ll dial it, give them an email address and they"€™ll email you, give them a self-serve option and they"€™ll go there, give them live chat and they"€™ll chat with you.

All too often we think that the emergence of a new channel will be the death knell of another, and this just isn"€™t the case. More often than not if a customer has a problem they will use whatever channel a company offers until the issue is resolved. It"€™s very much a case of first channel to respond wins. The emergence of social media hasn"€™t changed this behaviour. It has simply added to the rich mix that is available to all of us. What is interesting is how companies integrate these channels and their underlying characteristics which are all different alongside each other. Many companies at the moment are experimenting with live chat and Twitter, live chat and telephony, and trying to understand if they go down a blended route, which ones work well together, what agent skillsets are needed.

From a customer service perspective, social media is changing customer behaviour in the way we seek help. If something goes wrong, who do you turn to now? Your first step may well be a Google search, followed by asking a question in a forum, seeing if there is a YouTube video about it, or seeking help from within your Twitter network. How many companies are designing customer experiences that take this disjointed and fragmented approach which combines an online multiplatform approach with a multichannel one into account?

The other big change is that with traditional channel a company has to create the channel for it to be an option. A customer can"€™t create an IVR, email address, phone number or web site. But with social media there is a fundamental paradigm shift. A company is no longer the instigator or creator, but simply another participant in the overall exchanges of dialogue taking place.

In many respects, nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. The challenges are still the same, all that has changed, is the emergence of a new set of tools with its own characteristics. We"€™ve been used to one way of doing things, and now we have to get used to another way of doing things, as well as integrating the two.

What are the online customer service options?

Q2. I"€™ve mentioned the two of the more common service options. What have I missed? Is Facebook used for service or complaint often?

From what I have seen over the last two years, if a company is looking to deliver customer service through the use of social media then the platforms they have got to include are: Twitter, blogs, YouTube and now Facebook.

For some reason, Facebook has come back into the frame over the last few months and companies are interestingly treating it as a help destination point in its own right. In the UK, Thomas Cook has a help and support page within its Facebook offering. We are seeing a shift in thinking towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of the need to provide "€˜service at source"€™ for customers. Traditionally, companies would have looked to bring the interaction back to their web site or into the contact centre as soon as possible.

When I first saw companies using Facebook for help and support, I didn"€™t get it. But when I had a deeper look at it, it suddenly struck me that all you are doing is being available to customers at their point of need, wherever that point might be, and whenever it might be.

Take the case of BestBuy"€™s Twelpforce. The next iteration of Twelpforce according to John Bernier in a recent article [] is: "€˜"€¦for us to enable customers to answer questions that come from anywhere so that the customer doesn"€™t have to find us, we find them. We don"€™t want someone to have to leave Facebook to ask a question, we want them to ask it there."€™

This reminds me of a short but powerful slidedeck from Jeremiah Owyang [], the central premise of which was "€“ fish where the fish are. If companies are able to adopt such an approach, taking their lead from their customers"€™ behaviour, and I do believe the use of social media within customer service is about an approach, a mindset, then companies become less afraid, less resistant about change and  being open to trying different things out.

Take the example of BT. A huge organisation, and yet in terms of what they are doing in the use of social media within customer service, they are open to taking their lead from their customers. In a recent roundtable I ran looking at the impact of complaints on social media, Warren Buckley, MD Customer Service for BT shared a story with us about discovering that some customers were complaining about BT on Google Maps. His team now includes Google Maps as part of their monitoring activities.

What I would say to companies looking to move into this space, is that whilst there exist what could loosely be termed a core set of tools, you"€™ve got to see what your customers are doing and where they are doing it. You set up a Twitter account or offer help and support on Facebook because your customers are there and in doing so you are meeting their needs, not yours.

We will definitely see a greater understanding and sophistication of the medium as more companies use social media. At the moment, we"€™re in a "€˜hunting and gathering"€™ phase. Companies are trying different things out, seeing how different combinations of offline, traditional online, social platforms work together, understanding what agent skillsets are needed depending on the approach being adopted. Part of this is also analysing customer behaviour and seeing what types of issues are being handled by the different channels on offer, whether that is Twitter, phone, web site or live chat.

As an aside, I think a distinction exists between those "€˜service points"€™ that ultimately are created by a company, even though they may be built on third party software (ie. GetSatisfaction, BazaarVoice, Facebook, forums) and those platforms that have been created independently for anyone to use (ie. Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, TripAdvisor, Cofacio). Although I have put Facebook into the first group, it could equally be in the second group. We are also seeing the rise of intermediary platforms, which try to facilitate discussion between customers and companies (ie. ComplaintCommunity, Plebble, Pownum).

Which types of companies can benefit?

Q3. Examples of using Twitter, Get Satisfaction to help manage customer service often feature retailers like Carphone Warehouse or Best Buy. How relevant is it for other sectors?

Just as customers aren"€™t sector-specific, so too social media. There are some sectors which have a natural affinity with it because of the nature of their product or service. But in my mind it is simply understanding what you want to achieve, observing how your customers behave and then matching that to the available toolset.

Furthermore, I think there needs to be less thinking about sector and more about what it is that you are trying to do. Every sector requires the passing of information at some point between customer and company. Whether that is keeping people updated if their train is delayed, through to informing customers about changes to a returns policy, through to apologising for poor service.

On this point and as a quick aside, I think companies also shouldn"€™t overlook or underestimate the power of being "€˜signposts to the mundane"€™ in a sense. What I mean by this is that many of the calls or emails that come into the contact centre every day are simple requests for information about delivery times, new products, product specifications etc. Information that can be responded to easily and quickly, without the need to really come into the call centre. Social channels like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are fantastic assets for this and the upside in terms of immediate PR value often outweighs the actual issue itself.

Take the financial services or legal sectors. Traditionally we would have looked at these sectors and concluded that social media wouldn"€™t work. We have a very open system in social media on the one hand coming up against two heavily regulated sectors on the other. And yet, think about when you want to get a mortgage, renew your car insurance or understand some legal requirement relating to your work. Up until the point at which you actually have to pass sensitive data through to someone, I would have thought there"€™s probably quite a lot of space in which social media could have a role to play in simply explaining a process or pointing someone in the right direction.

Think about someone buying a mortgage for the first time or a student opening up their first bank account. A lot of research is undertaken, particularly in the case of choosing a mortgage. A lot of hand holding and explaining of terminology is needed. A lot of this hand-holding could be handled on the platforms that these potential customers use. So for a student opening their first bank account are they more likely to go to your web site or Facebook?

Often it is about looking at the same thing from a different angle and being in tune with your customers.

Smaller company examples

Q3. What about the smaller to mid-size business? Can it help here?

Absolutely, social media isn"€™t an exclusive one size fits all solution. There are many different platforms to choose from, and they can all be used individually or in combination in any number of different ways.

What"€™s key is that in taking part you are offering something relevant and meaningful to your customers, whether that"€™s a Wiggly Wrigglers recording a podcast, @OverheardAtMoo responding to customers"€™ queries or The Carphone Warehouse employees publishing helpful tips and hints about mobile phones via their Eyeopeners channel on YouTube.

Look at what ASOS are doing within the fashion sector. I would say they are one of the most socially aware companies in the UK. They are creating a lot of their own platforms, exploring the boundaries of what is possible, but they are also keeping it simple. They are not trying to overcomplicate what they do.

I think what sets companies like ASOS, MOO or Wiggly Wrigglers apart, and there are many more examples, is their mindset. An openness to explore, an awareness of what their customers want, backed up by a willingness to actually respond.

From a customer service point of view, there are obvious benefits in handling queries and complaints via social channels. Not only are you handling and often resolving the issues or complaints at source, but you are also wrapping into the way you engage with your customers an automatic PR layer.

For a small to medium-sized company, this type of automatic PR, almost like a continual reputation feed, brings with it clear cost-saving implications as well.

At this point, many companies may well raise the spectre of negative comments as a reason for either not going down this route or at the very least being cautious of it. My response to them is this. People, your customers will complain "€“ that is their right, and that is what we all do. But the reason we complain is that a company has got it wrong somewhere along the way. Customers are simply letting you know where. This gives all companies the opportunity not only to respond in a positive and empathetic way, but also to actually rectify the problem as well. I think we need to re-evaluate not only the way we look at complaints, but also how we define them as well, regardless of the size of your company.

Changes to the service process?

Q4. How do companies who get this refine the way they manage customer service enquiries?

It"€™s a great question because what it does is move the conversation forwards from "€˜is it a fad"€™ to "€˜how do we actually use it?"€™

Fundamentally, for me, this is all about a change in mindset. Companies have long talked about being customer-centric, without having to really prove that they are or deliver on it. Customers are now holding mirrors up and exposing all parts of a company to scrutiny.

For me, once again it"€™s about creating an open, enquiring and responsive environment to your customers"€™ needs. This doesn"€™t equate to chaos, or not being in control of what you are doing, or not understanding what success looks like. I like to think of this approach as "€˜freedom within a framework"€™.

It"€™s not about looking at it in terms of what the company wants to achieve, but approaching it from the perspective of what your customers are trying to achieve, and then working that backwards. Once again, how well do you understand your customers? Do you understand what social platforms they are using? Do you understand what they are using them for? Do you understand what traditional platforms they are using and what they are using those for? Are they achieving what they set out to achieve? If not, why not? What are the barriers? Then flip it round and ask yourself: what are we trying to achieve?

Only then can you start to understand the gaps and begin to make changes. It"€™s important that you understand what your baseline is before trying to plug in a new channel and avoid unintentionally creating subsequent issues around channel or process integration. Your processes and tools are only as good as your understanding of what they are and how you and your customers use them. In the final analysis, the last thing you want if you do go down the social media route, is to create a new silo within your customer service proposition called social media.

If I think back to my time at The Carphone Warehouse, the reason we could try things out was simply because of our approach. Part of this is having people who "€˜get social"€™. And this touches on an important issue. From a resourcing perspective, it"€™s apparent from talking to those who are going down this route that their approach is very much around hiring people who understand social media, and then training them in terms of the customer service skills they will need.

If we move onto the practical issues surrounding the use of social media for customer service the key issues for me are communication and integration.

  • Communicating expectations: keeping customers informed so that you can manage their expectations. This is where empathy comes in to the picture as well. We are certainly seeing customers expecting companies to imbue a greater sense of empathy into customer service interactions than ever before. For a company, how do you "€˜productise"€™ empathy in a way?
  • Integration: ensuring the holistic customer experience helps them achieve what they set out to achieve without bluntly "€˜pissing them off"€™ along the way. How do all the different channels - Twitter, phone, store visit, web, chat - that a customer might use in any one interaction work together? What takes precedence over another channel? How do you, or even, do you, build a response mechanism to Stephen Fry tweeting about your products, against any other customer tweeting in about the same product? What channels will you offer? What are your opening hours?

For me, it comes back to looking to, working with and trusting your customers to help you find the answers to these questions. Companies no longer hold the dominant position they once did, and we are in a period where companies are being forced to re-evaluate, and in some instances re-engineer, the way in which they engage with their customers.

The future of web self-service

Q5.  What is the future potential of web self-service? Are any mobile apps gaining importance?

Companies must try to understand how people seek help. Traditionally if something went wrong we would go into a store, call or email that company about it, or else ask our friends. Now, if something goes wrong we often turn to Google as our first port of call. From there we go to Twitter, forums, YouTube, blogs etc. Calling a company isn"€™t necessarily your first step anymore. The idea of self-sufficiency is a very real threat and in some instances the role of the company is being marginalised; customer service in a sense is decentralising. But this decentralisation also brings with it opportunities.

The whole idea of "€˜self service"€™ is an interesting one. I think what we will see are a few trends emerge which will require us to recognise and define new ways of working, which will influence how support is provided by both customers to each other and companies to customers, and even to wider networks at large:

  • Customer service continuing its move into the frontline and becoming a truly strategic part of the business. This is likely to be characterised by an element of friction at the point at which the customers"€™ call for a greater degree of "€˜socialised"€™ engagement rubs against the traditional drive for cost savings and lean efficiencies
  • The continuing move towards collaborative "€˜help/support"€™ spaces built around the exchange of information and knowledge between people. This will continue the gradual erosion of the way we currently work. A by-product of this will be a blurring between the traditional divisions that separate not only a company from its customers, but also in the actual provision of the services themselves
  • The rise of "€˜ubiquitous connectivity"€™ to not only one"€™s own network, but networks in general. The idea that I can literally plug in anytime anywhere. With this comes the idea of "€˜empowered me"€™ "€“ I am my own work force. Not only am I self sufficient, but I am also able to offer help as and when the inclination takes me.
  • The rise of apps, which will undoubtedly become more powerful, more integrated with business processes, will play an increasingly important part in bridging the gap not only between a company and an individual, but also in condensing the time between a request for help and its resolution.

The implications of these trends for companies will result in:

The construct we currently know as a company will likely change. Companies will become participants and voyeurs during this period of evaluation, alongside customers and people.

  • Social media will become increasingly embedded in the processes that underpin the products and services company"€™s provide. The current novelty and associated awkwardness in the way we talk about and define customer service as being made up of traditional and social channels will gradually ebb as we simply see the customer service proposition as a natural combining of the two.
  • Companies will learn to recognise the value of offering help and resolving support at source, rather than the traditional approach of forcing customers to come to you. For example, offering help and support via Facebook. This multifaceted approach will, however, need to be underpinned by a unified knowledge base. As John Bernier, one of the team behind the creation of BestBuy"€™s Twelpforce, referred to it in a conversation with me last year: the ability to tie a red ribbon round all of the things you are doing and trace it back will become of paramount importance.
  • A greater degree of channel differentiation by customers in the way they seek and get support may highlight that low level queries, requests and complaints have a natural affinity to social media channels whether provided by the company or one"€™s network, whilst more complex issues are of necessity dealt with "€˜back at company base"€™ as it were.

The whole customer service landscape is changing dramatically, and with it the way companies and customers engage with each other. Our industrial heritage is now starkly juxtaposed against technological advancements that are either questioning the very foundations of the way we do business or making them redundant. A paradigm shift is taking place.

Against this backdrop, the role of the company itself is changing. Companies may well need to become "€˜experience curators"€™ weaving an experience that takes into account an understanding of the tools available, the outcomes desired by customers, the underlying emotional drivers, and the PR benefits to be had.

From a customer service or customer engagement perspective, the discussion also has to become company-wide and focus not on company-created spaces, but collaborative spaces where company and customer "€“ people "€“ come together to exchange information. Imagine something similar to a Twelpforce on a far larger scale and on neutral territory. An independent shared space that is simply there for people to come together and share, the platform facilitates the conversation. Perhaps in something like Cofacio, we have the beginnings of such a platform.

And for anyone looking to embark on their journey, a good starting place is still The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site,, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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