23 Comments

Summary:

As consumers increasingly turn to social media to both praise and criticize brands, those brands can’t possibly respond to all the feedback. The solution is to empower customers to speak on their behalf.

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photo: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

Recently I was asked a question following a presentation that suddenly made me realize social application developers are missing a big opportunity in customer service. I had just finished speaking at the global HP Social Support Summit, when an audience member took the microphone and asked, “Do you know of any software that lets community members respond on behalf of companies on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms?”

The customer service products I discussed during the event provide tools for employees to respond on social media. They also offer separate self-service communities where customers answer each others’ questions. But none of them put these two capabilities together in the way the audience member suggested. Thinking it through further, as we see more and more consumers taking their customer-service issues to social services in lieu of one-to-one contact, it has become clear how much companies truly need an application that essentially lets them crowdsource their customer service response on social media to the customer community.

The current customer service model is moribund

One of the biggest reasons this idea struck me is that the current model just isn’t working. In one study I conducted, major brands such as Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo responded just 14 percent of the time when they were asked questions via Twitter. This is a big problem when you consider more than half of Twitter users expect a personal response within two hours of sending a question or complaint, according to a report by Oracle last year.

Most popular customer service applications (e.g. Zendesk, Parature, Desk.com) are designed to enable employees to respond to requests sent on Twitter, Facebook and other social channels. These products leverage social listening technology and keyword identifiers to categorize service-related messages and route them to a company-employed customer-service agent. Companies can also choose to prioritize these tweets and updates based on the sentiment of the message and influence of the sender.

As useful as these application can be, there are still a couple of pressing issues with the model they represent:

For starters, brands receive hundreds if not thousands of mentions on any given day and the number is only going to grow exponentially. Starbucks, for example, received 115,257 mentions during my four-week experiment. Clearly responding at all, much less in a timely manner, isn’t feasible for most companies at this scale.

Beyond that, all of these responses come from the brand. While doubtless that is valuable for message control, centralizing interaction distracts from the potential to create authentic and natural conversations about your brand on social media.

Companies could address both of these issues by empowering their most enthusiastic customers to respond. And the community is where they’ll find them.

Learn to trust your best customers

Existing, active community members can be the perfect candidates to respond for companies on social media for two reasons: For one, they’re already enthusiastic about your products and so can be good brand ambassadors; and two, they’ve proven their zeal for answering questions from other customers already.

Take this HP community member, for example. He spends upwards of 30 unpaid  hours a week responding to queries in their discussion forums. The software I’m suggesting would essentially empower “wb2001″ and thousands of other similar customers like him to respond to questions on social media (in addition to the community that exists already).

This hypothetical technology could still leverage all of the tools that make communities so effective – things like gamification and automated alerts. Also, social listening tools could filter out messages that would be better suited for an employee response. This could include messages from customers that are particularly angry, or questions that would require a technical expert.

A big opportunity for social developers

Every time someone mentions your brand on Pinterest, Linkedin, Facebook or another social channel, it creates an instant opportunity to start a conversation. The more a brand can foster these engagements the better – especially if you can ensure your top advocates are the ones leading these conversations. As best-selling author and customer-service thought leader Micah Solomon has noted, “Customers are interested in marketing, but they don’t believe what your company says about itself unless it matches what they and their friends say about you.”

So the dilemma we have is that brands want to encourage conversations on social media by responding, but it’s increasingly impractical (if not impossible) for employees to handle the volume – and they can’t be the only ones talking about your brand. On the one hand it seems kind of a crazy idea, letting your customers speak on behalf of your brand. But what sounds better: Hiring an army of social-media responders to have superficial “why you should love us more” conversations, or empowering your brand advocates to create a sea of new discussions that never would have existed in the first place?

is a software analyst at Software Advice and Managing Editor for the Customer Service Investigator blog. Follow her on Twitter @CustomerServInv.

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  1. Bryan Meyer Sunday, May 26, 2013

    There is product already out there that solves this. Yammer and other ESN’s allow you to build External Networks for customers.

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    1. Ashley Verrill Monday, May 27, 2013

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for reading. Actually, what I’m suggesting hear is a software that crowdsources the company’s response on social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and the like). So it’s actually modeled after what companies are doing with things like Yammer, it just moves those conversations to social media (rather than customer communities and external networks).

      My argument is that the conversations that happen in external networks and communities are really valuable, so why not move them to a platform (like social media), where they can more easily be shared, viewed and further discussed with tweets and updates.

      Thanks again for reading!

      Best,

      Ashley Verrill

      Share
  2. Christopher Sunday, May 26, 2013

    While companies should invest in customer service products and services, infact more resources should be invested in enhancing their core products and services. I don’t believe customers will go to social media forums;use customer service software and solutions to figure out/complain etc if the product and service is good in the first place.

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    1. Ashley Verrill Monday, May 27, 2013

      Hi Christopher,

      I think this is really valuable point — if you are providing crappy service, or your product doesn’t align with the customers need, there’s no use replicating those endeavors in the social media space. You also tapped on something else really valuable, though, about garnering customer feedback (which you can also get from social listening software); and that’s for product development. You can use insights about what customers are commenting on, complaining about, or asking for most to drive what changes you make in the future. You want to remember though, that these “complainers” are the squeaky wheels, and you don’t want to just cater to these people either.

      Regardless, I still think responding on social media is valuable beyond just providing better customer service. It creates the opportunity to develop natural, authentic and trustworthy conversations about yourself on social media that never would have existed before. Even better, these conversations are driven by your biggest social advocates (if the software I’m suggesting was ever created).

      This is the best kind of marketing that money can’t currently buy — an engine of positive conversations about your brand from real customers.

      Thanks for reading!

      Ashley

      Share
      1. Jeff Spitulnik Monday, May 27, 2013

        Nice writeup. We’re working on it, but there’s a lot to learn still about doing it right. We’re really proud of what HP and lots of other companies have built on the @LithiumTech social business platform, but you’re right — there are conversations going on “out there” that need to be captured, engaged, and ultimately leveraged by the community of consumers.

        I fully agree with your perspective, but one challenge ahead of us is How do we get the customers who are talking to their providers via the distributed social media channels to really become contributing members of the brand? How do we get them to join the rich, vibrant community of colleagues collaborating to produce trusted content that helps the consumer and the company alike? If they stay out on the distributed social networks and simply get their support cases dealt with “out there,” will they ever really get engaged enough to convert to the superfans who are the truly valuable consumers-contributors? We have some tools, but we can do better…

        Thanks again for the thought-provoking essay! Good stuff.
        — @spitulnik

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        1. Ashley Verrill Monday, May 27, 2013

          Hi Jeff,

          Lithium is just the company I was talking to with this article, actually (-: My thought was that if anyone could make this happen, it would be them.

          I thought this hypothetical software could listen for brand mentions on social media and some how triage these messages to active customer community members to respond (when appropriate, situations where a technical expert is needed, or the customer is particularly upset would go to an employee).

          I imagined these social brand mentions appearing in a newsfeed kind of format in the customer community member’s dashboard (where they log in and manage their profile and what not). They could respond directly from their dashboard, this way all of those interactions are still captured within the software (instead of prompting the community member to leave and go directly to Twitter or Facebook, or whatever to respond). At these same time, these social engagements would also be added to their “community member scoring” for the leader board, so they are incentivized to participate in those conversations in the same way they do in the community.

          I’m really excited about this idea (obviously, since I wrote about) and I think it’s a big opportunity for someone to take on. (-:

          Thanks for reading!

          Best,

          Ashley V.

          Share
  3. So you went to a well funded HP event, a once great company that has become dysfunctional. The latest turkey being their new Slate 7 tablet. And the proposed solution to their failing business – have lots of HP enthusiasts “engaging” users about their products on social media? Color me unimpressed.

    I’d be a lot more impressed if HP (and a hot of other companies) found some means to harness social systems to make great products, like they used to. HP might even become an honest company again.

    AFAICS, you are just talking band aids.

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    1. Ashley Verrill Monday, May 27, 2013

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for comments. Just to be clear, this wasn’t an idea HP had. I was asked to speak at the event about some research I conducted on social customer service. After my presentation was over, an audience member asked me if this software existed.

      In other words, no one from HP suggested the software I’ve proposed here. I did talk to some of their people about the idea, just to get their feedback. But they are not actively developing anything like this (nor is anyone that I know of).

      Also, you mentioned finding”means to harness social systems to make great products;” I think this is a great idea and something a lot of companies do with “customer feedback” and community software. They use these insights for product development under the notion we should “give’em what they ask for!”

      I think it would be interesting if there was a niche product specifically for gleaning social insights that would help with product development. There are a lot of social listing apps that can do this in a round about way, but it’d be neat if there was something super specific to that end (if there was a big enough market for something like that. I think yes.)

      Thanks again for reading!

      Best,

      Ashley V.

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      1. Ashley Verrill Tuesday, May 28, 2013

        Thanks for your comments Ian!

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  4. Great idea, more often than not customers (and power users) know a lot more than the company held desk.

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  5. Eventually, customers are very important. They are reason why company exists. That’s why, it is advisable that they must be served and treated well. Customers can determine the success or the failure of the company. It is only through implementing great customer service that a customer will remain loyal to the company.

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  6. Jonah Stein Tuesday, May 28, 2013

    What’s missing from this idea is to leverage game dynamics to reward these customer advocates /customer service volunteers with rankings plus access to company engineers to help them improve along with an escalation channel.

    Many companies already do something like this on support forums, such as Google Webmaster Forums. Where they fall short is the connection to user questions on social media.

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    1. Ashley Verrill Tuesday, May 28, 2013

      Hi Jonah,

      Thanks for your comment and for reading! I suggested here that “This hypothetical technology could still leverage all of the tools that make communities so effective – things like gamification and automated alerts,” so I definitely agree with you. This system could even award additional points for posts that are widely shared (aka have significant “social reach.”)

      As I argued here, I think the opportunity is really huge. Communities have proven customers love talking to other customers — we just need the means for connecting them on social media.

      Thanks again for reading (random article commenter whom I’ve never met, wink wink (-:)

      Best,

      Ashley V.

      Share
  7. Ashley–
    Enjoyed reading this post and also your January “Social Customer Service Race” study!
    Re >>software that lets community members respond on behalf of companies on social media..
    CrowdEngineering (company based in Italy & the US) is focused exactly on that kind of P2P customer service through a product aptly named Crowd4Care (see http://www.crowdengineering.com/solutions/products-overview/crowd4care). The company’s CEO spent decades in the call center industry but hooked up with @CrowdEng because of the growing need to provide quality customer service in response to support questions made on social media and online communities. Unlike some of the other approaches, Crowd4Care is built to intelligently route incoming customer service queries to customers who are most qualified to answer (based on definable criteria like product expertise, skill sets or native language ability). The software also does sentiment analysis to judge the urgency and/or mindset of the original posts/Tweets (e.g. pissed off or content). To make the model work, the folks at CrowdEngineering have built tools to help companies to engage, enlist with volunteer service providers and then compensate them through gamfication. Much in the same way that crowdsourcing has been successful for fundraising, product testing, ideation, microtasks — crowdsourced customer service for customers, by customers makes a lot of sense. Since call centers are expensive to run, more and more companies (e.g. 3M, Panasonic, Accenture) are starting to deflect a portion of their service queries over to crowd for care. As you wrote in your article: “empowering most enthusiastic customers to respond” is a smart biz move: helps companies and customers alike.

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    1. Ashley Verrill Wednesday, May 29, 2013

      This is awesome Patrick. This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hit on in this article. I think the real key to success here is enabling customer community power users. These are people like “wb2001″ who I mentioned in the article.

      In addition to responding, the tool I imagined would award higher scores to community users whose messages have the furthest social reach. This could inspire them to build their own followings, and find the people most apt to share their messages.

      I also think it should go beyond just stereotypical customer service questions (as the definition and goals for customer service are changing, e.g. this debate I ran called “Is Customer Service the New Marketing?” http://csi.softwareadvice.com/google-debate-results-is-customer-service-the-new-marketing-1120312/. Even someone who just mentioned a brand in their tweet or update creates a valuable opportunity to start a conversation. I think all of these mentions should be fed to community users in a newsfeed kind of format where they can respond within the same dashboard.

      Love to chat more about CrowdEngineering! (I’ll respond to your email too).

      Best,

      Ashley V.

      Share
  8. Patrick Rafter Wednesday, May 29, 2013

    Ashley–
    Enjoyed reading this post and also your January “Social Customer Service Race” study!
    Re >>software that lets community members respond on behalf of companies on social media..
    CrowdEngineering (company based in Italy & the US) is focused exactly on that kind of P2P customer service through a product aptly named Crowd4Care (see http://www.crowdengineering.com/solutions/products-overview/crowd4care). The company’s CEO spent decades in the call center industry but hooked up with @CrowdEng because of the growing need to provide quality customer service in response to support questions made on social media and online communities. Unlike some of the other approaches, Crowd4Care is built to intelligently route incoming customer service queries to customers who are most qualified to answer (based on definable criteria like product expertise, skill sets or native language ability). The software also does sentiment analysis to judge the urgency and/or mindset of the original posts/Tweets (e.g. pissed off or content). To make the model work, the folks at CrowdEngineering have built tools to help companies to engage, enlist with volunteer service providers and then compensate them through gamfication. Much in the same way that crowdsourcing has been successful for fundraising, product testing, ideation, microtasks — crowdsourced customer service for customers, by customers makes a lot of sense. Since call centers are expensive to run, more and more companies (e.g. 3M, Panasonic, Accenture) are starting to deflect a portion of their service queries over to crowd for care. As you wrote in your article: “empowering most enthusiastic customers to respond” is a smart biz move: helps companies and customers alike. Thanks again for your article.

    Share
  9. Patrick Rafter Wednesday, May 29, 2013

    Ashley–
    Enjoyed reading this post and also your January “Social Customer Service Race” study!
    Re >>software that lets community members respond on behalf of companies on social media..
    CrowdEngineering (company based in Italy & the US) is focused exactly on that kind of P2P customer service through a product aptly named Crowd4Care (see http://www.crowdengineering.com/solutions/products-overview/crowd4care). The company’s CEO spent decades in the call center industry but hooked up with @CrowdEng because of the growing need to provide quality customer service in response to support questions made on social media and online communities. Unlike some of the other approaches, Crowd4Care is built to intelligently route incoming customer service queries to customers who are most qualified to answer (based on definable criteria like product expertise, skill sets or native language ability). The software also does sentiment analysis to judge the urgency and/or mindset of the original posts/Tweets (e.g. pissed off or content). To make the model work, the folks at CrowdEngineering have built tools to help companies to engage, enlist with volunteer service providers and then compensate them through gamfication. Much in the same way that crowdsourcing has been successful for fundraising, product testing, ideation, microtasks — crowdsourced customer service for customers, by customers makes a lot of sense. Since call centers are expensive to run, more and more companies (e.g. 3M, Panasonic, Accenture) are starting to deflect a portion of their service queries over to crowd for care. As you wrote in your article: “empowering most enthusiastic customers to respond” is a smart biz move: helps companies and customers alike. Thanks again for your article. :-)

    Share
  10. Patrick Rafter Wednesday, May 29, 2013

    Ashley–
    Enjoyed reading this post and also your January “Social Customer Service Race” study!

    Re >>software that lets community members respond on behalf of companies on social media…
    CrowdEngineering (company based in Italy & the US) is focused exactly on that kind of P2P customer service through a product aptly named Crowd4Care (see http://www.crowdengineering.com/solutions/products-overview/crowd4care). The company’s CEO spent decades in the call center industry but hooked up with @CrowdEng because of the growing need to provide quality customer service in response to support questions made on social media and online communities.

    Unlike some of the other approaches, Crowd4Care is built to intelligently route incoming customer service queries to customers who are most qualified to answer (based on definable criteria like product expertise, skill sets or native language ability). The software also does sentiment analysis to judge the urgency and/or mindset of the original posts/Tweets (e.g. pissed off or content). To make the model work, the folks at CrowdEngineering have built tools to help companies to engage, enlist with volunteer service providers and then compensate them through gamification.

    Much in the same way that crowdsourcing has been successful for fundraising, product testing, ideation, microtasks — crowdsourced customer service for customers, by customers makes a lot of sense. Since call centers are expensive to run, more and more companies (e.g. 3M, Panasonic, Accenture) are starting to deflect a portion of their service queries over to crowd for care.

    As you wrote in your article: “empowering most enthusiastic customers to respond” is a smart biz move: helps companies and customers alike. Thanks again for your research and thoughts.

    Share

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