How can we provide better customer service? Create software that lets customers serve each other

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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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Photo courtesy Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock.com.

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