By Keith Pearce, Senior Marketing Director for EMEA at Alcatel Lucent’s Genesys

Recent ‘Cost of Poor Customer Service’ research from Genesys and Datamonitor shows us that UK companies lose £15 billion per year as a result of poor customer service. The latest ‘Cross-Channel Customer Experience’ research suggests that the gap could even be widening.

The growth of smartphones and particularly the iPhone has significantly altered the customer-business dynamic. Consumers have instant access to a range of services whenever they want them – and as a result are more informed and more empowered by the encyclopaedic knowledge at their fingertips. Customers are becoming more knowledgeable than the agents.

Additionally, the ‘social media effect’ makes customers expect instant customer service. Brands are always looking to engage with consumers through the latest channels, but are not equipped to handle customer service enquiries through them – which is what customers are starting to demand.

There are clear disconnects. There has been a slow growth in take-up by businesses of cross-channel solutions and enablers for customer service – in fact, we estimate that most businesses are no further on than a year ago. Most customer service strategies are still traditional: they target primarily – knowingly or unknowingly – the middle-aged and the middle-class. New technologies have previously been implemented to improve customer service – and deployed within the same framework. Now a strong social media strategy is essential to bridge the disconnect with customers – but the methodology for it is different to how most contact centres currently operate.

Is there really the need for a change?

The infamous United Airlines attack campaign was a seminal moment in the shift of consumer power. After the “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube campaign received close to ten million views, it became clear that our customers now have the ability to demand service ‘their way’ – and can hold you to account for it.

To show the extreme distances that need to be made up: some contact centre agents don’t even have access to the internet, let alone the social media, blog and networking sites where this new breed of empowered consumer spends so much time, talks about your brand and expects customer service.

Social Media at the Centre of it All

‘Social Media for Brand’ research tells us that around 85 per cent of social media users will employ it to engage with a brand as well as their peers – often in a purely marketing capacity; 53 per cent will use social media for customer service. There is a cultural shift towards using social, therefore the number one priority for bridging the disconnect that has emerged between customer and enterprise is integrating this new channel.

As a proportion of the total customer base, the numbers are telling: Society of New Communications Research shows 72 per cent of customers use social media to research a company’s reputation for customer care before making a purchase. In case you’re wondering how impactful these online recommendations are: 74 per cent choose to do business with companies based on the customer care experiences shared by others online.

So there are vast communities of consumers that will talk about you – the question is, are you listening to them? Can you prioritise and engage with them? Then can you integrate them into the enterprise, as with any other channel?

Many companies do now have a social media presence, but the primary complaint about social media customer service is that it is used as ‘window dressing’, and that questions or enquiries are handled poorly or not responded to at all.

Companies need to have a strategic social media approach and at its heart must be a cultural shift. Social media is not just a marketing function – it’s a whole new customer service channel. This means finding a team of the right people to operate it and then focusing on delivering it in the most appropriate way. Organisations must harness the power of their customer service workforce in the social media arena. The first step is implementing effective SLAs to help manage the team, while also allowing them the freedom to have natural interactions with consumers.

This new generation of agents is typified not by their ability to use web chat or Facebook, but instead by their ability to multi-task across them. We at Genesys have pioneered the intelligent Customer Front Door (iCFD) to enable organisations to achieve a truly cross-channel conversation with their customers. However, there is a cultural disconnect in many enterprises that must be bridged before any technology can have its optimum impact.

It’s not just a case of responding to questions – social media customer service is about being an active member of these user communities: monitoring and contributing to conversations and being able to identify when someone has a problem before they even approach you with it....because they might not. Research shows that more than half of consumers who post a customer service gripe on their Twitter feed, expect a response from the company it mentions.

It is also important to evaluate your customers’ worth in social media as well as to your bottom line. The social graph of a customer may show that one person can influence thousands or millions of others – making them potentially more valuable than someone with a much higher direct impact on the bottom line. This information should be applied to routing and prioritisation decisions.

Added value to social media

Social media is an essential part of the new customer service approach – but it has other revenue generating possibilities beyond customer service.

Monitoring conversation about your brand provides the knowledge necessary to make key business decisions. Both branding and product development will benefit from this level of customer input. Additionally, active social media channels are a great opportunity to launch special offers that directly feed into the bottom line.

There are companies already using social media for a variety of different purposes.

Dell is one the original proponents of social media. After creating millions of dollars of extra sales through Twitter, it now delivers quick and effective customer service through it as well. Customers who post a problem on Twitter are rapidly answered, with their issue resolved.

The Travel and Tourism Industry is one of the furthest ahead for social media. Hyatt Hotels recently deployed its Virtual Concierge: a Twitter profile backed by a global team, where customers post questions – from “I need a restaurant recommendation”, to “I’ll be late checking in” – and are guaranteed a response within an hour.

Recognising the value of social media recommendation, Marriott is harnessing peer power: its loyalty club members get free stays, amongst other benefits, when they post positively about Marriott on their own Twitter and Facebook pages.

It’s not just Travel companies that are realising the benefits of social media. More and more companies are establishing strong user and customer communities. Verizon is just one company that has created forums where customers can ask questions, read reviews and find out about any aspect of the Verizon service. Its Android vs iPhone discussion recently helped guide customers through the process of selecting the right smartphone as Verizon launched its newest model.

Similarly, companies including BT, Sprint, Intel and Microsoft all have forum communities backed by social media teams that are ready to respond when needed, but, more importantly, they are in the community and always monitoring the discussion.

Possible Solutions

It is already possible to implement a strategy to address these critical short-falls. Existing solutions, such as the Genesys SMS product, can be adapted to feed Twitter or Facebook updates/messages into the platform in the same way as SMS messages. This ensures they are segmented, prioritised and distributed to the right agent.

In addition, the company’s partnership with Lithium technologies enables forum communities to be monitored as well as used as part of the customer service delivery strategy – with agents being sent reply requests if forum posts go unanswered. This integration also makes these forums an effective self-service channel.

By delivering social media conversations and contextual information into the customer service mix in the same way as an email or a fax, businesses can create a more rewarding and relevant experience for the customer. The payoff for providing this will be long-term customer loyalty and the revenue benefits that this brings with it.

Making the Cultural Shift

Consumers still want a human element. In fact human service is not generally the root cause of customer dissatisfaction. But consumers in their service experience also want to use Twitter, phone, emails and many more channels.

It’s essential that businesses re-tool their customer service teams to be able to deal with this. This doesn’t mean massive technology implementations, nor does it necessarily mean employing new, potentially younger, agents. What it does mean is that companies must adjust the way that they perceive and measure customer service: Twitter response times are not the same as email, but more importantly, social media customer service starts before the customer contacts you. Social media requires a new approach, and without it, the gap between what the customer’s thinking and what the enterprise is doing will continue to get wider.