By Steve Garnett, chairman EMEA, salesforce.com

The world of customer service is changing dramatically, with growing numbers of consumers no longer wishing to call customer help lines. Recent research conducted by online research company, OnePoll demonstrates that more and more, UK consumers turn online for customer service help, rather than contacting the company directly.

The survey of 1,000 consumers revealed that just eight per cent contact the customer service department first when seeking advice or information on a product or service and only 10 per cent visit the retailer as a first port of call. Instead, customers are increasingly moving online.

44 per cent of people now use some kind of social media, such as social networks or forums, for customer service purposes and 34% now email customer service departments in the first instance. Furthermore, over half (52%) expect companies to monitor social networks and online forums and four out of ten (43%) would be impressed by a company that responded to a complaint made on these channels.

Consumers are attracted to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter because they deliver customer service in real time, offering an effective way for individuals and businesses to quickly and easily find experts to get their questions answered. This development amounts to a ‘game changer’ for customer service and all companies, SMEs, in particular, should take note and adjust their approach accordingly.

To drive competitive edge, they need to accept that many of their customers are online in the cloud and actively discussing the brands, products and services they consume on a regular basis. Instead of calling the vendor company directly, today’s customers will often access Facebook, comment on their problem and ask for input, or alternatively tweet about it on Twitter to draw responses from experts available online.

SMEs now have to engage with their customers, wherever they are, and solve problems in real-time before they escalate into major issues. This can be a difficult challenge for any enterprise but particularly for smaller businesses with limited resources and budget restrictions.

To address this challenge, they can now draw on cloud-based software that allows them to monitor and track customer conversations and even join in with them.

Meeting Customer Service Needs

The next generation of social contact centres is today delivering the functionality SMEs need to offer the kind of customer service that enables them to compete on an equal footing with their larger enterprise rivals.

The best of these solutions enable SMEs to interact with customers across any social networking community, to interact with them through any channel, on any mobile device in real-time: from an iPad, iPhone, Android to a Blackberry smartphone - and to manage any type or any quantity of service issues. They allow SMEs to track relevant social networking activity by accessing and capturing conversations about their brands on Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites, or by using the functionality to monitor blogs, forums and discussion groups.

Social contact centres also enable SMEs to scale their operations quickly and easily to manage a wide array of service issues, including the millions of conversations that happen every day on social media sites. The ability to rapidly filter public comments, target, segment and respond to relevant posts can be critical in allowing businesses to protect their brand.

Leveraging built-in social analytics, organisations will also be able to prioritise interactions across any channel by keywords, topic areas or by social influence of the user that is posting and tailor support strategies to meet changing sentiments on the social web.

Cloud Migration

In the past, delivering the level of online engagement outlined above would have been out of the reach of most service organisations and particularly SMEs. Indeed, sceptical businesses would even have seen this kind of social networking activity as a threat to their reputation.

Today, however, the use of cloud-based applications to manage customer interactions has helped reverse the situation. Social networking is now rightly seen as opportunity rather than threat by most organisations, including many SMEs.

As consumers increasingly look to online service channels, the model for customer engagement is changing rapidly. If they wish to achieve business advantage, SMEs need to be aware of this and to take appropriate action. If they fail to do so, they risk being left behind by their competitors in the increasingly dynamic new world of online customer service.