The Future of Customer Service and the Rise of the Social Customer

First Direct logoFirst Direct is that rarest of breeds: a well-loved British bank. And their customer service, at least in my experience, is second to none. So it makes perfect sense for them to have co-authored a report, released today in partnership with It’s Open, that discusses how customer service departments need to evolve to keep pace with the emergence of social customers.

Future of Customer Service report imageBut first, what is a Social Customer? This term describes a growing population of customers who use the web to research and make purchases, as well as  seek after-sales support or advice. These customers think nothing  of sharing their views on products and services and routinely recommend products to others or air grievances when a product fails to live up to expectations. These consumers have very different expectations of customer service and represent a tribe that marketers can ill afford to ignore.

Let’s look at this group in a little more depth. The It’s Open report defines them as customers who are “naturally attracted to companies that are willing to participate in a two-way dialogue,” and calls out four hallmarks of this growing tribe:

Hallmarks of the Social Customer

Although only a small percentage of consumers use social media to complain about brands—only 2% use Twitter, for example—their potential reach can be large.

The only scalable and sustainable way to economically deal with the growing tide of social customers is to create what some, rather ambiguously, are calling a “Social Enterprise,” not to be confused with the other type of “Social Enterprise” which applies business strategies to achieve philanthropic goals.

In our context, a Social Enterprise is one which embraces a broad range of two-way communication channels to engage in conversations with customers in order to improve service levels and the overall satisfaction of its customers. This is an entirely commercially-driven objective whose  roots lie not in philanthropic goals but in a desire to maximise profits from social customers who may seek support from a multitude of channels.

The key to creating and enabling a Social Enterprise is held, without exception, by the company’s executive leadership team. It is only through the most senior leaders that the cultural change programme needed to shift decades of processes and structures can be tackled. The It’s Open report calls for boardrooms to move beyond “naive cynicism about social media” and recognise the financial benefits that an evolved customer service model can bring.

And if the boardroom holds the key to unlocking the social enterprise, it’s the middle ranking managers who, once given permission from the top, have the opportunity to ensure that a social web enabled mind-set can permeate every level of the company.

A common start point is to introduce Social CRM solutions that can help place customer services at the very heart of the enterprise. Accessible to all staff and capable of monitoring a broad, targeted spectrum of media channels, social CRM suites enable companies to listen and respond to customer voices in real time, converting prospects into buyers, buyers into advocates, and even complainants into advocates and repeat buyers:

The Transformative Power of Social CRM

The It’s Open report concludes with ten recommended actions for any company looking to adapt its customer service approach for our social future. It’s not an exhaustive or universally applicable list, but I encourage you to consider these steps carefully for your organisation:

  1. Appoint an executive team to oversee the transition to Social CRM
  2. Audit your social customers
  3. Identify relevant channels to reach these customers
  4. Create a multi-channel strategy for customer service
  5. Update staff training and communications guidelines
  6. Strengthen connections between customer service and key business units
  7. Define operational specification of social CRM
  8. Evaluate features and costs of shortlisted vendors
  9. Consultation period with chosen Social CRM vendor
  10. Establish metrics to assess performance

The trend is clear: few companies can afford to ignore the rise of the social customer. By making carefully planned and early changes, organisations can ensure they are well placed to cope with the channel-agnostic consumers of the future who will expect, if not demand, frictionless communication with every company that wants a slice of their spending power.

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