By Clay Browne
Social media has already come to impact almost every aspect of modern society. The ability to create and share content with an almost unlimited number of people has revolutionized the way people communicate and interact. Internet-based social media means that individuals are no longer limited to choosing from a narrow spectrum of communication channels to express themselves, you are free to choose any channel as you see fit, based on your needs and situation.
The different forms of social media include e-zines, Internet forums, blogging and microblogging, podcasts, sharing photographs or video, rating sites, and of course social media websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This new-found ability to instantly express ourselves has changed society profoundly and also changed the way we think about our relationships with others. And the social media revolution has barely begun.
How social media will impact will define our relationships with (and our very conception of) others, but it is most certainly having a major impact on how businesses operate and how they maintain their relationships with their customers.
The Emergence of the Social Customer
Social customers expect business relationships to be more than transactional. Unlike traditional customers, who are used to a highly transactional purchasing model where they have relatively little interaction with the business outside of the specific retail context, social customers expect a deeper, interactive relationship with businesses both before and after transaction.
Social customers are avid social media users, and companies that want the business of social customers have to engage with them via social media. This need to connect with customers through social media has created a new a paradigm in customer service and the CRM industry – the development of multi-channel social contact centers and the socially-enabled enterprise.
Social Contact Centers
The call center of the past is rapidly morphing into the social contact center of the future. A social contact center is designed to interact with customers using all of the traditional communication channels (voice, email, messaging, fax) as well as through the new social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other developing mobile platforms.
Companies that have deployed social contact centers have reported a wide range of benefits from engaging with their customers, not the least of which is increased sales. Another key benefit is the brand loyalty that can be developed by staying closely tuned to the needs/desires of your customer. The information gleaned from social media interactions with customers can also be used as marketing research data points. Staying in tune with the social community and its sentiment about your company and its products gives you important information in fine-tuning a marketing campaign or a new product launch.
The above benefits notwithstanding, social contact centers are not a panacea. Setting up a social call center is a relatively expensive proposition, both in terms of requiring more skilled/tech savvy employees and the extensive training required, and usefully quantifying the information gathered through social media remains a significant problem. Another consideration is that clumsy social media use can damage rather than improve brand loyalty, so maintaining a cohesive message as well as sensitivity to context is critical in your social media interactions.
Implications for the Industry
The customer feedback received through call centers has been a cornerstone in the development of structured data for use in CRM, but many of the interactions with customers using social media are much less structured and therefore not as useful for CRM purposes. It is likely that people will figure out ways to capture and structure much of this data as the industry matures, but how to derive maximum value from social media data remains a major issue for the industry today.
Although not discussed much as of yet, labor costs are inevitably going to become a larger issue in the growth of social call centers. The primary issue here is the fact that you need native speaker, social media-savvy employees in a social call center, and that kind of employee does not come cheap even in the current weak labor market. Training is also going to be a significant cost, particularly if the plan is to train traditional call center employees in the use of social media.
Social contact centers certainly have the potential to upset the apple cart of the traditional outsourced/offshore call center. Even if the big outsourcing firms eventually manage to create real Western consumer-centric social contact centers offshore, they are certain to be considerably more expensive than today’s highly commoditized offshore call centers.
It will ultimately boil down to the value of the data produced by social contact centers. If social contact centers can significantly increase brand loyalty and produce useful data for CRM and marketing purposes, then they are likely to become the norm despite the additional costs.
The Socially-Enabled Enterprise
Some in the CRM industry, including consultant and strategist Natalie Petouhoff, have argued that the social contact center and similar initiatives are the first step in the evolution of a new form of business – the socially-enabled enterprise. This new business model moves beyond just focusing on CRM, and enables an entire enterprise to exploit the valuable data gathered by social contact centers. The socially enabled business is literally tuned into the needs of its customers so it can continue to evolve to meet their changing expectations.