Facebook can be fun, with everyone from teens to grandparents trolling for friends. And Twitter has captured the interest of the masses-all of whom are tweeting in 140-character microblogs about everything from what they had for breakfast to breaking news. For many, these tools still represent more of a diversion than a legitimate business tool.
However, social networking and social media are making significant inroads into the business practices of major organizations, not the least of which is improving customer support. Companies such as HP, Lyris, Jama Software, and Best Buy are early adopters of social media as a tool to allow customers to engage with each other to get their technical and customer service questions answered-impacting traffic to existing customer service and help desk functions and, even more importantly, improving service and cementing relationships in the process.
Growing Adoption by Companies Large and Small
Like so many of today's emerging content tools, deployment doesn't necessarily initiate from the top down. Consider @Twelpforce on Twitter, which was launched by a voluntary group of Best Buy employees. According to the site, it is "where our voices come together and where customers can come for answers." Those participating simply enter their Twitter ID, and they are added to the stream of other Best Buy employees who tweet.
Best Buy CMO Barry Judge blogged about the launch, saying: "Twelpforce is obviously an experiment. A very public one. And with this publicity comes a certain amount of risk. In my view, it is a risk well worth taking for many reasons." Those reasons included providing a resource for customers, a source of knowledge about customers for Best Buy, and, according to Judge, a way to "change our definition of customer service."
Based on the experience of Best Buy and others, it appears that customers like this new way of interacting with companies and with other customers as well.
John Simpson, an avid runner, is a member of the Nike+ online community, which is a virtual running club of more than a million runners around the world. Simpson says the community "isn't about Nike shoes or products directly, it's about the running lifestyle; runners, along with Nike employees, share challenges, stories, training tips, and routes." Of course, support topics about Nike shoes and products inevitably arise. But Simpson says Nike is "a company that gets it and makes the forum about the right thing first-engaging people in conversations ahead of products. You have to be confident as a company in your brand and products to know those transactions will follow if you build trust, listen, and share other conversations first."
Simpson himself is director of customer outreach for Jama Software. He says, "We compete head-to-head with big dogs like IBM, and one of the ways we differentiate ourselves is by being very open and collaborative with our customers." Jama has built a customer community for support called Jama Backstage, where users are brought inside the company for "honest dialogue," says Simpson.
Erick Mott is the communications director for Lyris, a provider of SaaS-based online marketing tools that has recently used its own product to support a "Twitter Team," which handles customer service requests via Twitter instead of over the phone. The team members are finding the Twitter approach to be less costly, more engaging, and even fun. Lyris HQ allows them to manage this process through a branded portal. When Lyris team members or clients log in to the marketing suite, they find a running Twitter feed with a built-in search box that allows them to actively track and respond to Twitter discussions in real time. Users can quickly monitor relevant conversations and take actions as appropriate.
Mott says he's been a marketer for 20 years and has always been focused on exploring ways to help customers. But he says, "This is the first time I've had so many conversations with them." Social media, he says, "represents a major shift in how businesses are interacting with and serving their customers."
The Business Case
For some businesses, social media seem to represent a ready-made opportunity for customers to interact with each other to fill information needs (technology, for instance). For others, the fit is not as apparent (financial institutions or healthcare organizations, for example). Yet the same might have been said at some point about the ability for consumers to interact via the internet with these organizations, which is now commonplace in these industries. The bottom line is that it makes sense for all organizations to remain aware of any emerging communication tools that can have a bottom-line impact on their operations.
"Social media won't replace the help desk," says Kelby Troutman of InkHouse Media + Marketing. However, she believes "it is transforming it."
Alison Fraser is a consultant based in Mississauga, Ontario, who has worked with a number of technology companies. Personally, says Fraser, "I almost never turn to a company's help desk or customer service department now because it's faster to Google my question than find a number, sit on hold, and inevitably be asked 10 stupid questions before I get to ask my question." She continues, pointing out that she feels that social media "is honest. Many times," she says, "my problem is one that the company won't admit, has ‘never heard of' or just can't answer properly. There are a lot of people out there willing to write down how they solved a problem or [who] have a workaround-including when they got a refund or replacement product." Lastly, she says that the social media approach has a clear price advantage for customers: "It's free. Too many companies won't help you unless you are within a certain period of purchase or have paid support."
However, Laurent Duperval, president of Duperval Consulting in Montreal, cautions that it is not time to replace help desks with social media. "Many people still require person-to-person contact when they are asking for help," he says. "While eventually newer generations will be comfortable enough with the technology to forego discussions with live human beings, we aren't there yet. For the foreseeable future, companies will need to keep actual human beings available to help their customers."
Still, for many companies, now is the time to begin exploring the possibilities that social media may hold for improving service and interactions with customers and building user communities that can have a positive brand impact.
Catching Up With Customers
HP is one company that has already jumped into the social media fray. Lois Townsend is a social media strategist for HP's consumer support organization. In November 2008, HP launched a forum that includes a revamped global online support forum, an updated HP Customer Care site, free online classes, and a series of how-to videos. Now, instead of dialing the customer support line to ask a question about their PC or printer, customers hit the keyboard to ask fellow HP users who are in the forum or who are checking out HP.com for free how-to videos. Not only are forums helping resolve customer issues quickly and conveniently but they're bringing HP employees closer to the customers, says Townsend.
"We've seen data from our own customer base that about 75% of our customers prefer to solve problems on the web in some way, shape, or another. They want to talk to one another and not necessarily the manufacturer," says Townsend. "We wanted to provide a platform where they can do just that."
In addition to providing customers with a forum to share information and engage in conversations, Townsend says, "We can tap into everything that they are already saying and then either respond directly to them online in the forum or take away that information and have the opportunity to impact even greater numbers of customers by either creating some new content or taking some of the customer comments back to the product engineering group."
JoAnne Ravielli is VP of customer service for Infusionsoft, a small tech company that provides a sales and marketing solution to a rapidly growing number of small clients. Clients are small businesses, often with five users or less, such as insurance agents, the car wash industry, or internet marketers. With only a few employees dedicated to sales and customer service and more than 14,000 users, the company needed an efficient system for managing interactions. After evaluating multiple approaches and technologies including wikis, forums, and traditional customer relationship management systems, Infusionsoft selected Helpstream, a community-driven customer service solution.
Solutions such as Helpstream go far beyond the functionality of the "original forums," according to Bill Odell, Helpstream's VP of marketing. "From the content standpoint, it's really powerful to have this level of sophistication built into a community as opposed to the old-line forums which really didn't help customer service issues at all." Tools such as Helpstream allow users to search for answers based on search terms and
to select responses that have been "voted on" by other users to quickly find those that have been judged most helpful. Or they can post new questions or problems, which, if they go unanswered for established periods of time, escalate into service tickets to prompt a company response.
A big benefit for companies using these systems is the ability to generate useful content on an ongoing basis; content created not necessarily by the company but by users whose collective knowledge can be extremely valuable. In addition, through monitoring the activity in these communities, companies learn about customer concerns and interests and can even be inspired by new ideas, prompting proactivity and product or service innovations.
Those companies that have not yet begun to consider how social media and other tools could augment their help desk or customer service efforts may have some catching up to do. In fact, the train, as they say, may have already left the station when it comes to the use of social media by the general public, making the decision of whether to participate somewhat of a moot point, says Jeff Catlin, CEO of Lexalytics. The company makes software and technology that is used to analyze, understand, and react to information contained within a variety of content sources. "You can't avoid Twitter. You can't avoid blogs and the stuff that's going on," says Catlin. "People will find the forums online and it may not be your forum for your company. You need to be able to mine that stuff and then figure out how you're going to deal with it."
Transparency a Given, Monitoring a Must
One of the areas of hesitancy for companies that have not yet embraced the opportunities that social media might present is the loss of control. In social media environments, transparency is not an option-it's a given.
Catlin says companies need to ask themselves: "Do we actually want to know what people are saying so we can react to it quickly or not?" But the value of this openness is tremendous, he says. "It's where you're going to get unabashed opinions and very frank and open discussion. Smart companies really want to know what people are saying."
Aaron Strout, CMO of Powered, a social marketing company, believes adoption will continue to grow. "Over the next 5 years, I'd be surprised if at least 50% of all of the Fortune 500 [companies] don't make some foray into either passively or actively tapping into these channels to start to augment their existing customer service," he says.
Of course, whether they choose to participate in social media or not, their customers are likely to. As Fraser's comments suggest, even if organizations are not doing anything proactively to establish forums that allow customers to interact online, it is imperative that they at least be aware of the forums where their customers may be gathering.
As the social media tools proliferate and become easier to use, so do those who help companies monitor them.
Dave Conklin, co-owner and president of internet marketing strategies for ProspectMX, says, "We have seen many cases of customer service issues arising inside of the ‘Twitter-sphere' and have watched the companies that are being complained about completely ignore the issues. To the millions of people who use Twitter, this is insulting."
Conklin encourages companies to monitor online activity through free tools such as TweetDeck. "With TweetDeck, you can constantly monitor any mention of your company's name and reply quickly." Another tool to keep tabs on what is being said about your company is Google Alerts. "You can then reply directly on the sites where this information is appearing," he says.
The reality, according to Strout, is that "people are already talking about you and already putting their customer service issues out there. Not engaging is really not a good option."
While using social media as a customer service tool is not all about technology, technology can be used to manage, and learn from, the online conversations that take place. Software applications provide functionality to streamline inputs for the ease of both the company and the users.
"One of the things we sought out was really choosing a best-in-class platform," says Townsend. "We looked for things like ways for customers to very easily find answers and also ways for our own administrators to mark the correct answer so they can make ‘accepted solutions' so customers can quickly go to just the answer and not [have to] read through copious amount of content."
Socializing With Customers
However, while technology is an important component of an effective process, people are even more important. "To work well, a customer forum must be a companywide initiative and have executive support," says Simpson. "You can't hand the forum to an intern or entry-level customer service reps and expect this to hold up."
Strout agrees and says the worst thing a company can do is "put something out there for a few months and then abandon it. You've got to make sure you have the organizational chops to commit to doing something like this," he says.
Simpson suggests companies assign a senior-level owner to the community. "In our case, one of our co-founders and product leads spends half of his time providing customer support and participating in the forum," says Simpson. In addition, he says, "Every employee at Jama devotes time to this initiative every week-from [the] CEO to marketing to product management to [the] development team to pro services and support. We all participate and add content. It has to be a shared commitment."
The results can be well worth the effort as Infusionsoft has discovered. Since implementing its system, Infusionsoft has seen a 50% reduction in case volume with 54% of service issues solved through self-service (online materials) and 30% through the online community of users.
The shift is significant in terms of not only providing exceptional service to customers but also in terms of decreasing the need for company support which comes at a more significant expense than the type of "self-service" allowed through social media and community interactions.
The Bottom Line
Will social media replace the help desk? No, but it certainly appears to offer some opportunities to reduce costs, improve service, and enhance the ability for companies to listen and learn from communities they did not previously have access to.
As Jay Hemmady, a technology consultant in Portland, Ore., points out, social media really just represents a further evolution of the various opportunities for interaction between customers and companies, and this is an important point to keep in mind.
"Back in the dark ages, people walked up to the help desk for help. When the telephone was invented, it was used as a tool to help with communication. More recently, email and the web interface have been added to make access and communication easier."
Strout agrees. While an online user forum doesn't necessarily replace customer service calls, he says, "What it does do is answer a lot of the lower-value questions or high-volume questions and allows reps to triage more-complex questions. That's good for the customer, good for the reps, and good for the company."