Call Center Technology

Hearing (and Heeding) Social Customer Commands

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  January 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions Magazine.

If customers are now the royalty of the marketplace, deciding what, when and how much they will buy – rather than having their wants dictated by advertisers and marketers – social media has become their herald, through which they issue proclamations on what they like and dislike, bellowed and heard throughout the realms. These highnesses take a direct interest in their subjects, including their suppliers, as they should. And they want to be known, respected and be paid due deference.

Those companies that pay heed to the royalties’ words and welcome their participation will be bestowed with riches and honors. Woe will befall those who do not listen to or acknowledge their concerns; these procurers will be denounced and banished.

“Customers have been talked ‘at’ not ‘with’ by companies and brands for years,” explain Denise Meyer, product solutions manager and Jennifer Wilson, product manager, Interactive Intelligence.

“As a result, they have become somewhat disconnected from those they do business with and miss the interaction with actual people and the feeling they get from direct recognition.” “Social media gives customers a venue to create relationships virtually. It has therefore altered the [marketplace] balance of power.”


Lowering the Drawbridges

Enabling the royal customers’ voices to be heard is still easier said than done. Social channel tools are still being developed and refined, along with an understanding of how best to use them. Many companies have not expanded out of the mass marketing mentality; they treat social like the Web, radio, TV and print, as a one-way medium without understanding that social is two-way channel and it is their customers – not them – that dictate the traffic.

“The industry is still in the very early stages of using social media as a customer service method,” reports Jorge Blanco, Avaya vice president product marketing, contact center solutions. “What cannot be dismissed is that this method of interaction is rapidly changing how we are communicating.”

Social media opens the door to new service and prospecting techniques, among them responding to comments on social sites and hosting and moderating participatory communities. Applications such as file sharing, ideation, and discussions allow both company participants and community members to contribute to knowledge sharing that can be accessible throughout enterprises, according to Jody Petruzziello, vice president of product at Mzinga. The upsides are stronger customer loyalty and, with it, potentially higher revenues, while reducing customer service and support costs through the communities resolving issues themselves.

Moderating social discussions are key as this drives conversations to productive results by engaging customers and influencing these interactions to ensure that they are value-added, says Petruzziello. Moderation can take multiple forms but, most commonly, it includes companies monitoring and participating in live, interactive conversations to stay within brand policies, and also empowering community members to report concerns about inappropriate content. On some sites, such as those about or aimed at children, firms can pre-screen or what she calls “premoderation” to avoid exposure to harmful content.

At the same time, social media must be connected to all facets of organizations – not just marketing, but also to sales, billing, shipping and customer service and support, and across multiple channels, including voice, e-mail, chat and in-person. Like royalty, customers expect that, when they interact with an outfit, everyone in every office or outlet knows in a couple of clicks who they are and do what it takes quickly to meet their needs. They do not have kind responses to the phrase, “It’s not my department.”

Unfortunately, that’s the reaction customers get in too many firms. Anand Subramaniam, vice president, worldwide marketing, eGain, points out that businesses have generally yet to fully deliver on the promise of consistently delivered multichannel customer service. He cites a 2010 mystery-shopping benchmark study of 175 leading North American businesses across seven industry sectors, which found that most scored “poor” or “below average” in this experience.

“The last thing businesses would want to do now is create a new, high-visibility silo in social that is disconnected from the rest of the contact center and the overall business,” he warns.

Firms also need to be aware that customer royalty can and do abuse their power, just like their kin in their nations’ palaces. Subramaniam explains that these despots go social or use the social threat to extract better deals from firms. He recommends dealing with them in a fair, constructive and consistent way that does not hurt one’s business, valuable customers or brand, and by taking a consistent and unified approach to customer service. This also enables firms to take explosive social conversations private, into to one-on-one channels for discreet resolution, without losing context.

There is, then, a vital need to sensitize departments – from head offices to engineering/production, from contact centers to field sales and support – to the impact social media comments can have on the entire organization, Blanco points out. A customer complaint on a Facebook (News - Alert) page can light up phone lines or prompt remarks from prospects or customers at sales counters.

One promising route to linking social customers and interactions with their providers is by assigning and attributing values to their social channel behaviors and characteristics. That includes changing the notion of customer value to include social community member engagement and influence, suggests Petruzziello. This is accomplished by identifying the members who are most actively participating in community interactions and those whose content and online behaviors have the most influence on others’ participation and contributions.

Another is tweaking CRM applications. Lisa Abbott, senior product marketing manager, Genesys, an Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) company, advises modifying CRM records to enable customer tracking by Facebook handles or Twitter addresses alone, until these can be associated with specific customer records.

“If a customer who has commented about a firm on social media later calls the contact center, that agent should understand what interaction took place in social media and what the resolution or response was,” she says.


Contact center Impacts, and Changes

The advent of this social and in-charge customer is forcing changes in how contact centers interact with them. One of the biggest is that firms must dramatically widen their listening frequencies from one-on-one conversations via calls and e-mails to the vast network of social sites. There is a vast amount of information – comments and inputs in social media – that, if not properly filtered and channeled, can overwhelm organizations.

To tune in to the social customer, social media monitoring tools are increasingly becoming more robust and feature-rich. Radian6’s monitoring and engagement platform has been enhanced with the ability to process the entire Twitter “Firehose” – 90 million tweets per day – in real time. It also offers proximity search functionality, which enables users to define topics matching keywords based on how close they are to each other in a post, capturing relevant mentions.

Avaya is seeing firms focus their social channel efforts on listening to what customers are saying, filtering conversations, and then converting them to service delivery sessions, so that they can quickly and accurately respond to those elements that can impact one’s brand. It has applied these methods in its customer interactions.

“With this approach and the right tools, we have been able to use social media to discover new sales opportunities as well as help answer customers’ questions on a particular product faster,” recounts Blanco. “By listening, filtering and finding out what is needed to resolve a specific situation, we converted them from a dissatisfied to a satisfied customer. That is the power of social media – and the crucial channel it has become for accurately understanding and addressing customer needs quickly.”

Informing the Agents

Another critical change is that agents need to know or rapidly find out what is going on in all facets of their organizations, for they are typically the first – and, often, the only – human points of contact, making them virtual concierges or guides. Genesys’ (News - Alert) Abbott reports that businesses and consumers are much more educated on issues, having done extensive research, including reviewing social media sites.

“Customers are seeking more advanced responses from agents ASAP, and the typical trite, scripted replies aren’t going to work in these situations,” Abbott points out. “Agents need to have a holistic view of the policies, products, services and procedures for the entire company. The ‘new agents’ are akin to guides – they are there to assist customers in the navigation needed to resolve their questions.”

With this, organizations need to move to a “heads-up” role from a real-time model of what is happening with customers and, by leveraging analytics, predict what is likely to happen, so they can react and proactively act effectively. Engaging with the social customer requires training on how to listen and act on comments, including recognizing sentiment and enthusiasm for brands. Agents (and moderators) must understand what is being said and which messages are really actionable. They must also have the skills to accurately and rapidly respond to them.

When a customer posts on a social media site, “I hate Firm XXX,” contact centers cannot do much with that, says Abbott. But, if they say “I hate XXX because I have problems programming the DVR,” the comments become actionable.

The public and immediate nature of social media makes it unique compared to other channels. There is a greater need to ensure responses are well-structured and timely, Abbott points out. Social media has a short shelf life and, for that reason, traditional service level metrics are not sufficient for social media engagements.

“Some companies would say that social media is 24/7 and, depending upon the question or issue, the sentiment and influence of the author or site, that will drive the immediacy of the response,” says Abbott.

There are new tools to help organizations and their contact centers enable effective interactions with today’s all-important, all-powerful social customers. Genesys’ Social Engagement solution monitors popular social sites, utilizes the appropriate analytics to determine messages’ actionability and sentiment, while taking into account the authors’ influence. Those requiring responses will then be prioritized and managed against service level objectives and routed to the most appropriate resources. Key trends can be discovered through the real-time display and historical reporting of metrics from the social sphere.

The biggest change that is needed to engage with social customers is bringing agents out from the anonymity of their cubicles into the “royal courts” and shifting the focus of their work from getting the customers off the phones and online to build business relationships. Abbott recommends that companies consider, as Wells Fargo has done, creating expert teams, whose members’ names and faces appear on their firms’ sites.

“Social media about building relationships and that means making sure you are accessible and transparent,” Abbott points out. “That means giving customers an experience akin to face-to-face, so that you know and can understand their issues on a first-name basis.”

[Sidebar] B2B, B2C and Nonprofit Social Channel Differences

B2B, B2C and nonprofit organizations have different market and service strategies, which extend into the social realm.

Denise Meyer, product solutions manager, and Jennifer Wilson, product manager, Interactive Intelligence explain:

• Blogs and podcasts work better for B2B brands because they require a certain level of prior knowledge and interest. The effort required to follow them mean the audience already has an interest in the industry

• B2C brands took an early lead on microblogging (a.k.a. Twitter) as a channel to deliver customer service and as a marketing tool. B2B brands have now started to mirror their success with it. Nonprofits leverage Twitter to spread the word about their latest campaigns to raise funds, and to give their followers a “voice” to further demonstrate support for their cause

• There are some social networks that are designed specifically for B2B brands (e.g., LinkedIn (News - Alert) and Plaxo). Most, though, are better suited for B2C and nonprofit brands, due to the types of interactions they support, such as interactive games. B2B expectations need to be different. Two-way communication may be slower, or rare, and they will not gather a million fans overnight. B2B brands typically focus efforts based on their business model, whereas B2C brands tend to be less targeted and seek mass followers and fans – whatever expands their base with a much broader target market in mind

• Video sharing sites, such as Vimeo (News - Alert) and YouTube, are quickly becoming equally suited for all brands. Yet, considering the types of videos that go “viral” and that it is often used as a success factor, B2C brands may find this channel better suited for them. They often have the flexibility to produce off-the-wall, unexpected videos with mass consumer appeal that serve as campaigns in and of themselves. For B2B brands and nonprofits, this channel is often used to support a campaign, rather than serve as the campaign itself

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:



Genesys (Alcatel-Lucent)




Interactive Intelligence