23/10/2011 18:40 BST | Updated 23/12/2011 05:12 GMT

How Customer Service has Been Turned Upside Down by Social Media

You no longer need to ring a company to complain about their products or services, they will get in touch with you because you complained publicly on Facebook or Twitter. This is turning the entire customer service model on its head.

If you write a comment on Twitter complaining about your BT broadband speed, a few minutes later @btcare will get in touch and ask how they can help. Super agents with a wide variety of skills are out there monitoring the social networks and jumping in to help customers when they are seen or heard complaining about BT services.

And it works. I didn't find out about the BT customer service model from a textbook, I complained about my broadband online and received immediate service from a knowledgeable agent. Contrast this with the pain of calling a customer service centre and enduring the 'Interactive' Voice Response (IVR) system... press 1 to hold longer, press 2 if you are fed up of this music...

This is turning the entire customer service model on its head. You no longer need to ring a company to complain about their products or services, they will get in touch with you because you complained publicly on Facebook or Twitter.

The team at @virginmedia has a policy of responding to everyone who mentions the company online. Even if the messages are negative, Virgin Media sees it as important to counter their critics with sardonic replies. One regular online critic of their cable TV service was invited to come down to their office for a coffee - he declined the invitation, but stopped posting further criticism.

One mother posted a recent message on Twitter telling Virgin Media how her day was ruined because the TV service was not working and her two-year-old could not understand why she was not able to watch Peppa Pig. The Virgin team not only rushed out an engineer to help, they ensured he was carrying a cuddly Peppa Pig toy for the upset customer.

These examples not only ensure that these companies are helping their customers, it allows them to convert complaining customers into brand advocates - customers who actively encourage their own friends to buy those services. Imagine what the mother of the Peppa Pig fan said to her friends later that day - it certainly would not be a conversation about the broken cable TV system.

More digitally aware consumers are now expecting brands to reach out to them without making the effort to call a customer service centre. But what does this mean for the companies who need to interact with their customers?

Calls to contact centres are declining and social network interactions are soaring causing an enormous change within the customer service industry. The skills needed to handle customers on Facebook, Twitter, email, instant messaging tools - and the telephone - are far greater than what was traditionally expected of a call centre agent.

So the agents in contact centres are going to be earning more, having a more rewarding experience as they help customers across all kinds of channels and the old days of a script-reading drone will soon be firmly in the past.

The biggest customer service company in the world, Teleperformance, knows this. They are finding more and more companies asking for help in remodelling a traditional customer service centre to the experience that twenty-first century consumers expect. More accustomed to supplying companies with big contact centres full of agents on the phone, they are now being asked to manage Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for their clients.

I chaired a conference in London last week that was hosted by Teleperformance and entirely focused on this subject, but when I talked to their UK chief executive, Alistair Niederer, it became clear that his own company is also being transformed because of social media.

"We recruit new people using Facebook and I have really started getting into Twitter this year. There is a community of people out there working in or advising my industry and I can just chat to them directly using Twitter. Why would I send out a newsletter to the industry analysts when I can tweet the people who are interested in my business directly? They probably wouldn't read the newsletter, but if I have a conversation with someone then it helps us both to understand each other," he explained.

The salient point here is the extent to which companies are being reshaped by social networking tools. Functions such as recruitment, public relations, analyst relations, and the entire customer service function are all being recast in a more interactive social form.

If your own company is not yet listening to what consumers are saying about you online, then try taking a look around some of the social networks. You might be surprised what you find.