30/03/2012 06:35 BST | Updated 28/05/2012 06:12 BST

Social Media is Leading a Customer Service Revolution

There is about to be a revolution in the customer service industry, but it is creeping up slowly on customers and those who manage the contact centres. Like the frog that can be slowly boiled to death, if those in the customer care industry step back and look at how customers are starting to ask for help they would behave very differently.

Traditionally the customer service department in any industry focused on managing complaints, compliments, or enquiries. It would be based on answering letters from customers and phone calls - usually at a dedicated contact centre. More recently, customer service channels have expanded to include emails and online chat, but whether the customer gets in touch by email or phone, they get in touch. The customer comes to the brand.

With the onset of social media things have changed. A customer receiving poor treatment by a retailer or airline might publish their opinion on Facebook or Twitter before ever thinking of calling the customer care number.

Brands are now monitoring the online buzz and proactively helping customers who complain. In the UK, the @btcare Twitter account is a very good example. Many BT customers have found it easier to Tweet their problem than to navigate the various options presented by the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system - press 1 for this and 2 for that... the inventor of IVR surely deserves an eternity in purgatory for annoying more members of the human race than any similar invention.

Melissa O'Brien, 
Research Analyst, Contact Center Services at IDC explains this change in customer expectation: "
The world of customer care is changing rapidly due to the increasing popularity of non-voice channels including social media. Social media has previously been regarded as largely a channel for marketing, but more and more companies are seeing this as an opportunity for customer care, and the lines between the two are blurring. Now we see traditional customer care companies competing with the marketing and PR firms of the world for this social interaction type of work," she said.

But this proactive business model - finding customers who are not happy before they ever complain via an official channel - changes the entire nature of how the customer experience industry functions.

The first big change is the buyer of the contact centre service. It will no longer be the head of customer service commissioning a big contact centre project, because this is no longer limited to customer care. The old contact centre calls were always one-to-one. If mistakes were made then a recording could be consulted, but essentially the customer to brand conversation was private.

This is no longer true. Interactions are public, transparent, and if an agent says something foolish, or makes a promise you cannot deliver on then every friend and follower of the customer can broadcast that rash promise. Likewise, friends who 'like' what they see can pass on a recommendation - amplifying great service. The customer care team have to work under the full glare and attention of every single customer of your brand every time they publish a comment.

So this means that marketing will need to be involved in structuring how the customer service team operates. And assuming that some of those customers might be journalists, the PR team is probably also involved.

And how is this all priced? Traditional contact centres are charged by pricing the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) on the project. Basically you can calculate how many bodies are on seats at a certain rate multiplied by the days in the month and that's the contact centre cost for the month.

In the social environment this doesn't work. Sure you could have two or three agents scanning Twitter, engaging with customers, and covering off the social media channels. But does an agent - or analyst - studying data and trends then engaging with customers in a very transparent way get charged out in the same way as a regular contact centre agent?

Perhaps they do, just at a more expensive FTE rate, but this fails to acknowledge the enormous value great analysts can offer and the positive effect they can have on your brand. Not to mention how they can directly influence and improve sales. The classical FTE model just doesn't work for team members who are marketing the brand in addition to handling queries. These analysts can make or break your brand.

So who is going to be offering services in this brave new world of customer care? Is it the companies that are already operating contact centres or companies that are responsible for building brands and marketing campaigns?

It could be either. On one hand you have the experts in brand and reputation management, who could probably outsource the basic contact centre work, allowing them to focus on the social interactions. But if an existing expert in customer care could extend their reach into the social web then it would be a very interesting business proposition.

Melissa O'Brien of IDC agrees. "I feel that customer care companies have a unique advantage over traditional marketing firms for this type of engagement in that they specialise in the customer experience, which is becoming increasingly important on the social channel. So there is a lot of opportunity out there for customer care providers to leverage their expertise in this new and growing channel for care," she said.

But this assumes that the contact centre operators are not only capable of stepping up and getting social, they also need to realise that they don't have a monopoly on customer service. Their new competitors are firms known for marketing, advertising, and PR - not other contact centre and business process outsourcing outfits.

The customer experience industry is changing beyond all recognition and it is moving fast. I'm sure that by the end of this decade, there will be some surprising blood on the tracks - and some interesting giant-killers emerging from completely outside the present-day customer experience.