For some companies, this may mean re-evaluating the traditional role and responsibilities of call center agents. While they have traditionally been responsible for providing customer service over the phone, social customer service has often been handled by separate teams.
But increasingly, customers want real-time, high-touch, high-quality service wherever they are -- on Facebook or Twitter, on a company website, and from their smartphones.
"It's the age of the customer," said Forrester Research Inc. principal analyst Kate Leggett. "They control it by the touchpoint that they use, whether it's mobile or tablet or regular phone ... and social is part of that mix."
While social customer service is still a fraction of customer interaction in the contact center -- the average is about 10% for the companies interviewed for this story -- the fast-moving train of social customer interaction is growing. In mid-2012, Gartner predicted that engaging with customer inquiries via social channels would become "as important as phone and email" by 2014.
Those that don't, said Carol Rozwell, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc., "will face the same wrath" as those that ignore phone calls today. And there is a real question about whether a division of labor between contact center agents and social teams could create too fractured a view of the customer.
A division of labor for customer service
Companies have made different decisions about how to bring social customer service into the contact center. Some see phone-based and social media-based customer care as requiring fundamentally different skill sets.
"Contact centers want people to do everything: answer texts to social media to phone calls," said Alesia Stochel, general manager at Viator Inc., a travel booking company with a global call center in Las Vegas. "I'm not a believer of that. I think it's a totally different skill set. My social media department handles social media. My contact center agents handle phone calls."
The call center uses a homegrown CRM system to document customer service interactions that include social media, email and phone calls. Stochel said that while teams are separate, the social team is embedded in the contact center so that agents can collaborate with them on customer service. "That's why the customer service social media team is in the contact center," she said. "So there is room for discussion and closely monitoring it so there's not that separation."
Because the company puts primacy on customer service and sees social as a growing channel, even executives have an eye on the social stream. "From the CEO to myself, we're monitoring it very closely to make sure there are no blunders going on," Stochel said. "We have all eyes on it."
By the same token, Viator's data from social media platforms is not yet integrated with its homegrown CRM system. And this may be the direction in which successful companies head to get a 360-degree customer view.
"It isn't bad to have different agents on different channels as long as the history is properly recorded and available to all agents irrespective of the channel," Forrester's Leggett said. "You need documentation of the whole history of any interaction," she said.
A combined view of the customer
Other companies see social customer care as part of a large company vision; they want to create a seamless customer experience regardless of channel. They combine contact center and social communication to create consistent service among channels, to build more passionate advocates for their products and because they can report back to the business using social metrics.
At Columbus, Ohio-based JackThreads, an online site for discounted private-label menswear, members of the contact-center agent team are also part of the social media customer-service team. According to David Tull, customer engagement manager at JackThreads, creating a consistent, engaged experience for customers has resulted in some agents -- though not all -- being trained to interact with customers regardless of the channel.
JackThreads uses Conversocial, a cloud-based platform that aggregates social media interactions, which gives agents a consolidated view of all the interactions on various social platforms and prioritizes agents' follow-ups. "We don't have to hop around between different channels to find what we need," Tull said. It also "allows us to prioritize certain types of interactions based on keywords ... so it brings important service inquiries up to the top and prioritizes them," he said.
According to Tull, centralizing social customer service with other functions in the contact center creates a more unified and consistent customer experience and, ultimately, better customer service. "We don't want them to have such a wildly better experience on social than they do over phones that they stop trusting one channel," he said.
Delivering value to the business
According to Tull, agents' ability to tap into social media analytics, such as metrics on customer preferences and product suggestions, has been invaluable. He said that with analytics, the call center can provide invaluable data on customer preferences, products and the brand as a whole. JackThreads aggregates data from all its channels to identify opportunities, including sizing and fit adjustments to its private-label menswear, for example.
Forrester's Leggett agreed that the social environment can be a critical source of feedback in product innovation and crowdsourcing. Social media-generated data, she noted, can also address broken processes and make companies more customer focused. Customers can even take a product in a new direction.
While distinct roles and blended roles for contact center agents may continue to exist alongside each other, experts like Leggett said that there is no turning back from social customer care. Like it or not, social has permeated the contact center. "I see social agents moving more into the contact center -- whether you have specific teams of social agents dedicated to the social channels or blended agents," she said.
This reality may be partly because executives are finally deriving ROI from social platforms and their data. By feeding information about customer preferences to executives, JackThreads can potentially improve its business.
"We're not just a cost," Tull said of the contact center. "We want to be a revenue driver and a way the business can learn."
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