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Chatter growing louder, more call centers see value of social media

Albert McKeon

With 3.3 million people driving the E-470, a no-cash toll highway outside Denver, it’s not unusual for some of them to gripe about cameras recording the movement of their cars.

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But not every aggrieved motorist picks up the phone; some like to express their beefs on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The E-470 Public Highway Authority, which monitors social network chatter almost as closely as it does cars, responds to all those complaints and makes the most of its customer experience management (CEM) system.

“Social media: If you’re not plugging into it, you’re a little deaf,” said Dave Kristick, deputy executive director of the E-470 authority.

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Kristick attended the ACCE 2012 conference and expo last week in Seattle. He was one of many call center supervisors there who said they want to avoid the prospect of becoming deaf and blind to the questions and concerns of their customers.

In the last few years, call center managers have gone from viewing social media with hesitation to recognizing its importance in CEM, according to many people interviewed at the expo.

Customer experience management use cases 
Many companies have moved beyond the initial use of social media channels to market products and now have call centers communicating with customers through those channels as well -- answering general questions and offering a direct contact to customers with specific complaints.

Activision Bizzard, for one, realized it would never know what its customers are thinking if it didn’t go social, according to the video game company’s senior director of customer service, Tim Rondeau.

Young video game players “are our customer base,” he said. “We were forced into [social media]. At first we were not as thoughtful about it, but now we are.”

Each of the company’s 14 game studios has a community manager soliciting customer opinions about games through social media platforms, and Rondeau has a separate team of 10 employees reviewing tweets and other social messages to handle problems.

Still, some companies remain leery about exploring Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and other sites.

Gregg McMullen, the technical strategies leader for the social media tracking software company Radian6, says businesses are placing a wall between traditional customer outreach tools -- like telephones -- and Web-based social media sites. Companies cite several reasons for not using social media, including firewall issues, routing deficiencies and desktop limitations, McMullen said in a talk at the expo.

But the old school and new school approaches may not be as different as people tend to think, McMullen told the audience. Most businesses work hard to ensure that customers who dial their customer service numbers get an answer, he said, yet many company let tweets go unanswered all day.

The E-470 highway authority uses Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to promote price discounts on transponders or for announcing construction work on the highway. But it also uses Radian6 software to track social chatter about the toll road and respond accordingly.

More than 3.3 million motorists drive the 47-mile-long highway in the metropolitan Denver area. It’s a cash-free toll system, so about 900,000 of those drivers use transponders, while the rest have their license plates tracked by cameras.

Some people will dispute their cars were on the toll road, among other complaints, and will blast their grievances on social networks. The Radian6 program allows the highway authority to track certain keywords, collate any related social comments and route those flagged messages to call center agents, who then contact the customer, Kristick said.

After establishing a connection with customers, the E-470 staff occasionally invites toll customers into the authority’s Aurora, Colo., headquarters to see how the center operates, including a peek at the monitors that capture license plate images. And they get a free lunch.

“Customers talk good and bad. But others see that and react,” Kristick said. “It’s chattering you may have never heard before, but now you do.”

How to connect: Attitudes vary
Jason Curtis spots fewer tweets directed at his company, but he’s still monitoring Twitter. Curtis is the customer service manager for Magazines.com, a Nashville, Tenn., company licensed to sell discounted magazine subscriptions.

When a customer does use social media to relay a problem, Curtis offers his contact information so that the customer will take the conversation out of the public domain and he can take a one-on-one approach.

In his ACCE talk, McMullen urged call center employees to not directly respond to tweets but rather send direct messages, even though some in the CEM field believe a company tweeting detailed responses to problems demonstrates transparency.

Not everyone is at that stage of the game. A few call center managers who attended the ACCE expo recognize the importance of interacting with customers through social media, but they believe the nature of their work limits how much they can say in a tweet.

For instance, Heritage Bank in Tacoma, Wash., has considered getting active in social media but finds that its customers rarely use social media platforms to relay banking issues, said Chad Maiuri, a regional branch manager. “It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of resources if it isn’t getting that end of our clients,” he said.

Similarly, a health care plan in Florida -- Physicians United Plan (PUP) -- sees no need to monitor the social sphere. Most of the senior citizens under the health plan aren’t using social media, said Martha Agramonte, a customer service manager for PUP. But social media will make sense for PUP in the future as younger generations age, she said.


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