Social isn’t just bringing new skills to customer service – it can also change its function

Picture the situation: your firm is an airline, a customer enraged by the delay in getting back to him about lost baggage pays to promote a tweet about the ‘horrendous’ customer service. It gets seen by 76,000 people, what do you do?

Well, if you’re British Airways, you take eight hours to reply, enrage him all the more with your excuse, and carve out your own little corner of Internet infamy.

Customer Services may once have been the preserve of call centres but now, thanks to social media, it has become a high-stakes game. Not only do firms have to deal with a new channel, they also have to deal with a new culture. Now, customer grievances and the responses they bring are aired in public. If your firm gets it wrong it could end up like BA – with a black mark that (despite all recent improvements to social customer service) remains shareable and searchable.

Either with in-house teams, or through social monitoring agencies, brands can now use tools to measure the impact of their interactions with customers and sentiment across a range of social sites. For recruiters charged with hiring new Customer Service talent, this social ‘listening’ requires new analytical skills that previously only existed in other public-facing departments (such as PR and Marketing). Customer Service departments will also now have to acquire the skills for interacting with customers across social media, rather than just on the phone.

Despite this new reality, many firms have been reluctant or slow to see the value in shifting customer relations to social media and measuring the impact, but there are several very good reasons why they should get started.

The key reason, says Forbes Magazine, is that communication is immediate. It’s also more personal and relatively easy. But perhaps just as vital is that the transparency of communicating across social media can be a promotional tool in itself. If others see your firm dealing with problems in a timely and professional manner, that can only be good.

Of course, the selfish (but no less important) reason for using social media as a key Customer Service tool is that users of networks like Twitter and Facebook are more likely to share their experiences online, and if you’re not there to talk to them, the message is more likely to be negative.

But the impact of social media on Customer Services isn’t just an engagement issue. It has the possibility of leading to a more fundamental change to how Customer Services works alongside other departments in an organisation.

As a consequence of the disruption caused by social media, the agendas and working practises of all customer facing teams – Customer Services, Marketing, and PR – have been brought together.

The theory goes that bad online customer service (as detailed above) becomes a PR issue once people are discussing and writing about it, and similarly, if you’re customer service is excellent and noteworthy, it can become a reliable source of viral marketing as users tell each other about your high standards.

The so-called ‘One Agenda’ era, says NewVoiceMedia’s Outlook for Social Customer Service report, means Customer Services has the potential to evolve into a role more commonly associated with peer-to-peer support communities, in that they will be the link between customers and ‘anyone that fixes stuff’ or those departments tasked with innovating as a result of customer feedback.

“This changes another fundamental in terms of Customer Services’ internal social standing,” says the report. “Instead of being seen as separate and removed from the core commercial goals of the organisation, they become an indispensable partner. Others start to recognise that their work is noticed by customers who become more or less likely to do business as a result. CS’s internal value is thus transformed.”

In essence, the report says, instead of being a ‘tactical cost’, Customer Services can be re-invented in the digital age to be of key strategic value and could necessitate investment in quality staff and infrastructure (Recruiters take note!).

But to make the most of this opportunity something of a sea-change in attitude towards Customer Services is needed. Recent research from the Institute of Customer Service revealed 40% of businesses don’t measure customer service ROI and 28% even don’t measure the cost of customer service. So before any great revolution can take place in Customer Service department, it probably first needs to be taken a little bit more seriously within its own organisation.