Monday, February 9, 2009

Opportunity for contact centers to utilize social networking sites to improve customer service

The current business environment consists of a struggling economy, in which customer acquisition is challenging, while consumers are increasingly sharing information on the web. These trends have created an opportunity for contact centers to utilize social networking websites to improve customer service at a low cost, by integrating Web 2.0 technologies with other communication technologies. Independent market analyst Datamonitor predicts that websites such as Twitter will become more ingrained into contact center customer service and customer relationship management (CRM) strategies, and Google's search capabilities are likely to be used for mining information from relevant websites.

The new meaning of 'multichannel contact center'

Call centers have been rebranded 'contact centers' because of the multiple ways in which customers can now contact customer service representatives. The traditional voice channel is rapidly being supplemented by email, SMS, interactive voice response (IVR) and instant messaging (IM). In the current economic climate, enterprises are more focused on customer retention and cost saving, and these new channels not only represent a convenient way for customers to communicate with the enterprise, but also an opportunity to save on agent costs.

Concurrent with the increased use of new channels for customer communication, enterprises are striving to understand customer issues in order to improve products and service. They are using knowledge management tools and customer analytics to understand trends. One communication channel that is still relatively untapped by enterprises is Web 2.0; the use of blogs, social networking, forums and search engines to share information. In 2009 contact center vendors and enterprises will begin to leverage these tools, as the vision of a truly multichannel contact center is realized.

Twitter is emerging as a customer service channel

Twitter is a cross between an online forum and instant messaging tool, which enables registered users to post short messages on their profile, which can be viewed by those who subscribe to their feed (known as followers). The service has been in the news frequently because of its use by celebrities and, more relevant, its use by leading retail brands to provide customer support and answer queries. Some of the early adopters that have successfully built up a presence on Twitter include Bank of America, Comcast, JetBlue, and Zappos, alongside many media and technology companies.

Twitter allows for only short messages of 140 characters or less, and this makes it a quick tool for posting information and responding to queries. Having a network of customers gives enterprises the opportunity to communicate information to a wide base and helps divert incoming phone calls. Customers can 'follow' all businesses that they have relationships with, which reduces the need to access separate websites for each, thereby saving time for the customers. Twitter also creates a community for customers to share information among themselves as a type of self-service. The 24/7 nature and location-independence of the internet, alongside the openness of Twitter, allows customers to converse with each other and answer queries when agents may not be available.

There are still a number of technical challenges to address

Some of the key concerns with integrating Web 2.0 channels into customer service solutions include the security in providing information over the web, the authenticity of postings and advisors, and data ownership. For example, banks using Twitter must be careful to educate customers about the hazards of posting personal details. Twitter is an open community, allowing anyone to find users and share information, but this can be seen as a disadvantage because there are no controls over who accesses information and the website could, in theory, be used to negatively target competitors' brands.

Although encouraging customers to share knowledge can relieve the pressure on agents, there is also a need to train staff and monitor the information. Twitter is still in the early adopter stage for customer service provision and it is initially contact center managers that will start trialing the tool. This can be costly in staff time and, once the channel becomes more established, there will be a need to train additional staff. The need for maintenance and quality control will become an issue that could potentially increase the workload of customer advisors.

Web 2.0 presents opportunities

Consumers are becoming more comfortable in sharing information about products and experiences on blogs and forums. The benefits are clear, because social networking websites are quick and easy to use, as opposed to writing letters or finding the correct telephone number. Contact centers managers should consider innovative ways to use the information from Twitter and Google searches in order to understand customers' needs more accurately and to discover issues with their customer service, and the products and services they are selling. Contact center staff can use Twitter to provide technical support, advice and product updates, as well as to find out what competitors are doing. Searching for brand mentions and customer complaints can help businesses to resolve customer problems before they escalate. This may result in extra security controls with opt-in clauses, in order to prevent spamming and protect customer privacy.

Datamonitor predicts that websites such as Twitter will become more ingrained into contact center customer service and CRM strategies, and enterprises should begin working closely with vendors to discover the best ways to leverage customer information. Google's search capabilities are likely to be used for mining information from relevant websites. Vendors should also present enterprises with the return on investment (ROI) benefits of such technologies; these ROI analyses should be relatively clear in terms of reduction in agent pressure and increased utilization of lower-cost self-service.
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