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Social media, the new customer service channel

IT marketers are well-practised in presenting their company’s most convincing face. Which is why it pays to look beyond the rhetoric when considering the potential for any emerging or early lifecycle technology.

One thing the IT industry is very good at is spinning a story. This might be the result of experience built up over decades as vendors learned to explain their vision for the latest technologies. Or it could be simply the sign of an industry that came of age in the latter half of the 21st century. Either way, IT marketers are well-practised in presenting their company’s most convincing face. Which is why it pays to look beyond the rhetoric when considering the potential for any emerging or early lifecycle technology.

Two of the most eagerly discussed trends of late – and therefore, two of the topics most deserving of a little extra scrutiny – are social media and mobililty. There’s no doubt that social and mobile channels are growing in influence. In 2011 a little over one-third of Australians owned a smartphone. In 2012 this rose to just over one-half.  Sales of mobile devices now outstrip those of desktop PCs. As a consequence, businesses are clamoring to become mobile enabled.

The social media statistics are just as impressive. There are around one billion active users on Facebook and they spend an average of almost seven hours per month on the network. Can this time be used for business advantage? If the experiences of Twitter are anything to go by, the answer is yes. Research into the habits of Twitter users last year found that almost four in five US users are more likely to recommend brands they follow.

The Australian experience

Recently, Fifth Quadrant conducted an extensive consumer-based research program sponsored by Avaya. It gave us an ideal opportunity to examine the impact of social and mobile channels first hand. What was striking about the findings was the usage of smartphone apps and social media as a customer service channel.

The research analysed the proportion of consumers who have used customer service channels such as email, online, phone calls, letters and faxes, as well as social media and smartphone apps over a three month period. We also asked consumers to indicate which channels they would be using more often in the future.

Currently email and online self service self service channels are the clear winners, with social and mobile channels dragging the chain. When asked about the future, the same trends emerge. Email and self service lead, although this time, twice as many people indicate they would use apps more frequently and slightly less say they will use social media.

What does this mean? No matter what, in an environment where consumers hold the power, organisations must offer channels that the consumers want to use. However, the findings show that social and mobile usage have not quite taken over yet and this perhaps gives business a bit of breathing space to make sure we deploy these channels effectively.

When smartphone apps and mobility make sense

What is clear from the research is that people are happy to use their smartphones for simple customer service activities such as setting up an account, to conduct information updates or to research a general enquiry. Consumers like the idea of apps because they are considered convenient, fun and easy to use.

The main reasons for not using a customer service apps are a lack of awareness that the app is available; a belief it will take too long; it’s inconvenient to use; it’s more expensive to use and it’s not personal.

Like smartphone apps, social media is also considered fun. People say they like the channel because it is good for simple queries and cheap to use. Almost half the people who turn to social media for customer service use the channel for general enquiries, two in five use it to make their complaints known and a similar number use social channels to submit purchase queries.

The biggest inhibitors to using social media include the fact that it is perceived as not being secure; it’s not personal; people don’t think it would be a good experience and that it might take longer than traditional channels..

Where are we on the evolutionary path?

All of this puts social media about half way along the road to becoming an established customer communications channel. We’ve passed the initial stage where businesses simply listened to and monitored social conversations. For the past couple of years companies have been experimenting with the channel as a marketing platform. And we’ve learned how useful social media can be as a tool for community engagement. Consumers and businesses have warmed to the idea of dealing with each other on social networks.

Right now we are in a time of transition, moving from using social media as a community engagement tool to a customer service tool. Success will come through integrated social media and mobile strategies focused on capabilities, assimilation with existing channels and being enterprise-wide

Having opened the channel, businesses must realise that their social media journey doesn’t end here. As customer service is mastered, there will be one more critical step – sales – that needs to be taken before social media evolves into a truly mainstream channel for all manner of customer communications.

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Catriona Wallace

Catriona Wallace

Dr Wallace is a Director of Fifth Quadrant, a customer experience strategy and research company. Within this role, she conducts global research and consulting programs and works with company boards and CEOs to develop multi-channel customer experience strategies in order to respond to shifting balance of power between consumers and businesses – the coming of the Consumer Power Economy. Today, Dr Wallace is one of the world’s most cited commentators on customer experience and consumer behaviour trends. She has a PhD in Organisational Behaviour, is Adjunct Faculty at the Australian Business School, and is the author of The Complete Guide to Call & Contact Centre Management. She is also the mother of five children and is the founder of philanthropic funds – Indigo Express Fund and Kids in Philanthropy, both sub-funds of Sydney Community Foundation. She also runs an employment program for women prisoners and also refugees recently released from detention.

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