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.
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.
Salesforce.com and Fuze Digital Solutions are using Web 2.0 to leverage customer information
Salesforce.com has been providing on-demand customer relationship management (CRM) applications, but its acquisition of InStranet in 2008 indicates its intentions to move into providing customer service support and knowledge management solutions. The vendor has unveiled a customer-service-focused initiative called the Service Cloud, which connects social networking with client interaction processes, utilizing forums and search engines for customer feedback. Salesforce.com has initially partnered with Google and Facebook, but Datamonitor expects this list of partners to expand in the near future.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Service Cloud is the ability to push information from a knowledge base into Google. Customers searching for a query can be directed straight to the related FAQ on a business web page utilizing the Salesforce.com-Google partnership. The timing of this release makes sense as there has been a significant increase in information exchange via the web over the last couple of years.
Fuze Digital Solutions (Fuze) is another knowledge management and CRM vendor providing a solution to leverage the customer base for information. It offers a web-based interface to its clients so that they have an environment for content editors (which may be product users, designers or support staff) to provide feedback, answer queries and rate the usefulness of information. Suggested content additions go through editorial controls before they are published, based on who uses the particular content. Users are encouraged to provide information in a self-service environment, reducing pressure on agents to answer all queries.
While Salesforce.com intends to push available information out to the web via Google, and to share information with partners and customers’ Facebook connections, Fuze is targeting specific customers or staff and keeping information within the user community. It is still too early to tell how successful these solutions will be.
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.
Newcastle City Council, in the UK, is one of the first local authorities to have used Twitter to report by-election results. Additionally, during the heavy snow in England on February 2, 2009, the same council posted information about school closures. This way of proactively providing information to customers, similar to outbound IVR, helps to reduce heavy traffic to websites, or calls to customer service. Another example is Bank of America’s use of Twitter to answer customer questions, while providing customers with the ability to send a private message containing their telephone number to arrange for an agent callback.
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.
CRM vendor Oracle is offering the option for enterprises to publish information from CRM OnDemand directly to Twitter. This type of communication could be used to inform agents or staff of changes, and as the technology moves forward it can also be used to provide customers with news updates or changes to product information.
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.
In addition, although internet penetration is high, particularly in developed countries, and the uptake of social networking is rapidly increasing, the number of Twitter and Facebook users is still relatively small. According to TweetRush, which provides estimated statistics on Twitter usage, there are currently around 400,000 active users of Twitter per day, while there are 150 million active users on Facebook. The technologies appeal to a tech savvy audience, as well as the younger generation, who are more comfortable with adopting new web-based technologies.
Web 2.0 presents opportunities for vendors and enterprises
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.
Customer experience analysis vendors, such as ClickFox, SAS and SPSS, should find ways to use the information from social networking to help enterprises understand and analyze data from customers. Knowledge management vendors should follow the lead of Fuze and Salesforce.com in integrating these tools to leverage customer information. Vendors using Google to display targeted information, after a particular search has been carried out, should clearly distinguish information from advertising to avoid possible customer irritation.
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.