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Possible futures for digital customer service

A big part of what we do here at NM is train, equip and embed the skills necessary for our clients to help their customers in online spaces. A couple of years ago this was often through training, showing customer care or PR teams how to identify conversations online, and then talking through the best practice approaches to dealing with positive, negative or neutral conversation.

More recently customer service online has become more involved, as more big brands are creating whole teams to cope with the growing numbers of web-savvy consumers using Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to make themselves heard. In response we’ve helped clients like Nectar and Barclaycard overcome internal barriers and concerns to create such teams, and it is this type of work that really floats my boat – creating true capability in-house.

I keep wondering what’s next though? Proactive teams scanning Twitter are no longer news-worthy, and event presentations are full of case studies detailing brands big and small thriving through smart use of digital in their customer service. Using my first-hand experience of working with large brands and building digital customer service capability, I’m going to try and predict some potential future outcomes. As always though, treat my post with a pinch of salt; the following might be revered in years to come as the work of a lanky prophet, but far more likely it will sink into obscurity as the ramblings of a social media twonk. Either way, read on :)

Digital outsourcing

It’s no mystery why large western brands offshore contact centres in India, Hungary or other far flung parts of the world. Staff costs are lower and scalability is less of an issue. So why not offshore your Twitter response team? Well I can think of one large reason – language.

Online customer response is subject to intense scrutiny, particularly if you’re an unpopular brand in an unpopular industry; the risk of somebody misreading sarcasm or responding incorrectly based on a cultural/slang misunderstanding could result in public reputational #fail, something that any brand is scared of. The English language is full of oddities, and when you combine this with the bastardisations that online throws into the mix (txt spk, memes), it’s a minefield for someone speaking English as a second language. Of course brands could standardise responses but then why not employ a machine?

The holistic approach

Like Best Buy and Dell, I think more adventurous brands will attempt the holistic model; equipping a large percentage of the workforce with the skills and permission to talk to customers online. As someone that works for a 20 strong digital consultancy this seems obvious, but you can imagine the terror this approach gives large, hierarchical brands.

The benefits are huge though – why funnel questions about niche subjects through a customer service team, around various silos, and then back out through said customer service team? If Sally in product development can answer a question about the product, why not empower her to do so?

For any client considering this approach, I’d recommend a phased approach. Going from a model of tight control to one of total empowerment isn’t realistic overnight. Consider which team is most suited to acting as trial holistic centres, and what governance is required to give senior stake-holders or legal teams confidence that all hell isn’t about to break loose.

The old-school model

Social media is open, messy, subject to tangents and ultimately not yours. Examine the T&Cs of any big social platform and you’re likely to find that while they accept no liability for any bad stuff, they also own and reserve the right to use any data that passes through. Scary, particularly when talking direct to customers about sensitive, personal information.

So why not say no? Stick two fingers up to Twitter and Facebook and make your old school telephone and mail channels a selling point? Once the dust has settled and the ‘social media’ label has died, I really believe certain brand will pride themselves on traditional customer service techniques.

What do you think? Think i’m a wally and should shut my brain? Let me know!

Photo courtesy of Walt Jabsco, under Creative Commons license.

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