The modern consumer wants to move seamlessly across different platforms, presenting a new set of challenges for contact centres, writes Robert McLuhan.
It has been a decade since digital channels turned call centres into multichannel contact centres. Now a different transformation is under way, as companies grapple with yet another channel for customer interaction: social-media networks. However, there are signs that this challenge will not be straightforward.
A few big brands - among them Virgin Media, Vodafone and Aviva - have taken the bull by the horns, setting up small teams to respond promptly to communications via Twitter and Facebook. Asda has a similar response team in place, and Tesco recently implemented technology from Conversocial that enables call-centre staff to respond directly to customers via social media. However, many businesses are said still to be hanging back, uncertain about what action to take.
No one doubts social media's obvious attractions as a customer-service channel.
After all, why hang around on the phone waiting to speak to a customer-service operator, when a quick tweet could make them come to you?
Singer Lily Allen received instant attention from her telecoms provider when she tweeted about the problems she had been having, and broadcaster Andrew Neil found it more convenient to post on Twitter when an airport lost his luggage. When consumers can get an instant response from celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, they are demanding the same immediacy from brands.
For the moment, the need to respond to complaints on Twitter applies most obviously to the youngest demographic: a recent survey by global contact-centre provider Sitel found that 15% of 16- to 24-year-olds preferred to contact companies via social media than any other method Asked what could be done to improve the customer experience, 17% in this age group said 'respond quickly when I ask a question on Twitter'.
These are not high numbers, but they have the potential to grow exponentially, and businesses risk getting caught out if they fail to start putting mechanisms in place.
This is a concern at ItsOpen, an agency that advises blue-chip clients on the benefits of becoming 'social'. Managing director Justin Hunt has noted plenty of interest in engaging consumers for brand-building and marketing, but less in the area of customer service, where arguably it is just as important. 'If a business ignores a Twitter complaint, it could soon have a real crisis on its hands,' he says.
Aeriandi, a software provider to big brands and outsourcers, says everyone is talking about social media, but contact centres remain largely unaffected by it. 'There is a lot of hype, but, in essence, agents are merely using the internet to carry out research,' says chief executive Matthew Bryars. 'Sources such as user forums are invaluable for staying informed and resolving technical queries. However, that's far from actually interacting with customers via social media.'
Within bigger companies there is uncertainty about whether social media is a matter for the existing customer-service centre, or whether the responsibility should be taken by marketing or even IT, as often happens in practice. Consultant Mathew James, founder of Customer Care Solutions, worked recently with Argos, which was starting to respond to communications on Twitter and Facebook, but only when it was something simple it felt it could resolve.
'If there was general dissatisfaction, or something was out of stock, a member of staff would get in touch with the customer. However, this was just an add-on to one of the back-office functions, rather than a fully fledged service function,' says James.
Contact centres are ideally placed to handle this extra traffic, or so one would think. Customer-service agents under …