I’ve been thinking about the idea of impermanence for awhile now as it pertains to social customer care. Tenuous perhaps, but this train of thought, this idea of – impermanence – has been sitting at the back of my mind, nagging away; I can’t seem to shift it. This nagging thought can be directly attributable to a number of posts written by Nathan Jurgenson, Snapchat’s in-house researcher.
He writes in Pics and It Didn’t Happen [The New Inquiry]: “What would the various social-media sites look like if ephemerality was the default and permanence, at most, an option?”
The thought intrigued me. What would social customer care look like if we pushed it to an extreme and applied the same sense of ephemerality to it? Here are my initial and somewhat unstructured thoughts.
The customer service model as we know it is built on permanence and through this permanence comes consistency and efficiency: the cornerstones of our modern day service experience. Organisations can provide the same experience, the same resolution time and time again, over and over again. Resolutions can be commoditised, packaged up, shipped out. This works because the organisation controls the systems of delivery.
But what happens not if, but when, customers refute the assumption of permanence? What happens when ‘temporary‘ becomes the norm. What happens when ‘temporary’ defines the characteristic of the solution or experience at hand? The solution is experienced once by its chosen audience, and then gone. This impermanence or temporariness of the experience determines how that service is provided (if at all), how the resolution is constructed, the tools required to create, curate, deliver it, and ultimately experience it. What happens if the chosen audience only has 10 seconds to view it, understand it… and then never to be seen again. How do you design a service or an experience that is ultimately self-deleting?
The service model that we know, built around permanence, is self-fulfilling. The knowledge base re-inforces this notion of permanence. Adds credibility to it. Substantiates it. It gives organisations a sense of security and importance.
This sense of permanence, however, makes it difficult to re-invent, renew, re-invigorate. It makes it difficult to question the past. It makes it problematic to move forwards, to create new experiences. We feel the weight of it bearing down on us.
In his post, The Liquid Self, Jurgenson writes:
“My worry here is that today’s dominant social media is too often premised on the idea (and ideal) of having one, true, unchanging, stable self and as such fails to accommodate playfulness and revision. It has been built around the logic of highly structured boxes and categories, most with quantifiers that numerically rank every facet of our content, and this grid-patterned data-capture machine simply does not comfortably accommodate the reality that humans are fluid, changing, and messy in ways both tragic and wonderful.”
But what would happen if we turned our back on this sense of permanence? What would happen if we rejected the burden of having to create something durable and lasting? What would happen if we could disentangle ourselves from equating authenticity with permanence? The knowledge base as the sacred source of truth. This isn’t about being forgetful either.
What if we accepted the elusive nature of impermanence? Accepted that the context of the knowledge base should not be the sole determinant of authenticity. The service experience like some kind of convenience food, consumed in the moment, experienced in the moment, resolved in the moment? Isn’t that enough?
The temporariness of the experience makes it by default personalised and contextual. This sense of personalisation is heightened by the fact that the audience for whom it is created is chosen. The choice is deliberate, intentional; in many ways this sense of impermanence is far more restrictive than our current service model. The fact that the experience will shortly be gone raises the level of acuity through a heightened sense of urgency.
The irony of this, however, is that in creating ‘disposable experiences’, it may actually force organisations to redefine, reconsider, rethink what truly needs to be permanent in the eyes of their customers. In the act of creating experiences that are impermanent, organisations perhaps, create value by default in those things that are then considered to be permanent. Without this, permanence becomes a playground for the mundane, the routine, the complacent. In this context, apps like Snapchat should not be instantly dismissed, but rather heeded as a warning to what the future of customer service might hold.
This question stems from a response Lyle Fong gave to Ray Wang in an interview back in 2011. In the interview, Lyle posed the question: “What happens when we treat customers as part of the company?”
Seems a simple enough question. So, playing on this theme I pose another question in this way: “What happens when you let your customers design their customer service?”
What does this mean for you? For your customers? For your existing customer service? What does this mean for all the systems you have in place? What does it mean for your agents? What does it mean for your knowledge base? What does it mean..?
What would happen if you asked your customers to design the service that they want to receive?
What would happen if you asked your customers to decide where to put the touchpoints?
What would happen if you let your customers use your systems, or decide which systems you should provide?
What would happen if…?
Imagine. Imagine if you only built the customer service that your customers needed
Imagine if you only designed that bit of customer service for where your customers needed it
But actually, the point is not in the asking of the question, although that reflects a boldness that the majority of organisations simply do not possess. The point is neither in the imagining. The point is in recognising that your customers are doing this to some degree anyway already.
Are they doing this because they can? Are they doing this because of the current service they receive? Are they doing this in spite of you?
It doesn’t really matter what the reasons are.
The point is that your customers are doing this. They’re doing it because they can. They don’t need to ask your permission anymore…
The point is that companies like Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Vine, even Snapchat, are helping your customers simply do this without you. They are helping your customers create a type of customer service that is on the fly, reusable, personal, local, always available, scalable. A customer service of intimacy that meets their needs when they need it.
There is no operational efficiency involved. No AHT involved. No business case to make. And yet it is the most responsive, efficient and personalised customer service that exists.
Perhaps it’s worth asking the question: What happens when you let your customers design their customer service? Because in the end it’s their customer service. Isn’t it?
It is difficult talking about social business without immediately falling into a language of cliches, appropriated words and somewhat playful word acrobatics – disruption, openness, trust, collaboration, participation, authenticity, transparency, decentralisation, reciprocity amongst the more mainstream ones. These words are bandied casually around like some charm or amulet in the belief that their mere mention will magically transform a business willing to listen into a ‘social business’. And yet, when we realise that the ‘pixie dust’ doesn’t work, as is inevitably the case, we stand dumfounded and incredulous. It wasn’t meant to be this difficult. I ask myself, in some kind of self-absorbed monologue (and yes there have been many): Why can’t others see the future that I see?
But despite these moments of self-indulgent reflection, there is a certain inevitability about the notion of the social business, which in time will transmogrify into simply – business. Regardless of which ‘school of social soundbite’ you subscribe to, there are two undercurrents, amongst others, which in a sense nullify the many protestations, hesitations and nervous discussions that exist towards social business today, and in a sense render the term social business meaningless anyway.
The first is that this shift is in the hands of people, not customers, not organisations, but people – you and me. We have access to the most powerful tools of mass communication that we have ever had. We are not about to give this up. In 2008, Clay Shirky wrote: “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Perhaps he states the case somewhat dramatically, but the point is made.
The second is that the people who are toing and froing today about social business – that’s you and me as well – are not the people who will be working, making decisions or buying the products and services that will exist in 10, 20 or 30 years time and beyond (well, hopefully not working or making decisions at any rate). By that time, the discussion about the ROI of social business or the definition of what a social business is will hopefully and mercifully be no more than a faint memory consigned to some earnest PhD student’s research somewhere, if indeed, the discussion was ever really warranted anyway.
What gives me hope, in all of this, is that these undertows are taking place outside of the organisation, at the margins, at the edges. This is the marketplace of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Here, we are all equals, talking, discussing, exchanging as equals. The hierarchy has no place here. But what needs to be realised is that this shift takes place on both a personal and corporate level. The two are inextricably intertwined, and yet we somehow fail to recognise this. So often I have seen decision-makers who don’t get social on a personal level create seemingly impregnable fortresses against social in their workplace fiefdoms. The digital literacies we intuitively learn when browsing the internet at home are the same that we need and use at work.
Perhaps in the final analysis, the answer lies somewhere between Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, Eliot’s ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ and Lu Hsun’s cry of ‘Stupid yellow race, wake up’. Whether the bubble bursts or not is a moot point.
I want my agents to be the same
I want my agents to say the same thing, time and time again, over and over again
I want my agents to think the same
I want my agents to give the same experience time and time again
I want my agents to conform
Same, bland, mundane, impersonal
Is that what your customers want?
Social customer care challenges the same. It challenges being identical
It challenges the processes and systems that make your agents the same
It challenges the way you have thought up to now
It challenges you to think differently
It challenges you to do things differently
It challenges you to be different
It challenges you to be you
It challenges you
It demands that you be you
But do you know who you are? What are you hiding behind?
Social customer care demands that you turn your back on uniformity. It demands that you undo, unlearn, dismantle
It demands that you confront the unfamiliar, the forgotten, the overlooked
It demands that you relearn, re-do, rebuild
We have the most powerful engagement and publishing tools at our disposal that we have ever had
They are not going away
It is not a fad. Get over it
Your customers are leading the way, and so too can your agents if you only let them
But do you dare or do you hide behind operational efficiency?
Do you dare let your agents speak the same language as your customers?
Your customers are getting on their own camels, creating their own marketplaces … do you even know what I am talking about?!
The following is a post I recently wrote for CMIQ [a division of IQPC] as part of Customer Service Week.
I’ve read a few articles recently about Millennials, Generation C (that’s ‘Connected’ for those not in the know) and the rise of digital self-service, and on a personal level I’ve been thinking about the social network as the mechanism for delivering customer service itself.
I also had an interesting conversation with a colleague of mine last week about social customer care. ‘What is it? What is social customer care?’ he asked me. ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t get it.’
Both these things got me thinking about customer service and how organizations provide it or will provide it in years to come. It got me thinking about winning and losing at customer service. Would customers win, would organizations lose in the emerging customer service paradigm? Would customers lose and organizations win? Would no one win? Would everyone win? Would anyone care about winning? Did I care? Was it about winning or losing anyway, or simply getting the answer I needed at that moment in time. Was it about winning in the shortest amount of time, or was it about convenience? Convenience to agents, customers, me?
When organizations talk about winning at customer service, are they talking about the same thing as their customers? Do customers even talk about winning at customer service, or do they simply want their complaint heard, their issue resolved, their question answered?
When organizations talk about winning at customer service or social customer care, are they simply talking about the efficiency of their customer service channels? Has operational efficiency become a proxy for success?
In terms of Millennials and Gen C, if I had to generalize then it seemed to me that however we do it now, however customer service or social customer care is provided now, is not the way it will be. Our version of customer service is linear and synchronous, time bounded, fixed and physical (although increasingly less so). It is very operational in nature, functional and transactional, predictable and impersonal, as humourless and soulless as the waiting muzak we invariably listen to. Formulaic.
But things are changing. Customer service is changing. That is inevitable. Social customer care has given us a brief glimpse of something different. Something that is more intimate, more immediate, more tangible, more human, even humane perhaps.
Customer service is shifting from taking place at destination points, hidden from view, behind high walls, destination points owned by organizations in favor of places of common interest, places, common places, known places, open places, accessible to all. Places owned by no one and everyone. Places where collective knowledge resides. What The Cluetrain Manifesto refers to as the marketplace. Here, in these marketplaces, where organizations have gotten off their camels, a different type of customer service is emerging. Asynchronous, serendipitous, collaborative, shared, open, participative…
Here, the organization and customer come together as equals. Here, customer service has moved outwards, to organizational margins. To margins the organization was only ever aware of at best, ignorant, willingly ignorant, intentionally ignorant of at worst.
But here at the margins a flourishing economy is at work. Organizations are having to learn, decipher a new lexicon, a lexicon of sharing, a lexicon that is non-hierarchical. Here, organizations are having to unlearn the old ways… untangle them, separate them, move beyond them. Recognize that the ‘old ways’ even exist.
This is not about forgetting the old ways, however. It’s not about turning our collective back on them. It’s about understanding and accepting that this is where we have got to. But that the time has come to get to another place, another way point.
Here in these open spaces, where knowledge is freely traded, the desire to share one’s knowledge, the desire to help becomes a powerful currency. A currency traded on open and accessible networks. The more one trades, the more one helps, the more interconnected one’s network becomes. But this is a fragile network, apathy never far away. The threat of the hierarchy ever present.
But we have to be careful at the margins. We have to be careful that we – you and me – do not adopt organizational thinking. Do not mistrust. We have to be careful that we do not abuse or misuse the open spaces. We have to be careful. We have to be careful that we do not become hoarders of knowledge. We have to be mindful that as our network grows we do not forget and climb back onto that camel. History has a habit of repeating itself. This is a fragile place, but for now it seems tempting and alluring.
In this place we have to be careful we do not forget. In this open place, customer service is not about winning or losing. It is not an Erlang Formula reduced to a channel reduced to a solution reduced to customer satisfaction. In this place to help, because I want to, because I can, is enough. In this place, in the parlance of the ‘old ways’: to help is to win.
The following is a post I wrote on Econsultancy’s blog recently.
Social customer care has been around for roughly five years and I’m wondering how much it has really moved on in that time, since the first Tweet was sent by Frank Eliason, #Twelpforce, giffgaff and United Breaks Guitar.
Does Amazon’s Mayday and NatWest’s use of Vine videos for customer service give us cause for optimism?
Social customer care 2008 – 2011
The last time I wrote a post on Econsultancy’s blog was in June 2011 I think. Much has happened since then in the area of social customer care; my particular area of focus, both as a past practitioner and now with a consultant’s hat on.
Note to self: must stop living on past glories!
The period 2008 – 2011 saw traditional customer service boundaries, not being pushed, but rather ignored. Ignored in favour of creativity, curiosity and serendipity. Perhaps resulting in the same level of excitement that hadn’t been seen since the introduction of moving assembly lines by Henry Ford in 1913?
The convergence of broadband, access to technology and the increasing ubiquity of smartphones saw a level of creativity that allowed people like Frank Eliason and Dave Carroll, companies like BestBuy and giffgaff to willingly suspend disbelief for a moment.
Their actions challenged existing norms, assumptions and models of service delivery, and in turn, returned a sense of intimacy and humanity, that the assembly lines had over the years eroded away. The pursuit of empathy (it’s all about empathy, right?!) became an aspirational goal for organisations willing to suspend, albeit for only a brief moment, all that Taylorism had taught them.
Even marketing departments tried to get in on the act, and we witnessed a sudden influx of endless ‘customer service is the new black’ type of clichés into the growing lexicon of social customer care.
But customer service die-hards still held sway. Social customer care couldn’t quite shift AHT and Erlang formulas. The exceptions, early pioneers like BT, ASOS, O2, Easyjet, Virgin Trains, The Carphone Warehouse, were just that, exceptions, curiosities.
The die-hards couldn’t quite bring themselves to commit fully to something that might still be a fad (hope, hope!). Postscript: Damn, it wasn’t!
Vine and Mayday
Two things have stood out for me recently. NatWest’s use of Vine videos and Amazon’s Mayday. Both visual mediums.
I wasn’t expecting any organisation to use Vine in that way. But why Vine? Why not Pinterest? Who cares! It doesn’t really matter.
But for me, NatWest’s use of Vine is still very much simply putting a social spin on a traditional story. Let me explain. IMHO, NatWest have taken a social medium, applied a very traditional marketing approach to it, and then dressed it up in social customer care clothes.
Safe, safe, safe. But then organisations play safe, don’t they?! Has NatWest pushed boundaries? Yes and no, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back quite yet.
Yes, the bank has used a new medium, but in the final analysis, it’s just a very short, highly crafted, albeit humorous, video. Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely supportive of any company that is willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ and use the emerging platforms that are out there. It’s scary.
But, what if NatWest had simply said to their agents: Go use Vine to help your customers and each other (knowledge management, right?). What would that have looked like?
I was reading the Techcrunch post about Mayday and what I was struck by was how entrenched the thinking of the author was in the operational minutiae of today’s customer service challenges around scale and cost-efficiency.
While there was an underlying sense of hope, you felt that ultimately Mayday would likely be unable to break free from the shackles of today’s operational challenges: We love the concept, but can’t quite believe it enough to think it might succeed. We will it to succeed, but no more.
Rather than celebrate what Mayday represents – a glimpse perhaps, a primitive precursor or rudimentary first step – we feel obliged to suppress hope in favour of what we know, the comfort blankets and familiarity of cost efficiency, call deflection and scripted responses never too far out of reach.
But we must strike back. We must dare to stand up, to be heard, to be seen. We must dare to challenge the status quo. Not for the sake of it, but because there is something better to be had.
The ineluctable truth is that whether we like it or not, the way we work, the way we engage with each other is changing. It is changing because, quite simply, the people who will be the next generation of leaders, workers, consumers, participants, voyeurs and complainers, have a different way of doing things. We are in a period of flux.
The next generation of leaders, workers and consumers are not in a period of flux, it is us, the generation before who are.
It is our natural inclination to think about telephone calls and contact centres, and the costs associated with each. We find it difficult to think about the implications of Mayday and what it might represent.
Our thinking is so entrenched that we are unable to see Mayday for what it could be. A glimpse of the future, perhaps? It doesn’t have to be right, does it?!
The way I view Mayday is so entrenched and intertwined in the world of today. The sum total of my collective experience only allows me to be the cynic and critic. I am unable to comprehend what Mayday might represent. I am unable to…
But let me try to look beyond Taylor and the Erlang formula for a moment. Let me in a quiet and peaceful corner contemplate Mayday…
- Let me think about the implications of embedding the resolution or the means to a resolution in the product, the device, itself.
- Let me think about a time when the internet is never broken.
- Let me think about a time when customer service simply equals a conversation between people.
- Let me think about a time when cost efficiency no longer exists.
- Let me think about a time when AHT or First Time Resolution are distant memories.
- Let me think about a time when we remember Mayday as pushing the boundaries, as challenging our current thinking.
- Let me think about a time when having support on demand is the norm.
- Let me think about a time … that isn’t that far away perhaps.
The challenge we face is not coming up with products and services such as Mayday, but rather freeing ourselves and our thinking of what we know. And actually, it’s not about freeing our thinking, it’s the cognition(?) to know that we have freed ourselves from the limitations of our current thinking…
So where are we today, roughly five years on?
The die-hards are still there, but I’m more hopeful. Social customer care is going from strength to strength. The curiosity, creativity, serendipity…the excitement is returning. Mayday and Vine point to a shift that is taking place.
There’s still much work to be done. We need to enable our agents to take ownership of the tools at their disposal to create ‘point of need’ Vine videos for their customers; a type of customer service ‘on the fly’ perhaps.
Likewise, we need organisations to accept that their customers also have a role to play, but that only comes from understanding and being confident in what their own role is within an everchanging and ambiguous environment.
But I am hopeful…
I’ve been wondering for some time now why Google [not really sure which bit of Google to link to???] hasn’t made more of a play in the social customer care space.
I seem to start most of my posts with–I’ve been wondering … or–I’ve been reading …
I remember writing a post in 2011 [What's the role of Google in your customer service?] asking the same question and making the observation then that for many people Google was their first port of call when something goes wrong with their washing machine, laptop or lawnmower. I put forward the question then, and to some degree I’m still asking it (perhaps a little tongue in cheek): Why don’t companies simply put a Google search box on their Help homepage?
But perhaps now I’m turning the question on to Google themselves and asking them: Why haven’t you made more of a play in the social customer care space?
If Google chose to make sense of all those search queries people asked around products, or when they use combinations of words such as ‘broken / fix + [product name] + product type’ and instead of simply showing entries for people or companies that might fix such products, actually offered a set of really practical and relevant results that included manuals and videos [YouTube], product information, people who have had similar issues, information in forums [fora?], grouped that information together in some way, allowed the results to show ratings and reviews, and alongside a directory of people who could provide solutions to those problems, together with phone numbers, offer the option for people to get in touch with each other via Google Hangouts to help each other out, then that might really become quite a powerful alternative to either ringing a company up or visiting their website.
Google has the opportunity and ability to make the links and bring them together in such a meaningful way, and in so doing, keep all of us on their web site that little bit longer. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time…
10 minutes after publishing this post: Just remembered why I was thinking about Google as a player in the social customer care space. It was off the back of coming across this upcoming session – Keeping up with the Customer – Digital Service – by Jeremy Morris at the Call Centre Conference in London, 2nd & 3rd October.