For some time now I’ve been thinking that social customer care is ready for a change. I’ve felt that change was overdue, but I couldn’t see where it was going to come from. I wasn’t able to articulate it, even though I’ve talked about impermanence, responsive platforms and decentralised service models. I wasn’t able to articulate it even though I’ve read about cognitive computing, quantified self and Amazon’s Mayday.
If I am brutally honest, whilst on the one hand I do think customer service has been disrupted by social as a catalyst of change, I also feel that social customer care, as it is practised today, is little more than traditional customer service with social tendencies.
In this context, I define social as a collective term that encapsulates ideas of openness, transparency, real-time (or at least a greater sense of immediacy), decentralisation (perhaps even devolved, albeit not in a conscious way by organisations), collaborative, empathetic… you get the idea. In many ways that observation – traditional customer service with social tendencies – isn’t meant as a criticism, but merely reflective of a point or moment in time in a journey that has already begun. In my mind, responding to a complaint via Twitter or leveraging LinkedIn as a customer service platform isn’t a revolution as some might want us to believe. Responding to a customer on the phone or via email is not that different to resolving a complaint that has been Tweeted. A platform is a platform is a platform regardless of its name. Customer service at its very base level is about answering someone’s question.
What is the big step forwards perhaps is the mental shift that has needed to take place. In this respect, what social customer care represents – a way of working, a way of thinking, a philosophy (perhaps that’s too grandiose a word) – that is the big step forwards. That is the disruption. That is the leap that needs to be made. A necessary tension or friction exists between the technology that serves that form of communication and the requisite thinking that needs to go hand in hand with it.
But back to the idea of change, or at least the lack of it. As I said, I’ve been waiting for something to happen. And the change I am thinking about in this post is the one that is connected to the underlying platform, not to the thinking. So, I’ve been waiting…
To date, vendors have focused on the creation of a single, self-contained proprietary platform that enables them to monitor, identify and respond to specific keywords. That response is largely reactive, highly manual, and essentially unscalable. The platform has the ability to either ‘plug’ in to the world around it or be ‘plugged’ in to via an API: a doorway into a world of possibilities. But the notion of the proprietary platform remains undiminished, unchallenged, unquestioned; absolute and supreme. And yet, in my mind, in this age of sharing and collaboration, it is the very desire itself to create a proprietary platform that needs to be challenged and questioned. The proprietary platform itself needs to be set free to truly realise the possibilities that exist.
A platform needs to be created in which the maker recognises and designs for, in the words of Don Tapscott and Clay Shirky, not only a ‘shared canvas where every splash of paint contributed by one user provides a richer tapestry for the next user to modify or build on’, but also one that allows for the fact that ‘we are increasingly becoming one another’s infrastructure’.
For the past few months I have been talking with Matt Wilbanks at HelpSocial, trying to understand what makes their platform different, unique, appealing. And if I’m honest, I’ve struggled at times to understand what makes HelpSocial unique, apart from the fact that it was a platform originally borne out of an internal need to deal with customer support issues, and which then was turned into a customer-facing proposition. The social customer care vendor landscape is at best small, at worst increasingly crowded with diluted offerings.
Those organisations that have been practising social customer care for the past three to five years are facing similar issues around industrialising social customer care: How do you automate and scale? The need for – scalable intimacy – not my phrase unfortunately, sums it up.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that within organisations each department employs different tools, with different reports, different dashboards, different owners. Each tool a self contained unit lying within its own ecosystem and support network. Each department with its own lens on to the same customer. Each pursues the ideal of a single customer view. Each pursues that ideal in their own image, with their own ends and KPIs. The same customer owned multiple times, but nothing connected. And yet each department wanting to know more and more about their customers. Somehow social promises this.
And yet social in the very act of promising, amplifies and draws attention to these differences: the different owners, the different systems, the different KPIs. Once again a tension exists. But it is here in this tension that the answer might be found.
In a conversation with Matt Wilbanks last week he talked about a new offering that in my opinion begins to set HelpSocial apart and gives them an approach that disrupts, questions and challenges the supremacy of the self-contained proprietary platform. In his own words:
“The HelpSocial API allows a business to build social into any application across the organisation for data sharing, reporting and social response workflow. It means they can scale out social across the organisation at their own pace and in a manner that is in sync with their business processes, while continuing to use apps that don’t have to be designed to work together. And, since all these apps are now tied together, actions from one department can be seen or used anywhere else across the organisation in real-time.
“What this means, is that none of these departments have to wait on speaking with each other before being able to take action. The full context of the engagement is available to everyone, at the same time, allowing for faster, more effective support across the business.”
While HelpSocial’s new offering does not see the end of the proprietary platform as we know it, it certainly goes some way towards a different type of approach requiring a different type of thinking. A thinking, a way of working and doing, a philosophy perhaps that is genuinely more social in nature; not that social is the end game.
In this paradigm, the organisation has the potential to become more responsive, the customer experience more seamless, more consistent, more immediate, perhaps even more scalable. The idea of ‘scalable intimacy’ may not be so far away. As the distinction between inside and outside, public and private becomes less important, alongside the inevitable decentralisation (deconstruction perhaps) of the primary roles of the organisation, new forms of expression, new forms of creation/co-creation, new forms of collaboration, new forms of sharing will take hold.
Clay Shirky writes: “Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” HelpSocial’s new API helps take us some way towards that state of boredom. Am I overstating things? Perhaps. But when Ginni Rometty talks about the social network being the new production line of the company, HelpSocial’s approach helps me to start seeing, articulating and understanding that reality.