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Social customer care: Jeremiah, don’t relegate the social media help desk…

12 November 2010

I was reading the latest blog post by Jeremiah Owyang (Altimeter Group) the other day – Altimeter Group: The Two Career Paths of the Corporate Social Strategist. Be Proactive or Become ‘Social Media Help Desk’.

There’s a lot of great insights, and I am a huge fan of both Jeremiah Owyang and the Altimeter Group, but there was one thing in the report that really jarred with me. There’s been a lot of commentary on it as one would expect, so for what it is worth, here is my humble two pence worth.

I come at the report from the viewpoint of social customer care. It’s the area that I have worked in over the last few years. Firstly at The Carphone Warehouse where I set up the use of social media within customer service and now as a consultant at Foviance working with other organisations looking to formulate their strategy within this area. So although I have worked in marketing, I have moved to customer care over the last few years.

So here’s my thoughts as I read through the report, but actually there’s only one part of the report that really narks me and it’s right at the beginning.

On the title page is written - …or be relegated to ‘Social Media Help Desk’.

I’m wondering if this is a phrase that one of the people interviewed actually used and has simply been incorporated into the report. But that is by the by.

The use of the word ‘relegated’ is an interesting one. Typically sports teams get relegated to a lower division. The word implies moving to a lower status or level. There is fundamentally a negative connotation with the word. Perhaps one can appreciate its full implications by stating its opposite is ‘promotion’. With relegation the direction is set downwards.

An alternative might have been the word ‘reduced’. The implication being that the full value an organisation might derive from it has not been realised.

I want to reiterate, that I am not trying to belittle or dismiss this report. I genuinely believe there’s lots of very valuable material within it.

I’m thinking this report is from the purview of a marketer. Customer service has traditionally been overlooked. Driven by cost savings and lean efficiencies, its function within an organisation purely tactical. And yet, over the last two years or so, customer service has undergone (and continues to do so), some of the most fundamental changes we have seen within a traditional business paradigm. It is moving from a closed transactional interaction to an open experiential one. It is now undergoing a fundamental shift, whereby empathy and emotion are now being wrapped around underlying technology and business processes. Furthermore, customer service has always had a natural affinity with PR, but until now this has simply been ignored.

In my view, customer service has just as much a claim to drive the social strategy as any other department. The idea that the social media help desk is an almost unthinkable alternative, in my view is not only shortsighted and anathema to where some of the organisational change is taking place at present, but perhaps also reflects the make-up of those interviewed. There is no doubt that historically strategy has been driven from marketing, but accepted norms of business behaviour are changing. Marketing, customer service, sales, compliance, business ops are coming together gradually and rightly so. A customer is a customer to the whole organisation, and not simply to marketing, telephony or social depending on the touchpoint and the organisational structure in place.

Social is cutting down the divisions within a company. Where the web site highlighted divisions, social is blurring them. Social promotes a single viewpoint, indeed it forces it upon an organisation, it unites the organisation behind the customer, or in fact alongside the customer. Partners, collaborating, co-creating, working together for a greater shared outcome. The whole greater than its parts.

Social demands that an organisation understands its culture, its DNA, its mindset. Any discrepancy, any point of vulnerability within an organisation will be found out, exposed and publicised by an increasingly vocal customer. Organisations are, in a sense, on view 24/7 now.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that, in spite of the possibilities that social implies, this report, for all its insights, is written from a traditional business viewpoint. A viewpoint that seems to be grounded in marketing, rather than adopting a more inclusive approach.

Perhaps I am wrong, but this is simply my thoughts, and I wait to be corrected. But ultimately, this is the innate beauty of social, the opportunity to share my thoughts with others on the same stage…

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 November 2010 9:54 pm


    Your inuition is on the money. Last month I had a go at big J for the same type of segregation. He was promoting seperate social media centres over integrated capabilities.

    You know over the last few weeks I’ve been deep in the middle of a few customer service assignments. Big brands – legacy infrastuctures. Huge effort needed to make progress. Yet people know what they want. It’s just light years away.

    Marketing however is relatively IT light, so they can keep up as fast or as slow as their grey matter permits. Net result is they appear more in touch and thus qualified to own SM.

    You are right to point out though that CS has as much right to drive SM as any other function.

    Sometimes all it takes is an unintended slight to bring out the megaphone.


  2. 13 November 2010 9:50 am

    Yep – I agree, spot on the money.

    From my experience one of the biggest challenge working with marketing departmental and looking at the customer is the way marketers — and by extension the rest of the organisations is trained. They have become highly adept technitions and pursue strategy and process that are “canned”, internally focused and look at bottom line profits through efficiency.

    It requires a huge mindset and attitudinal shift to get beyond this. As some one who stepped out of this world quite a few years ago, i often find myself going back to the default behavior. As any smoker knows — habits are hard to break — especially the bad ones.


  3. 13 November 2010 9:17 pm

    For once the Public Sector might have something to say! My wife has held successive and senior positions as head of communications/customer service both in local government and latterly in a major transport authority. For quite some time she has believed in putting customer feedback/quality of experience absolutely central to the corporate cycle. In the absence of any great competition and with an essentially homogenised product/service, you can immediately see the sense in what this blog this arguing – if the way people are “getting you” isn’t absolutely central to your mission, absolutely core to your engagement and communication efforts, then what the hell is?

  4. 14 November 2010 10:49 am

    Hi Guy,

    I agree that customer service or care has as much right as any other function to sit at the head table and be part of or lead the social strategy.

    However, I am not sure that I agree with your conclusions about the title of the report and its implications. I think the choice of phrase in the title is misleading and could lead us to make the wrong conclusions and judgments but think it is more a case of something that is poorly thought through and written.

    What I think it means is that (like Jeremiah points out in the report), like when many new initiatives are introduced, we can get caught up in just answering questions and solving problems rather than driving strategy and therefore can find ourselves in a ‘technical help’ type position rather than leading from the front. Thus, we can get lost in the day to day solving of problems rather than leading and defining strategy hence the use of the ‘help-desk’ moniker.

    However, I would say that if the megaphone is coming out then why not advocate for customer service/care to take the lead role in the social strategy as they are one of the only areas of a business that actually has real two-way conversations with customers and are uniquely positioned to expand on those conversations.

    If customer service wants to lead in this new era then, I believe, they should stand up and fight for their position and not wait for it to be handed to them. If you would like to lead that charge, I, for one, would follow.


  5. guy1067 permalink*
    14 November 2010 10:31 pm

    Hi Adrian, Many thanks for the comment, and perhaps you’re right – I took it too literally. However, I wasn’t necessarily advocating that customer care should take the lead either. For me, it’s a company-wide initiative. All parts of the company influence and determine the strategic direction a company should take. The customer is a customer to all parts of the organisation. It’s not about customer service or marketing taking the lead, although they may ultimately lead the way.

    As for me leading the charge, I’m humbled by your kind words, but hopefully the change can be achieved peacefully.

    • 15 November 2010 10:19 am

      Hi Guy,
      You said:
      “It’s not about customer service or marketing taking the lead, although they may ultimately lead the way.”
      I completely agree.

      As for the charge, more of a metaphorical and philosophical one than a physical one. No need to get the tin helmets out ;)


  6. 15 November 2010 11:29 am

    @Guy, Adrian, Martin

    First of all, I wanted to thank everyone for the commentary, I’m listening with ears wide open. Thanks Guy for the respectful post. Adrian, that’s right, no need for the helmets, yet.

    Customer service is important, in fact, what happens in service is marketing they are intertwined.

    Adrian’s right, this is more of a philosophical metaphor about being reactive –rather than proactive. A strategist, by definition is building plans to think and deploy forward –not to just take requests. We found that over 40% of strategists in social media have already become reactive, and that’s jarring.

    So if the byline was insulting, I apologize, but the findings ring true: Many Strategists are about to lose control and become reactive (call it what you like) as the demands start to compound.

    Martin, In the long run I’d expect to see it integrated, but for now, we’re starting to see Pepsi (Gatorade) and Dell to have separated. I’m not promoting that, but suggesting it’s going to play out like this till customer service teams catch up. Comcastcares was rare, BPOs don’t even know what SCRM means. (I’m talking to a few)

    I appreciate the thoughtful discussion everyone, thanks again

    • 15 November 2010 9:24 pm


      Your comments give me an opportunity to focus on a few things I’d like to highlight.

      First it’s a great piece of research that gives form for the first time to the struggle going on within the trailblazers.

      It’s also an enlightened approach to keep providing public access and one that deserves conscious thanks to remain appreciative.

      So onto the findings. They paint a grim picture of odds stacked high that’s going to need a League Of Super Heroes and a lengthy roadmap given everything that needs to become aligned. As a challenge it could not be bettered.

      Here are few thoughts in response based on my immediate instinct to change the odds more in favour of that group.

      1. All those interviewed should join their own community for mutual support and accelerated learning. I’m sure Altimeter could see virtue in such patronage!

      2. Make SM less strange. Budget, power, resource flow towards the trusted and familiar. It’s counter productive for SM to be so ‘far out’ for the uninitiated. Maybe the route back is to remember that a customer is but a customer is but a customer……That notion is trending upwards nicely and could easily associate with SM theology with a bit of creative positioning. Maybe its time for SM to link with its heritage rather than its future as consolidation

      3. Marketing & Comms are not known for internal change mgt skills. I would suggest an early tactic would be to find/recruit/learn from proven change leaders. Maybe the original ERP team is still there for some!

      4. Easy, short term wins are important for confidence, credibility and sense of progress. When I heard Paul Greenberg talk recently I was struck how much ‘good practice’ was being shoehorned into SM case studies. Nothing wrong with that. So why not give this beleaguered group a ‘crib’ sheet to work from? For instance the whole debate about sentiment rages on. Maybe some day it will all be established. But what’s an alternative that can be operationalised for the next six months as part of a VoC?

      In summary, make SM a winnable plan that makes sense to most people


  1. Tweets that mention Jeremiah, don’t relegate the social media help desk… « being guy1067 --
  2. Altimeter Report: The Two Career Paths of the Corporate Social Strategist. Be Proactive or Become ‘Social Media Help Desk’ « Web Strategy by Jeremiah Owyang | Social Media, Web Marketing

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