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Does social customer care exist or is it simply ‘lipstick on a pig’?!

16 March 2014

I’ve been running a LinkedIn group – where social media meets customer service – for the last four or five years, and someone recently posed the question:

What is your take on the fact that so many airlines offer social customer service during regular business hours only 9-5? Is it a matter of them not seeing the value in making it a fully operational channel, is it cost or just that the majority don’t get it?

The question got me thinking about social customer care and its relationship with what one might term traditional customer service. The bit I was particularly interested in was the reference to ‘regular business hours only 9-5′. The question I asked myself was this: Does social customer care really exist, or is it simply customer service with a social layer on top?

What do I mean by – social layer on top?

Do organisations design their social customer care proposition with the unique characteristics of social in mind or do they simply apply a traditional customer service approach to the social channels? For example, when I think about a resolution, do I think about how that resolution could be delivered via Twitter with the specific characteristics of Twitter in mind (ie. 140 characters in public) OR do I think about how that resolution could be delivered simply using Twitter as a delivery mechanism (ie. somehow reduce my existing customer service resolution to 140 characters OR Tweet the customer an email address OR point the customer to a web page etc).

In my mind we are still simply paying lip service to social customer care. The majority of companies are simply applying existing resolutions to social channels without any real thought about the characteristics of the social channel at hand. However, there are some exceptions that have emerged over the past few years: BestBuy’s #Twelpforce, O2’s #Tweetserve and Amazon’s Mayday.


17.03.14: Mayday is not social!

Thanks to the ever-watchful and erudite @martinhw for pointing out that Mayday is not social! Quite right, and I agree with you, but I included it, more as an example of how Amazon thought about the resolution and the outcome they wanted with the customer and the channel in mind. Mayday has an elegant symmetry about it and points to a type of customer service/engagement that is native and intuitive to the product itself; the resolution mechanism is part of the product design, not as is often the case an adjunct to it or an afterthought.

I believe we will start to see a different type of customer service emerge. A type of customer service that is far more organic, serendipitous and spontaneous, less tied to a knowledge base, less tied to a department and more tied to the moment and the point(s) of delivery. Perhaps one where the customer plays a far greater part, and I don’t just mean throwing some content on to a web site and calling it ‘self service’.

Social Customer Care: What does #Tweetserve tell us about the future of digital customer service?

19 December 2013

I read with interest about O2’s launch of #TweetServe – O2 launch #TweetServe – Customer Service via Twitter. #TweetServe is described as “a new way for customers to find out a range of account information, without having to phone Customer Service.

It’s good to see organisations inching those boundaries forward. The last few months have seen Natwest experimenting with Vine videos and Google launch Helpouts, together with the use of Promoted Tweets as a complaint mechanic. But do these types of advancements, mark in the words of Jay Patel (CEO, IMImobile): “a step forward to the next generation of digital customer services?”

I’m not so sure.

Yes, it is undoubtedly a step forward, but if this is what the next generation of digital customer services looks like, then perhaps we are further away than we might think. I can’t help but ask myself why it’s taken any company this long to develop any kind of Twitter-based service beyond the standard Tweet and respond model.

#Tweetserve reminds me a little of #Twelpforce (or at least the spirit of #Twelpforce), but perhaps more of a second cousin, at least once removed. I remember when #Twelpforce was launched, and still think back with a sense of excitement and anticipation about it. Nostalgia can be a cruel mistress, however. But don’t get me wrong. I will be the first to congratulate O2 on launching #Tweetserve: any organisation that takes bold steps (well, any steps) deserves to be recognised.

I like the use of #hashtags – #charges, #data, #handsets, #android, #text etc. For such a simple mechanic, I think hashtags are undervalued and underused. Hashtags provide a common language across different platforms, as well as the interplay between online and offline. They have the potential to act as ‘social objects’ binding people together. But I’m also wondering when #complaint, #broken, #faulty, #refund, #poorservice … will be added to this lexicon.

Perhaps I should look at this in another way and ask the following question: What does #Tweetserve tell us about the future of digital customer services? I’m still not sure. In some ways I feel that #Tweetserve is trying to cast off, break free from the straightjacket of the last few decades of customer service, but can’t quite do so. #Tweetserve is still built on the solid foundations of a very linear and structured type of customer service, despite its social trappings. I would imagine its metrics are very traditional as well, dominated by operational efficiencies, perhaps with an element of engagement thrown in; I hope I’m wrong. I also sense an uneasy friction exists between marketing, sales and customer service, the choice of #hashtags reflect this. Perhaps, I’m reading too much into it?

I feel mean-spirited, and perhaps on one level I am. But that is not because I don’t want #Tweetserve to succeed. I desperately want organisations to succeed. But I also want organisations to free themselves. To push beyond. To recognise the innate nature and inherent characteristics of the platforms they use. To break free from the structures that have dominated and dictated the way in which they have engaged with customers and employees. Use social as social.

Now if you had said that an organisation had decided to adopt more of a Snapchat-type service approach, characterised by temporariness and impermanence, that really would be pushing and breaking through boundaries. For that would cast true shadows over an organisation’s entire service framework.



Social customer care: Ephemerality and impermanence

16 November 2013

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.

Social customer care: What happens when you let your customers design their customer service?

8 November 2013

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

Imagine if…

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?

A moment’s reflection on social business

4 November 2013

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.

Social customer care and identical people

18 October 2013

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?!

Social Customer Care: Who wins at the margins of customer service

16 October 2013

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.


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