I was reading Social Care in the World of ‘Now’ a moment ago. I don’t want to be snarky, and I have never met the authors before, but can’t we do better than this? That is a broader question that isn’t aimed at the authors of this piece either.

Six or seven years on from when social customer care started and we’re still talking in cliches, we’re still dealing in formulaic responses, we’re still talking about speed as if it’s something new, we’re still throwing out numbers as if they validate everything they touch, we’re still trying to make lists of three or five, still trying to make the words in the list all start with the same letter, we’re still talking about the need for clear strategies, we’re still talking about wowing your customer (and then killing them off by making it systematic) …

Please show me a company that isn’t aspiring to wow their customers, responding to their needs, having a clear strategy. Whether they actually do it or not is a separate issue.

The last sentence: “Social care empowers large brands to make meaningful and valuable connections with customers. But to build those bonds, companies need to focus on building the right capabilities.”

I get this, although I’m not sure that most customers want meaningful and valuable connections with large brands, but don’t choke social and the emerging service model with the very model that once served a purpose, but is no longer, on its own, fit for purpose.

Social is a catalyst that is cajoling companies, shaking them out of their stupor, as a by-product of how people are using it, towards creating a different narrative. Let’s get down off the camel and not stifle that narrative before it’s even had a chance to be told…


I was asked a simple question today which I’ve not been asked before, and for which I didn’t have an answer. The question reflects the journey that social customer care is taking. I’m loathe to use the word maturity, because this is not about maturity. This isn’t about social customer care specifically either. It’s broader than that.

It’s about the fact that people are pushing boundaries. They’re experimenting, trying things out. Keeping what works, discarding what doesn’t. It’s not about companies trying to keep up either; that only complicates matters and distracts. But it is about companies thinking differently. Doing things different. Organisations are still caught up in their legacy processes and ‘old ways of thinking’.

It’s not that people are setting the agenda either, that’s simply a by-product; they’re not even thinking about the agenda. That’s company thinking.

What’s also interesting is that the question reflects geographical, and perhaps cultural differences and nuances in ways of communicating, working, engaging, experiencing.

It reflects vendors who are caught up in one way of thinking. Vendors who are in truth adopting traditional ways of viewing geographical markets. Vendors who in many respects are accepting of traditional approaches, models, paradigms and frameworks. Frameworks dictated and perpetuated by organisations. They’re the ones who are going to pay the bills, right!?

The narrative needs to change. Companies and vendors need to wake up. They need to see that the marketplace is transforming, the emphasis is shifting. They need to start thinking about the new emerging model of engagement and experience via the mobile screen.

Vendors need to realise that the requirements and functions of the tools they need to make and craft must reflect the behaviours of people, not the processes of the organisation. The shift will be slow.

People are driven by curiosity, experimentation, whims and fancies.

The marketplace is driven by serendipity, but serendipity has no place in an organisation driven by consistency and scale. So what was the question. It was a very simple question actually: Is there a social customer care platform out there that integrates WhatsApp?

The implication, however, is profound.

This post and image originally appeared on FutureCareToday


The following post originally appeared on Social Media Today.

I’ve been coming to the Middle East and Malaysia since 2011 running workshops on social customer care. Those first couple of years were hard work: literally me at the front talking for three days, trying to convince the attendees that social customer care was the future. By the time I got to the first coffee break I was already feeling exhausted.

But how things have changed since then. Organisations now have at least two or three years of experience to draw on. Conversations about tone of voice, resourcing models, benchmarking quality, outsourcing, operational intricacies and complexities are no longer a struggle. I’m actually having…conversations.

I’m learning as well. With each visit I see more and understand more about the subtleties and complexities inherent within the cultural differences that sets these parts of the world apart from what we are used to in the West. In the West we talk about empathy, about saying ‘sorry’. In the Middle East, whilst empathy has a place, it’s less about ‘sorry’ and more about ‘show me the cash’.

From a social platform perspective, while the West continues to be dominated by Twitter and Facebook, in the Middle East, the fastest growing customer service channel is Instagram. The published photo simply serves as a starting point to a complaint or query; no more, no less surprising than LinkedIn as a social customer care channel. Companies like Ooredoo are also offering Snapchat and WhatsApp in response to their customers in Qatar.

In the Middle East, I am seeing some of the most complex operational challenges faced by any company anywhere, particularly those operating as franchises – Alshaya (Kuwait) and Al Tayer (Dubai), or Majid Al Futtaim (Dubai Mall). These companies represent hundreds of brands.

The challenges faced by many of these companies are no different to the ones we face in the West. The major one being the resistance by management towards the cultural or organisational changes necessary for this type of transformation to take place. While the concept of the social business is still to gain genuine traction, examples of enterprise social network adoption do exist within both the public and private sectors.

I’m also always amazed by just how many companies in the Middle East and Malaysia are able to get by on simply posting and responding to customers using Twitter, Facebook or Instagram themselves. Although, one could argue this is reflective of where they are in their social journey. Whilst some have made the jump to HootSuite (occasionally Tweetdeck), the transition by the majority to using a paid social customer care platform such as Conversocial, Lithium Social Web, Brand Embassy, HelpSocial, SparkCentral, AegisLisa, Vocanic is largely yet to take place.

Part of the reason these companies have yet to make the transition to a paid platform, however, is that the majority of vendors in this space have focused on and created products for western markets. Whilst this does give vendors, such as CrowdAnalyzer first mover advantage in the Arabic-speaking space, the time must now come surely for that focus to shift eastwards?

There is no doubt in my mind where once we looked to BestBuy and BT, and now KLM, we will at some point in the next few years be closely following the advances made by companies such as Maxis (Malaysia), Astro (Malaysia), Saudi Telecom Company (Saudi Arabia), Air Asia (Malaysia) and Ooredoo (Oman) amongst many others. As in the West, telco and airlines still pushing the boundaries!


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.

The following post is reproduced from the Econsultancy blog where I was interviewed about the importance of social customer care – Q&A: IBM’s Guy Stephens on the importance of social customer service.

Using social media channels for customer service is a key way to remain relevant to not only your customer’s needs but also their expectations.

If you’re a brand than you should be on social. If you’re on social then you should be exactly that… Social. Communicate openly with your customers no matter what their query and do so personally, quickly and offering resolution where possible.

I’ve recently been writing a great deal on social customer service. Check out this investigation into the current state of UK social response for 20 top retailers.

I also recently talked to IBM’s managing consultant in social customer care Guy Stephens about his thoughts on delivering customer care through social…

Can you tell us what you feel are the benefits of providing social customer service?

Using the channels your customers use is a good starting point, although it isn’t enough. Is social educating, teaching, showing organisations how to provide a better version of customer service? Probably, but even if it’s not it is forcing organisations to somehow remain relevant to their customers.

If social indicates what the future of customer service might look like, what channels might be used in the future and how customer service might/could be provided, then in my mind, there is a responsibility on organisations to understand what that future looks like. Not to do so, is to effectively say “we choose not to be relevant to our users”.

Do you think customer care should extend across all social channels?

My sense is that the idea of customer service will change, and we are in that period of change. I believe we will move away from a type of service that is very siloed and bounded to the idea of a ‘channel’ and move towards something that is about a more pervasive and responsive type of service layer.

Channel will become less of a dictating factor, and response will be driven more by context (urgency, priority, understanding of behaviour etc. all rolled together). The overall experience will inextricably be part of the resolution as well.

Do you think teams need specific training on how to deliver customer care on social? Do you think the same team should handle all enquiries regardless of channel?

I think teams need to remember how to be empathetic. To be driven by resolving the issue in the best way possible for the customer, and not by the operational necessities of it. Customer service is currently very process driven. Look at all the metrics, it is about the process and not the resolution or the experience of the resolution.

I think who covers ‘customer service’ will change as will what actually constitutes customer service. We’ve seen examples like BestBuy’s Twelpforce, giffgaff’s community, people simply helping each other via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc. We may see the frontline provide a far deeper service layer experience for all. The idea of frontline triage spreading across the entirety of the organisation.

Is there an optimum time for responding? Is there a certain tone of voice, or adherence to personalisation that a CS team should adopt?

In my opinion a customer doesn’t care too much about response times as long as you keep them informed throughout. Putting that to one side, what social increasingly allows an organisation to do is understand the context in which something it happening to a customer.

That enables an organisation to understand the urgency, complexity, priority of a specific issue someone is having. However, what you need to remember is that my idea of urgent changes depending on the context, this differs again to the organisation’s idea of urgent.

If you look back over the various response surveys of the last four to five years, you can see that not much has really changed, apart from the fact that people expect a response on the social channels to be faster than those on traditional channels. It’s not as simple an equation as big team = faster response time.

This also differs between social channels – people expect a faster response on Twitter than Facebook. There is a cultural aspect to this that we don’t often take into account. For example, in the Middle East (and even in different countries within the ME it differs), people are increasingly using Instagram more than Facebook, Twitter in some instances to engage with organisations.

Responding is also a two-step process: acknowledging the initial Tweet or Facebook message, and then resolving the issue. The resolution can take place in the normal way.

However, my belief is that we will move from the ‘lipstick on the pig’ approach we currently have towards something whereby we recognise the native functionality of the social channels and provide service that takes that native functionality into account. At the moment it is pretty much traditional customer service but on Twitter, Facebook etc.

Do you find that customers mind being moved to a different channel for more sensitive, complicated enquiries?

That’s a reality of the current limitations of what we have. This is where the experience becomes very important ensuring that the move from one channel to another, one team to another etc. is handled seamlessly, creating what many refer to as a ‘frictionless experience’. Organisations need to look at the underlying complexity of their existing processes.

As for sensitivity, I think the goal posts are slowly shifting on this, as our thinking changes and we recognise that the underlying system or model has by necessity to change. I’m not saying we should all suddenly publish our bank account details; that stays private. But I think we have hidden behind things like data privacy for so long that we no longer really know where the lines of sensitivity lie.

I think it’s time for a grown-up conversation again looking at data privacy/sensitivity etc. I think we are seeing a very slow shift from a time years ago when consumers were happy to forego privacy in return for the ability to buy items online. Convenience ruled, and apathy set in. We’re now starting to understand the implications of that, and perhaps trying to reclaim our ‘lost privacy’ (all sounds very romantic and Proustean!). Bottom line: companies need to re-evaluate their underlying processes. Once again it’s lipstick on a pig – social layer stuck on top of existing processes, instead of trying to understand the inherent nature of social channels and then designing a process from the bottom up.

What is the ROI of providing social customer service?

The ROI is your customers coming back to you one by one.

Do you have any best practice tips for other companies wishing to improve their social CS?

Design for social. Think about it from your customer’s perspective.

Look at things like Snapchat and think about their underlying characteristics, and then design your service based on that. For example, an idea I’ve been toying with for a while is with regards to Snapchat.

If Snapchat is all about impermanence, can we apply that to the idea of the knowledge base? In my mind, once we set the knowledge base free we set customer service free. I’m not advocating that all knowledge disappears after 10 seconds. But the idea of impermanence genuinely forces you to make decisions, to prioritise, whereas permanence requires you to do nothing.

I was reading through another one of those surveys the other day where a company Tweets a number of different organisations the same question and then sees how quickly they respond (if at all). The survey this time was by Veeqo – Top 10 UK Retailers Twitter Response Times. I’ve copied the relevant part of the infographic below.


The fastest responder was B&Q at 9 minutes and the slowest (discounting John Lewis, because they didn’t answer one question) was The Co-operative at 9 hours, 3 minutes. Well done B&Q, and room for improvement The Co-operative.

I’ve always been somewhat mystified by these surveys and struggled to understand where their value truly lies, beyond a momentary escape from what I was doing. So what I thought I would do, is see if I could understand what I could learn from looking back over the last few years of these types of ‘mystery Tweeter’ surveys.

  • Would the response rate improve year on year?
  • Would different sectors perform better than others?
  • Would response rates on Twitter be faster than those on Facebook?

So here’s what I found looking at the slowest and fastest overall response times by companies on Twitter and Facebook. Times are in minutes.


Before we try to identify any meaningful insights, some of the variables that can impact response times are:

  • size of team
  • dedicated team or team forwarding tweets to the relevant department for the appropriate response
  • dedicated social customer care account
  • volume of Tweets received
  • complexity of questions or complaints
  • how often the social channels are checked
  • outsourced or inhouse

So, taking these things into account, what do the response times tell us? Well, in my mind, not a lot.

  • 2013 was not a good year for organisations
  • Results for 2011 could be more down to the fact that there were either fewer companies on Twitter than there are today or else fewer response surveys done. My guess is that it was a combination of both!
  • Whilst response times are getting better generally, there is still a large range of response times overall
  • By 2014, the best response time is down to a minute. My guess is that this company has a low volume of Tweets to respond to, rather than finding the magic formula for quickly responding to customers on Twitter and Facebook
  • Even the companies with the biggest social customer care teams have off days

If we look at this from the perspective of the customer, then a survey from 2012 – The Social Habit – trying to understand customer expectations in terms of response times shows that 42% of customers expect a response time within 60 minutes of complaining, 25% the same day, and 33% within a few days.


What this tells me is that the definition of ‘speed’ is very broad, and if anything, is perhaps highly contextual. My need for speed depends on the urgency of a given situation I find myself in, and not the pursuit of speed for speed’s sake.

For companies searching for the magic formula that will tell them how best to streamline operations, how many agents they need for frontline triage, what the ROI of social customer care is, my simple answer is this: spend your time trying to respond to your customers with empathy and trustworthiness. For these things will bring you your speed of response when it is needed, and ROI without even trying. Unfortunately, knowing how to measure them can prove elusive.

Images courtesy of Veeqo and The Social Habit.


I was reading “The Maker Movement and Its Impact on Supply Chain Transformation” by Brian Solis recently. Solis defines the Maker Movement as follows:

“It [sic] a manifestation of the DIY (Do It Yourself) or DIWO (Do It With Others) culture where everyday people design, build and/or market something that they want or need on their own rather than buying something off the shelf. The maker movement has led to the creation of a number of technology products and solutions by typical individuals working without supportive infrastructure. This is facilitated by the increasing amount of information available to individuals and the decreasing cost of electronic components.”

If we take the idea of the Maker Movement (I love this terminology by the way) and apply it to customer service, rather than the supply chain, what implications might it have? How might the idea of DIY and DIWO be applied to people trying to resolve an issue that they are experiencing? This approach does not necessarily exclude the organisations which provided the products and services from participating as well. Indeed, organisations may well provide key parts of the overall solution and experience, but not necessarily in a way that they had envisaged, or as the central pivot that they once were by default.

The underlying themes are the same – digital, disruption, disintermediation (haven’t used that word for awhile), transformation – but the use of the term ‘Maker Movement’ reminds us, well me at any rate, of the Shakers and their simple and austere furniture.

Beautiful furniture, simple lines, created (or should I say ‘crafted’) by hand. The value lies not just in the finished product, but is inextricably interwoven into the process of creating the item itself. So too with DIY or DIWO. The value does not reside just in the resolution itself.

A by-product of social customer care has been the emergence of the decentralised service ecosystem in which customers are increasingly becoming attuned to Google, YouTube, communities and Twitter to find their answers.

We have access to this toolkit, and to the pool of collective knowledge. We are creating a more responsive service experience. One in which we play a far greater role than ever before. We are able to take more control, we are able to shape the experience to a greater degree. This is only the beginninng. And for me, what this points to is the following:

  • A type of customer service in which we will begin to create the resolutions ourselves. The resolutions I need when I need them. The resolutions that recognise the context in which I need them. The resolutions which will then be shared freely with others. The more responsive customer service I refer to above is still only in its infancy. It is the customer service of Taylor and Ford, but with social tendencies. It still lies within the shadows of traditional customer service, it is compromised. It requires Skilled Workers, Craftsmen and Coders to share their expertise. We need to continue the democratisation of the process and the tools.
  • Organisations will recognise that creating the platform on which service will take place will bring far greater value than trying to own the message or the experience. That is too limiting. Google provides an agglomeration of tools, but not the platform. Amazon is going some way to creating the platform, and Mayday some way towards creating part of the toolbox. The full set of tools will only come when others are involved – the Skilled Workers, Craftsmen and Coders, as well as you and me.
  • Organisations will begin to realise that for customer service to be truly free, they need to set the knowledge base as we know it truly free. The knowledge base in its current guise limits, impedes. It is cumbersome and unresponsive. But we have not found a way to set it free, yet. #Twelpforce went some way towards it by bringing people together, by trying to set knowledge free.

But we will move towards this more responsive, freer and humane service ecosystem. That is inevitable. Perhaps the idea of ‘handcrafted’ DIY resolutions is not so far fetched after all.

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

The following post originally appeared in MyCustomer.com.

As I write this post looking back on five years of social customer care, I’m also catching up on various stories about KLM launching 24/7 customer service on LinkedIn, BT experimenting with emerging metrics such as Net Easy, and the platform-length LED display developed for various train operators in the Netherlands which provides real-time information on carriage crowdedness.

What I find interesting as I read through these stories is not the specifics of what these companies are doing per se, but rather, trying to understand what it is that has changed that has allowed or necessitated companies like BT or KLM to do these things, to explore boundaries or challenge the familiar. What has shifted, been displaced, replaced, misplaced perhaps (intentionally or otherwise)? What has happened that has brought the margins of service into play?

The corollary to this is not necessarily that the centre ground of service is being intentionally eroded away. In fact, that was not a consideration on the part of customers. Twitter emerged in its own right. And, quite simply, the by product of every frustration and indignation Tweeted publicly allowed all of us to glimpse something different. Something seemingly more intimate, humane and empathetic; something that would forever be in my own control: my time, my words, my voice. Mine. Uncompromisingly mine. Direct. Authentic. Trustworthy. Nothing in between. Nothing lost in translation. No email address or phone number to search for.

The more astute organisations, will already be trying to understand the unique characteristics and subtleties of these emerging platforms – individually and collectively – within the overall (and inevitable) digitisation of the broader service play. Note the deliberate use of the word ‘digitisation’ rather than its usual counterpart ‘digital’. The more astute organisations, will already be looking to understand the financial correlation between a negative Tweet, and a customer’s lifecycle value (not lifetime value!) within the context of the moment in which that Tweet is sent. The more astute organisations will be trying to identify new customer microsegments based on context and behaviour. Am I asking too much? Or have I just given you a convenient excuse to hide behind?

For the others, they will still be focusing on the names – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn. Applying Twitter like some kind of salve, as if it has some kind of inherent redemptive power that will transform them, in the time it takes to craft 140 characters, into the customer experience ‘Zappos-sphere’.

Changing relationships

We have moved on (I hope) from being content to merely know that last week 329 people kind of liked us, 762 hated us, and 4,389 had better things to do. If truth be told, we knew this without needing to use an already imprecise tool to measure it. We need to cajole and provoke ourselves, shake ourselves out of the current stupor that we find ourselves in and move the conversation on. We need to not be content with the cliches and appropriated words that increasingly litter the social landscape. We need to genuinely shift the impetus of the conversation to our customers. We need to study their language, their words, their actions, their behaviours. They are the ones who know. They are the ones who act on instinct; it all comes naturally to them. They are the ones who have always told us the answers openly, directly, without prejudice. We listened, well sometimes, but we just weren’t prepared to hear. And by the way, they – the customers – are the ones we magically turn in to between the hours of 5pm – 9am and on weekends. Companies need to stand tall, be brave, be bold. As I often quote and now paraphrase in my own words: companies need to get down off that camel! And in IBM-speak – be essential.

Have you read the Cluetrain Manifesto? If not, read it now!

In 1999, the Cluetrain Manifesto was prescient about the changing relationship between companies and customers: how they communicated with each other, how knowledge was distributed, and the speed with which that knowledge was able to be passed from not one individual to another, but to thousands in seconds. The global conversation had emerged. The authors recognised that this shift would expose the vulnerabilities (intentional or otherwise) that all companies were, up until that point, able to perpetuate and shy away from doing anything about.

The emergence of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs ensured that customers’ frustrations, annoyances and outrage had, for the first time, an outlet that was of the moment, convenient, public and accessible. Furthermore, the inherent voyeuristic nature of these media ensured that the plight of the downtrodden customer could be shared by anyone willing to participate. Complaining, became a shared activity that spanned continents, and could given the right conditions go viral. Dave Carroll’s ‘United Breaks Guitars’ proved that no customer was statistically insignificant; the long tail had begun to wag. Organisations became twitchy. The fad wasn’t going away, and the realisation that there was no longer anything they could do to control the medium or the message was a wake-up call. The smartphone simply exacerbated this, at scale and with a speed never before felt. Where the landline connected people (albeit one to one), the smartphone connected people to the moment.

Out of this inflection point came giffgaff, #Twelpforce and Zappos’ famous mantra – “We’re a service company that happens to sell shoes!” The traditional service model was being disrupted and destabilised. Social customer care did not set out to disrupt or destabilise, this was a natural consequence. Customers had unwittingly unlocked the service genie from the bottle for themselves. They had set it free, and each Tweet had the effect of holding up the mirror, and in the words of Martin Hill-Wilson asked “Who is the fairest of them all?” Organisations could no longer escape their own reflection.

Customers embraced this new found independence. This new sense of authenticity and trustworthiness. They now had the means to start new conversations for themselves, unencumbered by the need for a company’s postal address, telephone number, email address to initiate it. This was uncomfortable territory for organisations.

An uneasy tension

But back to KLM and customer service via LinkedIn. What has happened that has allowed them to explore and play? Experiment and fail. Not all experiments work, right? We learnt that at school. We forgot it when we started to work.

Five years ago no one would have considered making LinkedIn a customer service platform, let alone offering it on a 24/7 basis. I’m not sure if the ‘Companies’ page was even around then. Telephone and email were ingrained in our psyche as the channels by which we contacted companies. Our shoulders visibly dropped at the thought of calling a company, our hope already sapped before we had even started dialing the number; the futility of it all. And to top it all off we would have to pay for the privilege to do so.

We inwardly railed, knowing that it could be better, should be better. Somehow must be better.

And yet reduced to its very essence, customer service is no more than the asking of a question and the providing of an answer. All that is needed is a common platform on which to allow the two protagonists to come together. How difficult could that be?

But the challenge we have laid bare is that fundamentally different things are being chased. The customer chases the experience, the organisation efficiency. An uneasy tension exists between the two. What has changed is that the organisation no longer owns or controls the platform, and by extension the experience. In this paradigm, the ability of the organisation to simply follow its own agenda – efficiency – is nullified.

This enforced impotency perhaps, is further exacerbated by the fact that the whole question of social has little to do with the technology, than it is has to do with the cultural shift that needs to take place within organisations. No amount of Twitter or Facebook will ever win a customer’s heart. That will be won with keeping your word.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about – one thing. That one thing came about after the recent flurry of articles and news reports on Google’s self-driving cars. Change one thing, in this case – remove the driver – and it fundamentally changes the familiar infrastructure that we have built up around us.

Remove the need for a driver and suddenly we are forced to re-assess, re-examine, re-define how we understand concepts like ownership and responsibility, how we deal with practical issues such as safety and insurance, quite apart from thinking about the internal mechanics of the driverless car itself. At some point will the word ‘driverless’ itself become redundant, superfluous, a reflection of a bygone time; the steering wheel reduced to a museum piece, a curiosity. The familiar ecosystem in which these concepts exist is suddenly disrupted, and the need to re-establish what was once familiar arises. In a sense, we need to (re)create a new familiar.

If we apply this idea of – removing one thing – into a customer service context, what would happen if the agent, the desktop, the telephone, the contact centre, the knowledge base, email was removed?

  • How would removing this one thing fundamentally shift the type of customer service you provide in a new direction?
  • How would removing this one thing fundamentally force you to shift the way you look at customer service? Force you to redefine it, perhaps even define it.
  • How would removing this one thing fundamentally force you to re-assess the way you view your customer?
  • How would removing this one thing fundamentally shift the way you interpret success?

The interesting thing to consider here, is actually, not that you are the one who decides what that one thing is, but increasingly, that your customer is deciding what that one thing is.

As customer service continues to decentralise (although I’m not sure towards what) the challenge you face is recognising that this is how it is…


Slides courtesy of Mary Meeker, Internet Trends 2014 - Code Conference

Slides from Mary Meeker’s, Internet Trends 2014 – Code Conference

I was reading through Mary Meeker’s latest report on internet trends: Internet Trends 2014 – Code Conference. As I read through it I was trying to think about what it tells us about how customer service might develop over the coming years. I’ve picked out a few key points from the slide deck.

  • The cost of broadband and handsets continues to decrease
  • Mobile data traffic shows ‘accelerating growth’
  • Tablets show ‘early stage rapid unit growth’
  • Video-sharing is on the rise
  • Apps continue to be downloaded in huge volumes
  • Apps are unbundling
  • Healthcare might be an inflection point

The data points towards communication becoming increasingly both mobile and visual, with the use of apps central to this. Are we seeing the beginnings of an app-based customer service with video playing a key role? I’m probably not stating anything you already don’t know. But my question is this: If you already know this, or have an inkling that this is where customer service is heading, what are you doing about it? Are you designing your customer service with mobile in mind, or are you still focusing on call deflection?

And what do the advances and increasing consumerisation and digitisation in healthcare tell us about what customer service might look like in five or ten years time? How does this tie in with the rise in ephemeral apps, and the move towards impermanence? Are these fads? Are we hoping that they are fads, like we did with Twitter?

I’ve long been thinking that we are moving towards a more – on the fly, in the moment, spontaneous, serendipitous, and ultimately contextual – type of customer service. Let’s free customer service from its knowledge base, and my sense is that we will begin to see some real changes take place in this space. This approach enables the organisation to shift towards becoming more of a platform provider, with customers, agents, the willing and interested, having open access to tools which enable them to create or co-create resolutions for themselves, with agents, with customers, with the willing and interested as needed depending on the specific needs, urgency and context at that moment in time.

This doesn’t mean we lose all that we create after ten seconds, but perhaps we will think more carefully about what we do create, what the role of the organisation is in relation to the customer service it provides. What is left when we take Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, communities, the internet of things out of the equation? Is that the starting point for organisations to think about the type of customer service they will come to provide in the years to come?