The following is a post I originally wrote for MyCustomer.com (22 April 2013).

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After the pioneering days of Frank Eliason, has social customer care become outmoded? Guy Stephens poses questions we must answer.

As I travelled in to work on the train this morning I was thinking about whether things had really changed in the social customer care space since I took my formative steps there. That was 2008 and I was @guyatcarphone. I’m not sure how many social years equate to one year of the Julian calendar, but 2008 seems a long time ago now.

Social customer care was making its way across the Atlantic on the back of people like Frank Eliason – the first social customer care poster pin-up perhaps! I doubt he’s ever been described in that way. But his was the name that we all bandied about, like some magic talisman. If Frank could do it, then there was the possibility that any of us could do it as well.

This was BDC – Before Dave Carroll. On 6th July 2009, United Breaks Guitars was uploaded to YouTube; the rest, as they say, is history. Dave – I hope you don’t mind if I call you Dave, but we’re all friends here, right? – told a simple story: the underdog strikes back against the might of the monolithic corporate machine. Dave struck a victory blow for the downtrodden, for the individual. He suddenly gave us hope. Our voice was important, and not only was our voice important, but we could actually do something about it, and finally be heard. Dave gave us sight of a customer service that could be better, should be better, demanded to be better. And Twitter, seemingly, could deliver that hope to us on a silver tray.

Companies could no longer hide behind the façade of the monolith. We had believed they were impregnable, and they did nothing to change our views, they fuelled that belief. Without a post code, a telephone number, a fax number, an email address communicating with the monolith was at times impossible, frustrating, deflating… The IVR was another fortress or perhaps labyrinth to contend with.

The pioneering days

This was a time of exploration and discovery. It was fun. We made it up as we went along. We wrote the blueprint on a napkin, and then still made it up any way.

I like to think of that time as the ‘pioneering days’, but perhaps that reflects a sense of self-aggrandisement; certainly nostalgia, a time past. Everything seems better then somehow. I’m already starting to feel like one of the ‘old ones’, hanging longingly onto the coat tails of a forgotten story, that seems like only yesterday in my mind.

Those were the days when companies like Virgin Trains, EasyJet, BT, ASOS and The Carphone Warehouse paved the way for what exists today. Those were the days when responding via Twitter was a novelty, Facebook as a customer service channel was just a thought, and YouTube ‘How to videos’ were in their infancy.

Those were the good old days when strategy was not something associated too closely with being a social pioneer. When you could roll in to work and try something out that might work or it might not – that was the extent of a strategy session. Give it a go, if it works keep going, if not, stop and try something else.

But we’ve grown up a lot since then. Trailblazers like Warren Buckley at BT were far-sighted, but few and far between. Warren wasn’t afraid to let people Tweet him with their complaints, and yes, he did respond and get it sorted out. I think someone like Warren is still a rarity. I wasn’t alone at Carphone Warehouse though, there were others such as Richard Baker (Virgin Trains), Graeme Stoker (BT), Paul Hopkins (EasyJet), James Hart (ASOS) and Alex Brown (Virgin Media). They were experimenting and pushing boundaries, Tweeting with customers directly. We were learning off each other, sharing ideas via Twitter.

We were uncovering the challenges back then that many now face – how do you industrialise and scale social, what’s the ROI, what will customer service look like, what’s the future of the contact centre… and it’s these questions that got me thinking this morning: has social customer care moved on?

Ask the big questions

I know people like Esteban Kolsky (ThinkJar) was asking this same question and holding up the mirror to social at least two years ago. I’m not sure how much he’s changed his position since then, if at all?

I look at the state of social customer care now and I question how much it has moved forwards. Yes, it’s moved forwards in the sense that more and more companies are now doing social customer care, but are those companies celebrating the fact that they answer customers’ Tweets in less than one hour, or are they celebrating the fact that they have resolved the root cause of the reason for Tweeting them in the first place?

  • Have organisations adopted an integrated approach to customer service, or is it still organised along channel lines – telephony, inbound email, social?
  • Have organisations tried to understand how they could transfer their success in social across their other channels?
  • Have organisations figured out how to offer social at scale? If you can offer telephony at scale, what is different about social?
  • Have organisations figured out what metrics to use or is it about transferring traditional customer service metrics into a social space?
  • Have organisations thought about what the impact of social is on customer service itself or are they still thinking in traditional terms that customer service is done by a team of agents that sit in customer service, marketing is done by marketers…? The technology has been updated but not the underlying business model.

I get the fact that social customer care is growing up, is having to grow up, but I’m fearful that what I am starting to see is that rather than being the catalyst to the provision of a more meaningful, more intimate, more sympathetic type of customer service, we are simply seeing social subsumed into a customer service that is increasingly outmoded, willingly ignorant of the changing landscape around it, and blinkered to the possibilities of what could be.

Organisations need to be asking the big questions in the context of today, not in the context of the business models that the decision makers grew up with. I’m certainly not advocating a wholesale clearing out. We need to be mindful of what was, but we also need to be open to what could be, might be, will be. Because that is the inevitable future that we will live through.

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