The following is a post I recently wrote for CMIQ [a division of IQPC] as part of Customer Service Week.

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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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