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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