Archives for posts with tag: social customer care

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


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.


I’ve been following the development of leaderboards for awhile now, and have recently, on the back of a Leaderboarded/PeerIndex campaign, set up a UK Social Customer Care leaderboard featuring a variety of household UK brands across a number of different sectors. Although my choice of companies are random (or at least taken from a Twitter list I created a couple of years ago), I have tried only to choose those companies which offer a dedicated Twitter customer service account, rather than one that adopts a broadcast or hybrid approach (marketing, customer service, sales all rolled into one). Whilst the leaderboard, in this instance, uses PeerIndex to drive it, my interest is less around what data is used to drive it, and more around the implications of a leaderboard itself. Subsequent posts might address the different types of data leaderboards can use to drive them.

UK Social Customer Care leaderboard

UK Social Customer Care leaderboard

So here’s a few initial thoughts on leaderboards:

Anyone can create a leaderboard. What this means is that anybody ie. any customer with a few moments to spare can create a leaderboard (using a platform like and feed any data they want into it, whether that is PeerIndex, Twitter hashtags, Twitter activity (Tweets, RTs), LinkedIn activity, blog activity (posts, comments etc), as well as traditional crm, sales or customer service data .

As a customer, I can create a leaderboard based on a combination of the Twitter activity of the brands that I commonly engage with, together with one of the social influence scores (PeerIndex, Klout or Kred) for example. The corollary to this is that I could equally create a leaderboard based on the hashtag #fail+[company name].

The fact that I can do this so quickly has implications around the fact that I could quickly set up a leaderboard for example as part of a research or pre-purchase phase when deciding which product to purchase.

On an individual level, I could use a leaderboard to track my and my network’s social activity over time or for a specific event. I could equally use it to track a sports team I support, as well as their competitors.

Leaderboards could be used to publicly (or privately) track how customer service agents were performing based on criteria that was both transparent and open. Indeed the criteria or data used could be different for each agent, but weighted to ensure a level playing field. In this way, an agent could directly link their action to their performance, and the result of it tracked moments later.

Social customer care teams could also create a Leaderboard of all their influencers (advocates and detractors), and start to understand their influence or activity over a period of time based on how much they Tweet or get Retweeted for example. They could go further and weight the different data points, so that an RT might be worth more than a Tweet for example. A leaderboard could be set-up of known detractors to track their activity on Twitter or other channels. But equally a leaderboard could be used to track advocates combining social data points and purchase history for example, to understand the value an influencer brings to a company and how their activity compares to other known influencers.

Leaderboards could be used to indicate (or perhaps even validate) a company’s or a group of companies social activity and used to understand how active (or not) they are; in turn it might be used as a proxy for how socially engaged they profess to be.

If I was looking to buy a smartphone I could set up a leaderboard of the telco companies using Twitter I was interested in and track their activities. Fortunately, most telco companies have set-up a dedicated Twitter customer service account. I could track these dedicated accounts for a period of time to see how active and responsive they were to customers and this could be used as a proxy to understand the quality of their customer service: what are some of the issues they face, how responsive they are to their customers, their tone of voice etc.


With regards to the UK Social Customer Care leaderboard I have created, what’s of interest to me is that ultimately I can create the leaderboard. I can choose which companies I wish to track. I set the criteria that is important to me. The leaderboard is specific to me. I understand the context in which it is created. It is meaningful and relevant to me. It is not some company telling me or broadcasting at me their official figures that 98% of their customers are satisfied with their service.

I’ve only touched on a few possible uses for leaderboards here, and I’ll be continuing to explore how I can apply different data points to the UK Social Customer Care leaderboard such as Twitter activity. If you are interested to read more then please read the following post by Toby Beresford, Founder of Leaderboarded – Why we love building lists and why an influencer list matters.

Please note that I sit on the Advisory Board for, in a non-fee-paying capacity.

I was reading a great post the other day by Steve Collis (@steve_collis) – Facebook is the East India Company. The idea that really resonated with me was:

“Now we have information technology, we are able to create new spaces. It is as if, rather than sailing to new countries to conquer and exploit them, we now create new spaces, to conquer and exploit them.”

Companies now have the opportunity to create these “new spaces”, these “new geometries. New lands”, in a way they have never had before. The notion that companies can simply ‘create new spaces’ (almost at will) is an incredibly powerful and far-reaching one, just as is the thought that each one of us, whether employee, customer or bystander can do so as well.

But, these new lands, these new spaces, require different ways of thinking, different ‘literacies’, gestures and currencies to converse with each other, to exchange ideas, to pursue serendipity; to ultimately take leaps of faith.

The irony is that at the very moment we have the power to create, to conquer, to exploit, we lack the conviction to do so. We revert to type and seek refuge (perhaps subterfuge) and comfort in discussions about privacy, ownership and value. Sooner or later, even these old chestnuts will require us to learn a new or different set of literacies to be able to talk about them.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about digital literacy as it pertains to organisations. Howard Rheingold talks about five literacies – attention, collaboration, participation, network savvy, critical consumption.

I’ve written a number of posts asking the question whether organisations understand these emerging literacies or if they simply assume them. To this end, organisational readiness is becoming increasingly important.

But I began to wonder over the weekend whether customers know what they’re doing when it comes to social? And following on from this, do customers even need to know what they’re doing?  Or is the equivalent ‘customer literacy’ simply one of experimentation?

Customers do what they do when they want to do it: experiment, channel-hop, change their minds – these are part of their lexicon. But organisations, for the most part, are not built with this in mind. Organisations are built on averages, constancy, likelihoods… I am reminded of Ozymandias.

In order to talk to each other, who will give in first? Who will compromise, who will cede their position? And at what cost?

But does this have to be an uneasy encounter where protagonist and antagonist clash? Or can we learn the role of the synagonist or do we need to create a hybrid role? And if so, what is the literacy of this newly emerging role? Who do we learn from? Each other…perhaps?

I was having a – Friday afternoon thought – a moment ago about social media and a career.

I’m not one of those people who went to university knowing what they wanted to do. I ended up reading anthropology, linguistics, Chinese philosophy, before eventually majoring in Chinese. A few years later I ended up living in Taiwan for about three years, or was it five? During this time I taught English, I worked as a translator at the National Palace Museum. After this I ended up in the UK where I went back to university and got my Masters from the University of Oxford reading Sinology (Chinese). My thesis looked at the popularisation of culture during the Ming Dynasty. For this I wrote about a work by Tu Long called ‘Kao Pan Yu Shi’ (‘Desultory Remarks on Furnishing the Abode of a Retired Scholar’) first published in 1606. This compendium was somewhat akin to the gentlemen guides of the 19th century. After this I got my first real job and set-up the South East Asia office for Bonhams, an auction house, and so my career began…until now when I am a consultant at Capgemini.

Did I know what I wanted to do? Did I have a career path laid out in my head? Was there a greater plan? No, to all of these. I’ve worked in marketing, knowledge management, customer service. I’ve had the opportunity to pick up skills in project management, ecrm, email campaigns, search, web site design and development, IA, UX, CEX and more.

I am the sum total of all these parts. I bring this experience, this expertise, these skills, the successes and failures into the workplace. All these things help me each day in different ways consciously and unconsciously. I do not have a blueprint or template. I am working out my playbook as I travel along my journey.

And so too with social media. Why should I think there is an answer, a template, a blueprint? When I began Tweeting as @guyatcarphone at The Carphone Warehouse back in 2008, did I have a strategy in mind, did I have a template to follow? No. I saw what @frankeliason was doing at Comcast and thought to myself it can’t be that difficult Tweeting – ‘I’m sorry, we seem to have got it wrong, how can I help?’

And yet, organisations put so much in the way. Organisations want a template, they want an answer, they want to be sure they won’t be proved wrong (it’s not even that they want to be proved right!). But how difficult can Tweeting be? We converse with each other every day of our lives. Why is Twitter so different? Why is it that companies need to understand what type of value is derived from conversing with their customers? Why is it that they spend time trying to figure out the ROI of Twitter customer service? What is the ROI of resolving a customer’s issue? Is the obverse, not resolving it?

Why has social media become this thing to be feared? Why is it the great unknown that makes you anxious? Your career is equally unknown. It unfolds as you go through it. Yes, you might say I want a career as a musician, or as a journalist or as a doctor. You play sport not knowing what the outcome might be. You do it knowing that the detail will be worked out as the game itself unfolds.

Social media is a bit like that. You want to converse with your customers whether it’s via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, Pinterest, blogs, YouTube… because that’s where they are, and that’s what they use to converse. As to what the detail is, that will unfold as you begin to talk with them. It’s not that difficult. Talking was never designed to be difficult.

I was wondering a moment ago just how important businesses are to their customers.

Over the last few years social media has been catalytic in disrupting ‘business as usual’. Channels of communication are democratising, the workplace is blurring, customer service is decentralising, information  is traded for free, it is hard to recognise who is your customer and who is your employee, technology is increasingly ubiquitous, smartphones and tablets give us the possibility to be always on, always connected, always in touch…

We live in a world where there are no templates to copy. Each of us is writing our own playbook as we experience it.

We question, we share, we provoke, we cajole, we challenge, we undermine, we disrupt, we interrupt, we experiment, we play, we explore. We click on one link and then another and another and another, each one takes us further away from where we started. Curiosity can get us into trouble online. It can also show us new things. It can also introduce us to new people. We trust. Here, in this space, we unconsciously pursue serendipity.

And it is in this context that organisations have to fight to survive. Organisations have to learn and relearn, define and redefine. Make that which is irrelevant relevant, or cut it out. Organisations cannot assume anymore. Organisations cannot dictate. They cannot tell you or me what to do anymore. Organisations need to stop and listen, hear what I have to say. Because if you don’t, I will let you know. And I will let you know now, not tomorrow, not in a week’s time, but as soon as it happens.

The other day I heard a customer service director say on radio that they could not respond to their customers in a particular way because their systems did not allow it. This type of customer-centricity is dead.

A different type of customer-centricity is emerging. One that is empathetic, responsive, nimble, participative, collaborative, critical…

We live in a time when so much is up for grabs, so much of what we know is being redefined, realigned, readjusted, retuned. We live in a time when we know things are changing, but we’re not sure what the outcome will look like.

I’m wondering how often you ask yourself: How important am I? And perhaps whether you are confusing importance for relevance sometimes?

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I flew #RoyalBruneiAir a couple of months ago. I Tweeted a week or so before I left asking what their service was like. @RoyalBruneiAir responded and wished me a good journey.

As I was waiting to board the plane, my name was called out and I was asked to come to the front desk. I was upgraded to business class.

It was a fantastic experience and I can only put it down to the fact that I Tweeted them beforehand. My Klout score was below 50, so I didn’t think that was a factor. It was the first time I have truly slept on a plane, once I had figured out how to get my seat horizontal. I even had a duvet, yes a duvet.


I had a really interesting conversation with a colleague a couple of days ago about social media and the utilities sector.

Themes we talked about: Decentralisation of service, culture not technology, changing business models, business transformation, empathy vs transaction, do companies have the right ‘literacies’ to even contemplate some of the things they want to do, will contact centres even exist in the future, understanding who is actually even your employee now…


I read the following article a moment ago – Brazilian fashion retailer displays Facebook ‘likes’ for items in its real-world stores.

What struck me was not whether a retailer (or any business in fact) would do something like this, but at what point they might do it and why and how you could use such a mechanism tactically to lift sales?

How else could you apply the same approach to different scenarios to bring the online-offline (‘on-off initiative’) worlds closer together? One of the great unexplored areas and mechanics in my mind and a good starting point – the humble hashtag.


Back to Royal Brunei Air. I Tweeted @RoyalBruneiAir a few days before I left. And if I’m honest, I Tweeted them intentionally to try to influence them to consider upgrading me on my return leg. No such luck. I flew economy back and boy is there a difference.

What was interesting and I was aware I was doing it, was that I was almost looking for negative things, I wanted things to go wrong, to not be right, to not be as good as my business class experience, not because I wanted to complain or be negative, but because I had had such great service on the previous leg. Go figure! When I sat in my economy class seat, I did find that the hand rest was loose, and there were other things that annoyed me.


I’m finding myself in a gradual period of change. For the past five years or so I’ve focused almost entirely on social media customer service. I’ve seen the industry grow and new models emerge. I’ve seen more and more companies adopt the use of social media customer service. I’ve seen companies wrestle with social media customer service ROI and scalability. I’ve met some great people virtually and IRL. But perhaps as the industry matures, I am now finding myself taking a broader view of the organisational implications of social itself; perhaps this is a sign of an increasing maturity in the industry? Yes, there are still those yet to embark on their social journey, but increasingly I’m seeing companies begin to understand that social is more about culture and less about technology. I’m seeing a shift towards something that effects and impacts the entire organisation. I’m seeing companies begin to understand that their social journey starts with them and not with their customers. Empowerment starts with the recognition that you have to let your agents and employees go, that you have to trust them implicitly; that’s why you hired them in the first place, right?!. Empowerment is not a policy but a philosophy.

The recognition that social has far-reaching implications across the organisation, the impending realisation that the effect of the democratisation of technology will result in the increasing decentralisation of service, must signal to us all that the business and customer service models that have emerged over the past few decades are outmoded, increasingly irrelevant, increasingly in need of realignment and redefinition.

We live in a period of change, flux and disruption. We live in a period where we are all learning, of necessity, different literacies. The question we must all ask ourselves is not ‘if we have to change’ but ‘when will we make that change’?


So where am I going with my Royal Brunei Air story? A couple of weeks after getting back to London, I reflected on the whole experience. Overall, I’m positive, and I keep telling myself not to be ungrateful. But the bottom line is that my great experience is slightly tempered. Rather than thinking – I love Royal Brunei Air, I’m telling myself not to be ungrateful.

I’m wondering to myself, what’s the distance between ‘being grateful’ and ‘loving’? I know my feelings towards Royal Brunei Air would have been 100% ‘in love’ if I had been upgraded on the return leg back to London. I would have walked off the plane being an advocate for life. As it is, I know I am being ungrateful, and in truth I am a fan of Royal Brunei Air, but at the same time I’m more acutely aware of the gulf between Economy and Business Class. The difference between a duvet and a blanket, the difference between a plastic knife and a stainless steel one, the difference between being served at set times and an ‘always on’ service. I keep reminding myself not to be ungrateful.

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I was reading the Government’s Open Public Service whitepaper recently, and it formed a key part of a short talk I was giving at Social Business #2. The whitepaper was published in July 2011 and it ‘sets out how the Government will improve public services. By putting choice and control in the hands of individuals and neighbourhoods, public services will become more responsive to peoples’ needs.’

The white paper sets out five principles:

  • Wherever possible we will increase choice
  • Public services should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level
  • Public services should be open to a range of providers
  • We will ensure fair access to public services
  • Public services should be accountable to users and to taxpayers


The five principles and much of the language used in the white paper bears a striking similarity to the language and thinking embodied by social media. Notions of authenticity, openness, transparency, choice, diversity, decentralisation are shared between the two.


The white paper has been written during a time of great change. From a customer service perspective we are seeing a move from a transactional interaction to a more empathetic customer experience, where the experience becomes the service; at times, seemingly more important than the resolution itself.

We have seen something better, and are turning our back on a brand of customer service underpinned by Taylorism and returning to something more humane, intimate and articulate.


This is a period of disruption, where the convergence of people and social, is resulting in moments of serendipity that challenge both individual and organisational habit chains.


In 2006, Wikinomics was published. Don Tapscott writes about the ‘shared canvas where every splash of paint contributed by one user provides a richer tapestry for the next user to modify or build on’.

In 2010, Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus writes: ‘We are increasingly becoming one another’s infrastructure’.

In 2010, Howard Rheingold in a YouTube video talks about the idea of ‘digital literacy‘.

in 2011, Lyle Fong (Lithium) in an interview with Ray Wang (Constellation Group) asks the question: ‘What happens when we treat customers as part of the company?’


This is the backdrop against which the white paper has been written. The underlying aim of the Open Public Service white paper seems to be to replace the – old, centralised approach to public service delivery  with – government services wherever you are – by – harnessing the power of new technology to transform our public services.

The white paper talks about decentralising service to the ‘lowest appropriate level’, as if this was some kind of conscious decision on the part of the Government. It is the Government that will decide which services will be decentralised, and the lowest level to which this will happen.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that the decentralisation of services is inevitable. It will take place regardless of the government’s involvement. It is not a decision to be made solely by the Government alone. It will take place because we have seen something better. It has begun.

I’ve been watching a number of YouTube videos recently featuring Howard Rheingold talking about ‘digital literacy’.

Howard Rheingold Digital Literacies

People of the Screen, Rick Prelinger and Howard Rheingold at IFTF

In the video above, he asks the question: What is it that we assume that people know in this day of everyone carrying a laptop, a phone that’s connected to the net?

He goes on to say: But they really don’t in terms of a literacy. By literacy I mean, a skill plus social. I think there are at least five essential literacies – attention, participation, collaboration, network-savvy, critical consumption (‘crap detection’).

I started thinking about this idea of ‘digital literacy’ in the context of customer service agents, the customers they deal with, and the organisation itself.


What I have come to realise over the past few years is that social is a journey of discovery and exploration. I create my individual playbook as I go along. I add new gestures to it, I annotate existing ones. I learn different currencies. I remove those gestures that are no longer relevant, no longer have a purpose. There are those that I have simply forgotten about. And those that I collect like books on a shelf, to come back to at some future moment of quiet. But no one has taught me. No one has shown me their directory of gestures. I create my own index, my own categorisation. Yes, I have looked to others to see what they were doing, but only to learn, to re-interpret, to make my own.

I speak a language called Android. Instagram, however, is not a part of my dialect. Or not yet, anyway.

I rely on intuition, the desire to explore, the desire to understand… the knowledge that these literacies may result in something greater – moments of serendipity.

You rely on a different set of literacies that require a different set of gestures. But via Twitter, Facebook, AudioBoo, Storify, Instagram, WordPress, StumbleUpon, Ushahidi, Layar, YouTube we are able, for a moment, to converse, to sometimes share gestures, learn new ones, create new gestures of shared meaning.

This is my playbook and I share it with you for a moment.


YouTube requires its own set of literacies.

Twitter does as well. And Facebook. And Kred. And Oolone.

What are the literacies that underlie these platforms that enable us to converse with each other?

Do they change if you are an individual? An organisation? A customer complaining? Someone looking for a job? Two people meeting by chance on a train?

Do we know all these literacies? Do we need to know them all?


We live in a highly connected age. We have the potential to live – ‘on’ ‘now’.

Those who have iPads vs those who do not. But having an iPad is not enough. Understanding the literacy of the iPad and the new and emerging literacies it offers is. Do you dare accept the challenge? Or will you forever be stuck with ‘old world’ literacies in a new world device. Do you simply collect covers?


We have lived in a time when we knew the answers. We became complacent. This is no longer the case. We do not have the answers. The answers lie in the journey, in each of our own playbooks, whether an individual, an organisation, or both.

…who will teach you the new gestures, the new literacies? Who will help you decipher the different currencies that are emerging all the time?

Those who understand vs Those who do not

Those who understand ‘how’ vs Those who do not

Do you trust ‘those who know how to’ enough to learn from them?

Do you trust?

Perhaps this is the first literacy?

We spend so much time thinking about call deflection, setting up Live Chat, ROI of Twitter customer service, delighting the customer…

But I’m wondering how much time we think about what the future of customer service could look like? We are living in a period of huge change, where every day we are challenged by things that are new, different, faster, more convenient. Offerings such as – UshahidiZeeboxGoogle HangoutsLayarFacebook verbsStorifyMy6Sense – offer us tantalising glimpses into what that future could look like.

For each of us, these offerings will likely result in different responses predicated on different priorities, different concerns.  But whatever your response, whatever your priorities, whatever your concerns, the issue is not whether you ‘get social’, the issue is not one of cost savings, the issue is not one of ROI or a lack of senior management buy-in, but ultimately, whether you or your organisation ‘gets’ your customer.


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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ‘trial and error’. I’ve also been reading Henry Petroski’s book ‘To Engineer is Human: The role of failure in successful design‘. I’ve also been thinking about this in the context of social customer care and how so many companies who are looking to go down this route are looking for answers to some of the following questions:

  • What’s the ROI?
  • How do I scale it?
  • What skillsets do my agents need?
  • Who owns it?
  • Where should I start: Twitter, Facebook or communities?

In his book, Petroski gives many examples of engineering failures, where bridges have twisted or buildings collapsed. But what intrigued me, and continues to do so, was the fact that none of these ‘failures’ set out to be. These buildings and bridges were designed with the utmost rigour, by engineers with expertise, experience and knowledge. And yet, a combination of events conspired resulting in ‘failure’. This notion of ‘failure’ is an interesting one.

Petroski writes (p43): “…engineers hypothesize about assemblages of concrete and steel that they arrange into a world of their own making. Thus each new building or bridge may be considered to be a hypothesis in its own right. In particular, one hypothesis of a structural engineer might be that so and so bridge across such and such river under these and those conditions of traffic and maintenance will stand for so many years without collapsing. Now if such a bridge were built and were to carry traffic year after year without trouble, the hypothesis would be confirmed time and time again – but it will never be proven until the so many years under the original plan had elapsed. But should the bridge collapse suddenly under no extraordinary conditions before those so many years were up, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the original hypothesis was incontrovertibly wrong.”

He continues (p44): “The process of engineering design may be considered a succession of hypotheses that such and such an arrangement of parts will perform a desired function without fail. As each hypothetical arrangement of parts is sketched literally or figuratively on the calculation pad or computer screen, the candidate structure must be checked by analysis. The analysis consists of a series of questions about the behavior of the parts under the imagined conditions of use after construction. These questions may be easily answered for designs that are not particularly innovative, but a computer may be required to perform all the calculations needed to analyze a bold new design. If any of the parts fails the test of analysis, then the design itserlf may be said to be a failure. A design can be altered by strengthening the weak link and then analyzing the new design. The process continues until the designer can imagine no possible way in which the structure can fail under the anticipated use. Of course, if the designer makes an error in calculation or overlooks the possibility of failure or does not program the computer to ask the right question, then the hypothesis will erroneously be thought to have been verified when in fact it should have been disproved. Absolute certainty about the fail-proofness of a design can never be attained, for we can never be certain that we have been exhaustive in asking questions about its future.

“The fundamental feature of all engineering hypotheses is that they state, implicitly if not explicitly, that a designed structure will not fail if it is used as intended. Engineering failures may then be viewed as disproved hypotheses. …On the other hand, the past success of an engineering structure confirms the hypothesis of its function only to the same extent that the historical rising of the sun each morning has reassured us of a predictable future. The structural soundness of the Brooklyn Bridge only proves to us that it has stood for over one hundred years; that it will be standing tomorrow is a matter of probability, albeit high probability, rather than one of certainty'”


Over the past few years a different type of customer service has emerged. One that is more intimate and humane. The challenge facing many eager to participate is, as that incredibly prescient book The Cluetrain Manifesto points out in the Introduction (pXXXI):

“Though corporations insist on seeing it as one, the new marketplace is not necessarily a market at all. To its inhabitants, it is primarily a place in which all participants are audience to each other. The entertainment is not packaged; it is intrinsic. Unlike the lockstep conformity imposed by television, advertising, and corporate propaganda, the Net has given new legitimacy – and free rein – to play. Many of those drawn into this world find themselves exploring a freedom never before imagined: to indulge their curiosity, to debate, to disagree, to laugh at themselves, to compare visions, to learn, to create new art, new knowledge.”


Social media is a journey. The journey you make – individual or corporate – is intrinsic in finding the answer to your questions.

And when you do set out on your bold new journey, do you set out looking to prove or disprove the ‘failure’ or ‘success’ of your hypothesis? How do you know you have the right hypothesis? What’s your next hypothesis? How do you hypothesise about a ‘ freedom you never before imagined?

I met up with Joshua March earlier today of Conversocial, who are doing some excellent things in the social media customer service space at the moment. Conversocial’s platform sets out to ‘manage customer service at scale in Facebook and Twitter’. They have identified a niche and are building up a solid and robust proposition. Meeting with Joshua today reminded me that I’ve not blogged for a few weeks, and that I had a number of half-written posts which I needed to finish. So keeping with the Facebook theme…


Over the last eight to twelve months or so the use of Facebook as a customer service platform has gained increasing popularity amongst organisations willing to expand their social customer care repertoire beyond Twitter.

There is no doubt that Facebook is becoming more and more embedded into the social landscape that many of us now increasingly inhabit. When I first noticed organisations, such as Thomas Cook, using Facebook for customer service I was somewhat perplexed: I couldn’t understand how it could be used or why someone would use it.

After deciding to spend a bit of time trying to understand this ‘F-space’ a bit more, I came to the realisation that Facebook was simply a platform that enabled people to ask a question, write a complaint or help someone else out. Since then, I have seen Facebook used for customer service in a number of different ways:

  • Native functionality: Responding to complaints and questions posted to a company’s ‘Wall’
  • Plug-in: Lithium allows their community platform to be directly plugged into Facebook (BT), while Get Satisfaction allows customers to ask a question, share an idea, report a problem or give praise (Thomas Cook). Requires that a specific tab is set up
  • Info-tab: O2 adopts a slightly different approach and via their ‘O2 Gurus’ tab provides a number of short videos with handy tips and hints
  • Interface: Providing a series of links back to the company’s FAQs or Help homepage from a customer support tab (Dell)
  • Directory: List of relevant email addresses or phone numbers (Tesco) from a customer support tab

The purpose of this post is not to provide an analysis of these different approaches (I’ll leave that for an upcoming piece I’m writing looking at the use of Facebook as a customer service platform in more depth), but rather something that intrigued me following on from the recent announcements coming out of Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference. And that was the use of ‘verbs’ to describe someone’s activity. This is part of Facebook’s play for the ‘open graph’. Interestingly, and this is an aside, Lithium seems to overlook the power of the ‘open graph’ and the potential to exploit it, by not integrating its proposition into the Wall itself. Lithium’s approach creates another activity stream that itself needs to be resourced.

I like the idea of this ‘open graph’ and I like the idea of almost treating verbs as a hashtag or a trigger for an event or activity. But it made me think that in doing so, Facebook was also potentially rendering customer service itself to the level of a verb. Perhaps the verb becomes the service?

Resolve, fix, return, deliver, hate, solve, help, repair, complain, dislike, dissatisfied, fail…

In this way, the space (or disconnect) between the service required and the verb used to express it condenses; they become inextricably linked.

I’m not sure what the implications of this are yet, if anything, but it strikes me that words in the online/virtual space may well take on more meaning. In the same way, a QR code unlocks additional information about a product or service, so too the ‘verb’ within a Facebook context may unlock a further action or information, whether that is a resolution, a complaint or a question…