Social networking and contact centres to merge

Datamonitor’s new report examines the potential market for customer service provided through online social networking and how that might be expanded to formal contact centres

When Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher start to use social networking services, it makes headlines across the globe and raises consumer awareness of these emerging communications channels. But according to independent market analysis firm Datamonitor, companies of all sizes have also begun to engage customers and prospects on social networking services.

Much of that activity has been pure marketing, but some companies have started to offer customer service and support through social networking. This, according to Datamonitor, has started companies thinking of ways to connect their key customer service resource, the contact centre, to social networks.

Enterprises of all sizes have started to look for ways to market their brands to potential customers through social networks, according to the research company. Individuals are constructing elaborate online social networks that in many cases are significantly broader than their real world equivalents. These exponentially expanding webs of connections lead to viral communications, so a customer’s uncommonly good experience with a company is no longer heard about just by that person’s four close friends, but by thousands. The converse is also true, of course, and complaints about products and services go viral very quickly.

Ian Jacobs, senior analyst for customer interaction technologies at Datamonitor and the report’s author, said: “Given the boom in popularity of social networks, enterprises of all stripes have started to look for ways to market their brands to potential customers through these services. Whether it is through online contests, coupon and discount offers or just an extended presence to shine positive light on brands, social networking has become a darling of the marketing world.”

The increased corporate presence on these networks has also led to service interactions between company and customer. Some of these interactions result from a direct contact from a customer to a company, akin to a phone call into a contact centre. But with new social media monitoring tools, companies have also begun to inject themselves into customer conversations. If, for example, a customer complains to the world at large about poor service, the company being complained about proactively reaches out to the customer to try to solve the issue.

“When done properly, social network-based customer service interactions drive increased intimacy between company and customer,” said Jacobs. “Customers feel that the company listens to, understands and cares about their preferences.”

Essentially all of the customer service and support being performed today on online social networks comes from social media specialists within companies, said Jacobs. These staffers have the latitude required to understand both the written and unwritten rules of social networking and can imbue the service interactions with some personality.

However, this model cannot scale to meet the exponential growth which online social networking services are experiencing. Therefore, according to Datamonitor there is a clear opportunity for customer interaction technology providers to create solutions that provide scalability for these support operations, primarily by allowing formal contact centre environments to handle some or all of these interactions. There are, of course, numerous technological, business process and cultural hurdles to overcome before this model can gain a strong foothold in the enterprise market.

Jacobs concluded: “Social networks will not be a flash in the pan craze and will not simply disappear or burn themselves out. Companies that choose to simply ignore this trend will relegate themselves to the outdated, fuddy duddy camp, an important distinction depending on a company’s desired demographic, and more worryingly, maybe even to obsolescence.”