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Bring the noise

01 Feb 2011

New Zealand businesses have been slow to tune into the next big trend in marketing and customer care: the social media buzz, which enables more intimate engagement with the online community about products, service levels and branding. And the warning is that if companies aren’t aware of what’s being said about them on Facebook, Twitter, blog sites, wikis and chat channels, escalating problems and marketing opportunities will result in lost business and credibility.Rather than waiting for the next customer service operator to become available to a soundtrack of bad on-hold music, disgruntled consumers are rapidly turning to social media channels to air their frustrations.Pioneering New Zealand social media marketing and communications consultant Courtney Lambert, says social media as part of the call centre is "the big white elephant in the room” that no-one really wants to talk about.While there’s plenty of discussion around social media for marketing, advertising and PR, few enterprise tech teams are being asked to integrate the new listening and reporting tools into helpdesk and customer care.Lambert says business structures have remained fairly static since the late 1950s with marketing, communications, PR, call centre and human resources operating as separate divisions."That’s not how customers are interacting; they don’t care about all the departments and how your company is structured, they just want an answer to their problems.”She says applying social networking elements to call centres requires changes to organisational design. Outward facing departments have to share information and report more closely and internal applications have to be more transparent or the processes won’t hold.Like good marketing, sales and customer support strategies, embracing social networking requires planning, resourcing and preferably an interdepartmental brainstorming session to ensure everyone has buy in."Companies are becoming their own media organisations so you have to ask "who is the editor?” Who is making sure quality is maintained? If everyone is acting like their own private publishers, talking on behalf of the company, it’ll be a shambles,” warns Lambert.More than marketingLast year the Orcon marketing team, managing the internet provider’s Twitter account, faced an increase in the number of technical questions and realised their role was better suited to the contact centre team. New staff were added and the company began using Tweetdeck and tools to enable multiple people to manage an account.Chief executive Scott Bartlett says it’s about being in the space where people are and that’s the best way to help manage escalations and disseminate information."Twitter isn’t a substitute for phone calls, it’s a value-add for our customers,” says Bartlett.Adding social networking to the mix shows people you are listening. "People want to be listened to, and in our business it’s vital we hear what they are saying and respond.”Essentially Bartlett says you get out what you put in. "In theory social media is cheap but it takes a lot of time and requires businesses to free up time to respond.”Only five years ago, he says, it was hard to find out what people thought of your company, or your brand. "You had to commission research that cost a bundle. Now, you listen to what they are saying online. It’s a great barometer of how you are doing, as people are quick to speak their mind online.”Bartlett sees Twitter as a quick and efficient way to get a snapshot of what people think and to gain feedback on marketing plans, but it has to be done properly as part of a conversation. "You use social media as a one-way marketing tool at your own risk.”RightNow Technologies, in a recent survey of Australian and New Zealand businesses, claimed the web, social media and contact centres could help address the high level of attrition occurring through poor customer experience.Industries facing the greatest churn were travel, finance, insurance, telecommunications, utilities, online retailers and ISPs. Although bad service had caused 61% of New Zealand customers to remove business following a negative customer experience, ironically many stayed loyal because they had a low expectation of competitors.More than half of New Zealand respondents (63%) actively used social networking sites and 23% had withheld business after seeing social web commentary on how customers were treated.RightNow’s Director of International Influencer Relations Jo Brealy, warns not to underestimate the social web in shaping consumer sentiment. Positive discussions were equally as influential in shaping consumer spending.While the phone remains the preferred means of communication, there was a strong indication more than half of business would move into social media in 2011 and Brealy suggests companies refocus some of their advertising budgets in that direction to build stronger, experience-based customer retention strategies.Kiwis sitting on the fenceIn the UK the shift to social media in the contact centre is now ‘business as usual’ but locally, says Rob Parker, Business Development Manager with software innovator Datasquirt, most companies are still trialling ahead of choosing the appropriate management platform.Typically that platform would offer a single view of all customer interactions, integrating social media with voice, email, SMS and fax communications but only after determining what kind of interaction was needed."We map pilot projects from a listening perspective to understand the positive and negative sentiments about a product or brand and how to trap and report specific social media content,” says Parker.Datasquirt develops APIs (application programming interfaces) to integrate existing customer facing tools with blogs, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter feeds and adds listening tools for relevant social media content.Parker says contact centres need the same management controls, service levels and reporting for social media as they have for voice, including who is handling what and how quickly, so managers have the metrics to meet their service level agreements (SLAs).He says a good system should enable an agent to switch from public engagement on Twitter to private email and back again, queue social media messages to different operators, schedule comments or broadcasts, and personalise and quality check tweets before they are posted.It is imperative reporting data is simple and easy to understand and that customers are kept in the loop. This might be as simple as setting up auto responses for queries or chat requests outside business hours, so customers know when to expect a response.Social hearing aidsLambert says a test case will help determine if your structure is geared to support the outcome, and help determine how social media can assist your business.She suggests ring fencing a specific project or area of the business, perhaps around a sponsorship, a campaign or event rather than putting your main brand at risk. For example creating ‘social objects’ has worked well for Cadbury Crème Eggs, NZI State’s National Jandal Day Surf Life Saving promotion and Heineken Open Tennis.However she warns some agencies are overselling expensive listening tools, largely because there’s a big retainer for them. The real value often has to do with who’s operating them."If you don’t have an analyst sitting on the other end, a dashboard will never tell you who is online, whether they’re an influential person or how careful you should be with your messaging."And you shouldn’t expect all the feedback to be positive. She says Hell Pizza was getting bagged last year for the content on its website. "All people do is complain. They really need to address that if they want real value from their social networking.”Tuning in by degree2degrees has a team of three people monitoring social media feeds with tools to pick up any mention of their name, even if it relates to the temperature in colder parts of the world. Contact Centre Manager Richard Fuli, says social media is a vital component of helping and informing customers but it can be a struggle unless key stakeholders agree on how to work together and ensure the right systems and internal support are in place.There needs to be clarity on how to handle commercial, regulatory, product, business strategy and customer inquiries. "It’s a much more honest and inclusive channel. We run tight processes and it really does hold us accountable for certain measurements.”The company took advice from Facebook users — it currently has more than 50,000 fans —ahead of its launch last year and is about to expand its use of monitoring and management tools.Fuli says it’s important to diversify in order to understand and appreciate the changing behaviour of customers as they move from voice to smarter channels. "If you don’t, you risk losing contact and the opportunity to develop stronger and more intimate relationships.”He says social media allows for a more expansive conversation. "A phone call is very directed while the social media space is more relaxed and over time we can get more details from customers and present more comprehensive solutions.”Smooth operatorsAs ambassadors at the front line of corporate culture, contact centre agents need to know how social media communities work and how this relates to changing customer relationships.Written word skills are more important, as is knowing how to interpret and defuse online tension. Awareness of whether journalists are picking up on a story angle, or awareness that rival companies might be able to capitalise on your misfortunes, is imperative.Scott Bartlett from Orcon says agents require patience, maturity and common sense: "A number of Kiwi companies have been drawn into online arguments that are publicly broadcast to thousands of followers, which is not a good look.”He says social media is like being in a crowded bar. "There’s always someone expressing their opinions more loudly than everyone else. A wise man will listen for a while, but not get involved in a shouting match.”Lambert says making web site communications searchable so people can find things easily is a good first step in encouraging self help but the Holy Grail is to get people helping each other: "It works well on the Vodafone Forum where housewives are giving each other advice on how to install modems. However they have about eight people using a fairly sophisticated social media programme and listening tools and they try to integrate this into their marketing.”In the US she says there’s a growing trend toward ‘hyper-local reporting’ with people commenting on and updating news items using social media. "This is going to put greater pressure on companies to respond to issues more quickly.”Lambert says smart companies should be watching for hot points so they know when to escalate to the PR department to get a statement released that informs people and takes the sting out of difficult situations.She’s concerned at the inability of many organisations to understand the messaging and communications risks and nervous that the debate locally is still occurring at a technology level.While ‘digital natives’ fresh from university might think they know inherently about social media and can drive the apps with ease, it could be quite inflammatory if they’re put in a position where they’re advising executives or dealing with media issues. If there’s a power outage in Auckland or an internet provider’s service is down, hundreds of people might be talking about this online."Some companies are hiring graduates with no communications experience to manage their social media presence and they’re getting flamed. At the other extreme you can have people who are too technical and don’t know how to communicate simply.”While corporates such as Telecom have been very protective of their public profile and selective of those deemed allowed to make comments, social networking creates a huge area of vulnerability. The risk is that any employee, more often those in junior positions, may let slip a comment about what’s happening at a strategic enterprise level that could be picked up by a journalist watching Twitter, which raises some complex ethical and HR issues."I don’t see a lot of people in marketing and communications asking what the messaging and media risk is and who should be the spokesperson. Technical people don’t have the understanding about media communications and how stories get ‘broken’. Once senior managers get involved in this discussion it terrifies them.”Opportunities and risksAn ad hoc approach to integrating social networking can be a recipe for disaster but failing to recognise the opportunities at call centre level could see many businesses left behind in the digital dust.In an age where marketing and anti-spam regulations make it increasingly difficult to mass mail existing and potential customers, social media provides an opportunity to expand the conversation and deepen the relationship.The challenge is to do your homework, improve interdepartmental communications and outward facing strategies, and at the very least differentiate their customer relationships at a time when there’s a growing online backlash against poor service and sub-standard products.With the right management and monitoring tools, social media enabled contact centres will  not only help address on-hold frustrations but significantly improve responsiveness as an integral part of the runaway feedback loop now being driven by tech savvy customers.