Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Customer Service and Twitter

I am a major advocate of Twitter these days, now that we're beginning to see some more mature uses of the medium beyond sharing the sort of latte the person in line in front of you is ordering. Reputation and brand management is one such emerging use that makes a great deal of sense to me. Breaking news is another - I do hope 'real' journalists and citizen journalists figure out how to play nicely together in a way that drives the sort of revenue that keeps trained journalists employed. We still need them just as much as we need citizen journalists.

Customer service and technical support, the role in organizations that is most near and dear to my own heart is a bit more complicated than the brand management element and may be looking at a reinvention of its own.

At this point, there are two things that I know. Firstly, Twitter (or something like it) will be involved. Secondly, we don't yet have a serious clue exactly how that will look when it's done right.

Twitter will play an important role in customer service because that's where so many customers are and there are more and more of them on Twitter all the time. To ignore customers in the Twitterverse is to sign your own death warrant.

On the other hand, to engage in brand management efforts devoid of any response that is truly meaningful to the customer is to make only empty promises. Customers figure out pretty quickly (even more so when they're talking with one another) that empty promises are just a way of pretending you're not ignoring them.

Fine - so we'll engage with our customers via Twitter and that's customer service on Twitter.

Not so fast.

To be effective and to provide value, customer service functions and technical support even more so, must be scalable and must provide more than one-off responses that are then subsequently lost. Logging customer interactions and tracking reported incidents and making this data searchable - which ultimately evolved into customer relationship management and knowledge management initiatives - are important elements to efficiently providing effective, valuable, and scalable customer service.

Simply responding to customer complaints that show up on Twitter doesn't take that into account so while it might work for a short time - and look good while it's working - it can't last. And then what you've got is a PR nightmare that no amount of brand management effort on Twitter or anywhere else can save.

That means we've got to figure out the why, the how and the detailed logistics of how to make it work. I believe this is a much bigger conversation, and some companies are clearly beginning both the discussion and the experimentation needed to move it forward. And that is truly just the beginning.

There is a great deal of work to be done on this front, which is rather exciting to me even though I'm reasonably certain it's a bit frightening to those organizations figuring out this train is already running much faster than they feel like they can catch up.

Hint - if you don't feel even a bit concerned about that, then chances are pretty good you don't even realize there is a train to catch, which means you run the risk of being run over by that train outright.

But I digress...

Before we can make much progress, we have to identify what customer service needs Twitter satisfies - and also what needs it creates. We have to identify tools and create process that help fully integrate Twitter into existing "best practices" and create new "best practices that are possible within this new paradigm we're creating. True, Twitter is just another communication method, but I've long held (about 24 years, actually) that the mode of communication actually influences the communication process itself. That too is another digression.

One "for instance" on the tool side, Socialtext might provide a solution for some needs; other tools probably exist as well and there are more needed to be built once we better understand the requirements.

On the process side, it's important to work out how best to handle the matter when a customer captures the attention of the CEO instead of a technical support agent as well as how to drive conversations toward customer service rather than away from them to someone else seen as more effective.

This is an old issue writ even larger by the existence of Twitter. Most customer service professionals dread this happening. Not because CEO's shouldn't talk to customers - they absolutely should - but that they should know enough about their inner workings of their own organizations to make the problems better, not worse, and in so doing, still follow established processes so that someone doesn't jump the line just because they know the right @ name to use.

What it really comes down to is that it's probably no less true of organizations than it is of individuals that the increased attention that comes with something like Twitter doesn't change you so much as expose you for who you really are.

In the meantime, I have some thoughts of my own about what it will take to pull this off and make customer service and support work in a world that seems inclined to tip more and more toward Twitter. First though, I'd like to hear what you think, what your questions and concerns happen to be at this point, and what you've seen and heard that works for you.

What do the people depending on me really need?