My notes from the Customer Support in a 140-Character World panel. Panelists were Frank Eliason from Comcast (@ComcastCares), Lois Townsend (@ltownsend) from HP, Toby Richards (@TobyRichards) from Microsoft and Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) from Altimeter. The moderator was Caroline McCarthy (@Caro) from CNET News.
Caroline: Is social media the most effective platform to reach out to customers when it seems so difficult to harness?
Frank: The company doesn't own the channel. The customers own the channel. It's a feasible place for feedback but how will the companies respond? Will they let their customers stand up for them or will they be there themselves?
Lois: It's a way to connect with the customer but not converse with the customer. There's so much that's going on. Our goal is to get hold of the customer and get them where they need to go. It's a “virtual concierge” model.
Frank: I disagree with you. It's still a dialog with your customer. In a perfect scenario, the Kevin Smith situation would have been resolved while he was still at the airport. I don't think of it as a concierge service. We won't strive to do more for the people who are being loud. If you do that, it just becomes PR. If someone says they don't like your company, it's an opening for a dialog.
Caroline: We're seeing the convergence of customer service and PR. Does your PR or customer service department run your Twitter account, and how much coordination is between them?
Jeremiah: There really isn't a difference between customer service and PR. It's become very clear that customers don't care what department you're in, they just want their problem fixed. Maybe they should be the same department. Maybe Marketing should report to Support. Maybe Support should report to Marketing.
Toby: As a company, we've invested in the way we listen to our customers. Our attitude is to be as transparent as possible. That doesn't always mean saying yes to the customer, but telling them what you can do. There certainly is a conversation to be had. We launched our @MicrosoftHelps account with Windows 7. Our main goal from support was to keep the customer healthy. We worked with marketing. If you have a social CRM mindset, you can keep a healthy relationship among the departments.
Caroline: What do you do if you get “Kevin Smithed”?
Frank: The biggest hit to the Comcast brand was two videos on YouTube. It doesn't take someone with millions of followers to do something about your brand. You treat them right, try to help out and listen. And you need to be more transparent in your response to others. If you can't help, be honest about it and why.
Toby: If you've got the policies and processes in place you can allow people on the front end to be responsive. The listening systems we have in place allow Microsoft employees to respond quickly. Even if it's a real issue we get kudos for responding quickly.
Lois: We have had situations arise that are very controversial and we had something go viral around the holidays about one of our products being racist. The key was responding quickly in a genuine manner about how the technology works and what we're doing about it. We have more mundane ones in support much more frequently. Around the Windows 7 release, people want their seven or eight-year old products to work immediately and want to know why the drivers aren't available. We have to let people know how it works from a business perspective and why we can't always do everything.
Audience question about listening:
Toby: We have an escalation process and customer service workflow that lets us get to the right person quickly. We also do call monitoring and pay attention to support forums. You've got your hot issues as well as your systemic issues.
Lois: Those listening systems are the thing that make the job I'm in so exciting. We're actually having fun with what we're doing because we're hearing the customer and can bring information to our colleagues about what our customers want. It's more exciting to do that than to bring a report once a month. If you have words the customer said, it's incredibly influential.
Jeremiah: Social media is not scalable. You can never hire enough community managers to respond in real time.
Frank: A lot of these same things were said about other communications tools. There are tools that exist today where you can easily hammer these things. Not every customer is going to talk about your brand all the time.
The other scalability factor that's never discussed is that this has changed the game internally. I see people complain about us on Twitter, then two tweets later I see people tweet, “Did you check in with @ComcastCares? Five years from now it will be a whole new model.
Audience question: How large are your teams? How do you manage internal expectations for responsiveness?
Lois: My team is 11 people. Beyond that is an incredible virtual network we call the HP Ambassador Program, where we have about 75 employees actively working with customers in various sites like our customer support forums.
Frank: I have ten plus a manager plus myself. To give you scale, we review 6 to 10,000 blogs a day that refer to Comcast, but the majority of that is because they have a comcast.com email address. Thousands of tweets and forum mentions, plus 6000 to 7000 emails a month.
Toby: We support about 12 million customers a month. We have about a half dozen people on the Twitter account using the concierge approach, plus about 200 support engineers in support forums. The way we scale is by recognizing influencers in the community, the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional program. They are our best fans and our toughest critics. Having a handle on who your influencers are is a great way to create scale.
Question: How do you bridge the gap between the online and real world in customer service issues?
Lois: Sometimes the front line person doesn't have the same resources or knowledge of what can be done for the customer. We had a customer vacationing in Spain. He needed support for his notebook. He called the local office and they spoke Spanish. Our Twitter ambassador was able to get him someone to give him support in English in his motor home on the coast of Spain.
Jeremiah: That's where the social CRM system is going to be king. I think Southwest played all of their cards right in a reactive method. They've established customer relationships with their blogs. They did apologize not once but twice. You need to tie the customer data to the social data in real time. You still need people to be responsive, but how do you tie the customer data to the social data?
Frank: It's about changing the process. If you want to change your company, put Twitter on your CEOs desktop.
Jeremiah: Is responding to customers in Twitter encouraging your customers to shout at their friends when they need an issue resolved?
Frank: 75 percent of the people we deal with on Twitter never corresponded to us before. Twitter is the early warning system. Ultimately even before people knew we were there, they were still doing the same thing. They're communicating in their own style.
Blogs are after the fact, forums can help you learn from your customers.
We'll send people information about how they can respond, but at some point you have to stop going back and forth. That's the hardest part about doing this as a brand. Sometimes you will find people who are personal and negative and hurtful. You have to have a thick skin.
Lois: The real value is the community engaging with itself. Our superusers are online all the time. One of the key success factors is to allow the community to exist.
Question: Do you have employee social media policies, and a style guide that helps them understand how conversations should go?
Frank: For us we have a social media policy as well as education, but we don't tell people what style to use. Beyond that, there are a lot of examples of interactions, but we don't center it around one style. But we do teach them what works.
Toby: We have core principles around issues like not releasing information about a product before its available and about talking about the value proposition of the products.
Question: How did you leverage your traditional customer service functions?
Jeremiah: At Hitachi we integrated the forums on the support page, and promoted the support pages on the hold message. You definitely want to integrate with your other channels.
Lois: On the enterprise side it was launched about ten years ago. We also entered at the same time on the consumer side. We were a little early and consumers weren't engaging that much. It's really taken off for consumers about a year and a half ago.
Toby: We have efforts with our partner channels. 96 percent of our business is done with our partner channels. We launched @MicrosoftPartners to support our channel partners and we have closed forums for partners. We definitely see the value of social in working with partners.
We're really in the early stages of customer support, we see how important it is and we're infusing that slowly into the business.
Frank: All our people have a background in traditional customer service.
Caroline: If you have a great reputation for online customer service but your traditional customer service isn't as good, what do you do?
Frank: Twitter has changed the culture of the company. My team is not measured on the number of interactions, it's measured on what we've done to improve the customer experience as a whole. We have a very tight knit method for taking feedback and doing something with it. Our credo for all our employees is centered around creating better customer service.
Question: Social media is blurring the lines. I still see support in silos. Do you see it in the future, especially in social CRM, where you could have one location to go to and figure out what's going on?
Jeremiah: Why should you have to go to HP, Microsoft and Comcast support sites to try to solve a problem? In the long run, URLs don't matter. Your social profile will go with you anywhere on the Web.
Toby: If you set your goals on reducing customer effort and then introduce social, that's going to change your approach. I don't want to be the best software company to respond on Twitter, I want to reduce customer effort.
Lois: I've seen way more collaboration than marketing and support than I've seen in my entire career. We have marketing people coming to us all the time trying to understand more about our customers. We've also brought in product experts and hosted events on our branded forum on particular topics. We had events around Windows 7, for instance. We're starting more joint initiatives to reduce customer effort.
Question: I'm curious about the temporal aspects of Twitter. If you do it on a forum, it's discoverable later. Do people use Twitter to search for support?
Frank: It does actually benefit because I can hit a million people in minutes if it's big enough. It won't give you the benefits of a forum, but if you get an interesting question on Twitter, we'll put it in the forums.
Jeremiah: Customer support centers are cost centers. That will change and they can become profit centers.
Frank: We should concentrate on making them service centers.