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For social media savvy customers looking to engage companies directly, Facebook and Twitter serve alternate customer support channels.  Instead of waiting on the phone for an agent, customers jump to the front of the queue by going online.  But when companies fail to design for integration of social media channels into established customer support processes they introduce inefficiencies and increased costs.  Enter the Shadow Customer Support organization.

Over 9,000 flights were cancelled two weeks ago, my 2/1 1:45pm to New York was one of them.  Here’s the communication timeline with my airline to get rescheduled on a new flight:

2/1/2011

  • 10:23 am: I receive flight cancellation email.
  • 10:26 am: I call Frequent Flyer customer support desk.  I’m not allowed to speak with an agent.  In fact, the automated system notifies me that heavy call volume dictates they have to hang up, which they promptly do.
  • 10:31 am: I tweet my airline letting them know I have a problem.
  • 10:36 am: Airline replies, requests I direct message (DM) my flight info.
  • 10:42 am: I DM the airline my flight info.
  • 10:45 am: Airline replies, confirming receipt of my tweet and flight info.
  • 10:50 am: I receive email confirmation of a re-booked flight.
  • 12:46 pm: I call Frequent Flyer customer support desk (just to see if they’re still congested).  Still the same heavy traffic message and hang-up.

The consumer in me was thrilled with this unexpected expediency, but the Social Business Designer was concerned.  I had a hunch that:

  • the person on the other end of this company’s Twitter account works in a communications department, not customer support
  • as such, the person on the other end of this company’s Twitter account has no formal training in customer support nor the company’s reservation system
  • as such, to help me reschedule my flight, this untrained person had to reach across organizational lines and tie up multiple resources which increased costs
  • no metrics were captured on my experience

Curious, I DM’d the folks at the company’s Twitter account to request an interview. They kindly accepted and took twenty minutes from their busy day to address and confirm my suspicions.  The Communications department, in conjunction with their ad agency, runs their Twitter account.  Staffed by one employee on a normal day, with ad hoc ramp-up to as many as six when circumstances (such as heavy cancellations) require, the company’s Twitter account exists to listen, engage and help customers when they can.

How is this going to scale?

This company has proudly converted customers into brand advocates that race to the company’s defense when curmudgeons hijack the company’s Facebook page.  Their approach to social media is unbelievably progressive compared to companies even 24 months ago and they should be lauded for it. But as Social Business matures to business as usual, social media strategies and tactics must move beyond listening and unstructured engagement.

Pew Research reports that only eight percent of online Americans use Twitter, and yet this company increased (read: repurposed) staff six-fold to handle last week’s rush.  If Twitter’s impressive 2010 growth continues and more people realize the customer support arbitrage opportunities that exist in social channels, something has to give.  Ad hoc staffing and engagement models, like the one this company successfully employed to develop brand advocates, will break and the advocates will undoubtedly turn.

What Can Companies Do?

Becoming a Social Business requires (re)design.  Companies wishing to use Twitter and Facebook for social servicing need to integrate new channels into their already existing customer support structure; examination through a people, process & technology framework should highlight focus areas.

People

While many social business initiatives, like social media monitoring of Twitter and Facebook channels, live in the Communications department, social servicing isn’t a good fit.  Communication department employees need to be trained in a company’s customer support process as well as the tools used to support that process.  Conversely, customer support employees need to be brought up to speed on the new ways their company engages customers.

Process

Fortune 500 Companies spend large amounts of time and money optimizing customer support workflows.  Any type of customer support that happens outside these workflows is inefficient and costly.  Reduction of these costs requires a reworking of current processes to include new customer support channels, the workflows and decision rights they entail.

Technology

To enable customer support people and process, companies also invest heavily in technology.  Technology helps with customer support triage, scalability and reporting.  Issues originating from social channels need to flow through the same systems all others do.  Good-bye social servicing arbitrage.

Remember

More people use social media everyday and the number of customer support issues originating through those channels will only increase.  Unprepared organizations risk creating shadow customer support, increased costs and brand advocates turned brand detractors.  If your company’s Communications and Operations departments don’t already talk, now would be a good time to pick up the phone.

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I’m not sure it’s the first thing that pops into a KM purist’s mind, but it does seem to fit this definition surprisingly well.  

In my current role, I’m responsible for bringing change to the way our employees traditionally do their work.  As a big part of that includes the adoption of social media, one of the agenda items I’m pushing is an enterprise micro-blogging capability.  Outside the walls of work I not only have  fun participating on Twitter, I do derive a great deal of personal value from it as well:  insight into my passions (both personal and professional), peer review & feedback, expertise location, network expansion, timely alerts to pertinent information (I actually first learned the date, location, speakers and topics of my own company’s annual IT Forum on Twitter from a non-employee…that’s crazy!), and innovation & ideation.  

I believe knowledge is highly social and that it happens in the cracks between our published and documented work:  in the water cooler, email & IM conversations we have that aren’t indexed or searchable; in the impromptu meetings and white-board sessions that have no minutes or ‘share this with others’ button.  Imagine moving those interactions to a platform capable of storing, indexing & making searchable those interactions?  By capturing   the lifestreams’ of its users, Twitter does a very good job of  tracking what’s in those cracks and by extension KM.   Maybe a better way of putting it is that the social nature of knowledge lends itself to Twitter.  

Here are the Motivations of KM as Wikipedia defines them:

  • Making available increased knowledge content in the development and provision of products and services
  • Achieving shorter new product development cycles
  • Facilitating and managing innovation and organisational learning
  • Leveraging the expertise of people across the organisation
  • Increasing network connectivity between internal and external individuals
  • Managing business environments and allowing employees to obtain relevant insights and ideas appropriate to their work
  • Solving intractable or wicked problems
  • Managing intellectual capital and intellectual assets in the workforce (such as the expertise and know-how possessed by key individuals)

Well, heck.  I’d say Twitter does most, if not all of those things.  If those are your ‘holes in the wall’ then I’d say Twitter could definitely be your drill.  Here’s a post from Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang (I highly doubt that if you’re reading this you don’t already know who he is) that might help fill in some of this posts’ gaps.

I’m trying to convince my peers and leadership that we don’t necessarily need the traditional threaded discussion board or Ask An Expert-type application; that if we do our change management correctly all we need is micro-blogging, a document management system that gives URL’s and maybe a link-trimmer, a la Snurl.

Those three things are a powerful combination, they’re cheap and low-risk, too (I’m guessing if you’re interested in KM your company already has a document management solution that spits out URL’s).  Twitter may not be your father’s KM solution, but it certainly solves his problems.  I’m getting more and more convinced of this every day…