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Social networks forcing customer service change

At OpenWorld, Oracle executives and Gartner analysts discussed the impact social networking and new media are having on the service industry and how contact centers must adapt.

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's a good time to be in service and support, said presenters talking about the future of the industry here at Oracle OpenWorld.

"I love being in service now -- we're grabbing hold," said Mike Betzer, vice president of CRM for service at Oracle Corp. "The drive for efficiency is clearly behind us. Our leading customers are clearly thinking about [a new approach to service] at a C-level."

@28033 Betzer, who co-founded hosted call center firm Ineto before it was acquired by Siebel and joined Oracle when it in turn acquired Siebel, sees major changes ahead in the service industry. With reducing costs and improving efficiencies in the contact center now taking a back seat to priorities like improving customer loyalty, new technology and challenges are emerging. Key among these is the arrival of social networks, said Michael Maoz, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., who preceded Betzer at a session here.

Maoz cited the widely publicized example of an AOL customer who recorded every step of their painful process of trying to cancel their subscription from the Internet service provider. The experience was placed online, shared via Digg and eventually found its way onto MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

"You don't just write a letter and get a letter back anymore," Maoz said. "You put it on the Internet and tell everyone on earth. What we control is slipping away."

Organizations need to rethink their services processes from a customer perspective, Maoz said. A company perspective typically progresses from targeting customers, to inquiring, acquiring, to welcoming and eventually developing and managing them. Customers, on the other hand, see their relationships with companies evolving from awareness, to searching to selecting, ordering, paying and set up, to eventually using support and upgrading, Maoz said.

According to Maoz, there are a number of trends pushing companies toward rethinking customer service. Customers expect a seamless experience, one that reaches across channels, whether they contact a company first via the Web or online, they want to be able to continue that process in the other channel. Additionally, "secret" service is enabling this process, acting as an unseen person in the communication loop aiding the experience, whether it's through proactive chat when someone abandons an online shopping cart or a premier customer struggling with the IVR. Service avoidance is also emerging as customers are turning to communities of their peers to help solve problems.

"All of our IT efforts pale in comparison to what's happening with social communities and social networks," Maoz said.

For some here, the shift in the contact center from cost center to profit center and the emerging importance of social networking is already underway.

"We recognize that needs to happen. We've structured our services organization so the company is in alignment with the customer. We've always believed in that," said Julie Floyd, senior manager of IS applications for Altec Industries Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based manufacturer of specialty equipment for utility, tree and telecommunications industries, and an attendee at the conference.

Altec operates its call center as a profit center already, and the session reinforced some of what Altec is already doing.

"It certainly emphasizes what we talk about," she said. "You can sell and differentiate yourself, and be forward and proactive."

As organizations look to invest in this new wave of customer service, they should turn to outsourcers for efficiencies and basic service while maintaining in-house control over things like proactive service. Those efforts tend to be more expensive, but the ROI is two-to-three times as high, Maoz said.

In the next year, Gartner predicts companies will invest heavily in Customer Data Integration, business process management and industry specific services-oriented architectures and using technology like enterprise feedback management, analytics, and Web and IVR self-service.

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