Social Media and the Contact Center

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineShould your contact center handle social media for your organization or clients? Perhaps you already are but desire to do so with greater ease and effectiveness. Alternately, the idea of social media as part of your contact center mix may present an overwhelming challenge that you’d prefer to not touch.

Regardless of your perspective, looking at the past can shine a light on the future, providing hope for the haggard and vision for the cautious. That doesn’t mean that all the needed social media integration tools exist today, but we can reasonably expect history to repeat itself. Let me explain by taking a walk down memory lane.

First there were calls, whether inbound or outbound. The answering of ringing phones and the dialing of digits were the sole purpose of call centers for several decades. Aside from some operations that may have also handled faxes and snail mail, call centers were just that, centralized workplaces were agents processed calls. But faxes came and went, as did the art of letter writing, both giving way to the simplicity and speed of a new technology: email.

Email ushered in a philosophical transition in name from call center to contact center, following the increased communication options available to consumers. Email opened up a new channel of opportunity for call centers – and their customers – sparking the enhanced label of contact center. This revised name more fully embraced the expanded service offerings of the quintessential call center. Not far behind email was text chat, a third customer communication channel for the contact center to consider.

In the early days, agents often had to try to handle all three. This was without the benefit of universal queues or even integrated tools. While email could be batched – as long as the delay wasn’t too great – chat carried with it the expectation of a near real-time response. Over time, email and chat platforms actually began to interface with call center switches, eventually giving way to full integration. This allowed for the universal queue, which forever prevented a phone call and a chat from arriving simultaneously while an agent worked on an email.

While some contact centers continue to operate in this mode, with agents switching between calls, chats, and emails as needed, other operations have segregated these tasks, allowing agents to specialize on one function, sometimes even at dedicated centers.

What does all this have to do with social media? Just as in the early days of contact centers trying to handle email and chat with kludged-together tools that didn’t play well with each other, processing social media comments and tweets within the contact center is likewise at its awkward stage. Yes, vendors – due in part to what they learned with email and chat – are doing much better today than they did back then. Still, further progress is needed, though it’s occurring rapidly. If you’ve not recently looked at all the social media tools and solutions for call centers, you’re likely working with an old understanding of what is available. Over time, these systems and software solutions will function better within the contact center and fully integrate with the existing infrastructure – just as happened with email and chat solutions.

However, there is also a new twist that social media provides. While phone calls, emails, and chats all carry with them a need to respond to each one individually, not all social media is that way. True, customer service communications from social media outposts require a response, but other posts, tweets, comments, and likes don’t warrant a personal agent-generated reaction.

Instead, some social media activity rightly needs to be aggregated, considered as a whole rather than in parts. This means being able to spot trends early on and detect potentially viral posts before they become fully inflamed. This allows contact center agents to respond quickly – or escalate the situation, if needed – before an issue gets completely out of control and becomes unmanageable. This is proactive customer service on a higher level.

Opportunities abound for today’s call center, the latest one taking a leading role in taming the social media channel, turning it into one more way to serve customers and resolve problems.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine November 2013]

Social Media in the Contact Center: Are You In?

By Robert A. Kobek

What is the general acceptance of social media as a customer service vehicle? How does your contact center measure up? The results of a survey this January produced interesting results that create a great benchmark for future studies. Commissioned by Connections Magazine and iTesa, the survey was a collaborative effort with CustomerCount℠ who deployed the online survey.

Titled “Social Media by Default” the intention of this information is measuring the adoption of social media in the contact center. The results give contact center professionals the opportunity to gauge how they stack up against their peers, to set a benchmark for future surveys, and to determine which type of centers (enterprise versus BPO, inbound versus outbound, among other demographic qualities) are relying on social media and to what degree.

Key Results: Forty-seven percent of the respondents identified themselves at the president or C-suite level, while 28 percent identified their classification as enterprise or BPO.

The question “Which statement most closely describes your company’s use of social media for customer interaction purposes?” demonstrates where organizations identified their various stages of using social media. The highest response, at just over one-third, was “beginner.”

Answers also indicate that individuals are more apt to rely upon social media for information than their companies would expect them to.

In addition, the following information was gleaned from our survey:

  • Sixty-five percent of the respondents said social media was used for promotion and advertising, while only 19 percent indicated they use social media for customer care.
  • Seventy-one percent of the respondents indicated that social media was used by individuals in a company.
  • Thirty percent reported that using social media was a part of the expectation of the company. This and the prior statistic show a reliance and personal use of social media by individuals in a company as opposed to the expectation of the company. (Individuals are more apt to rely upon social media for information than their companies expect them to.)
  • Eighty percent revealed the nonuse of dedicated agents to use social media for customer care. This is consistent with questions about the use of social media for customer care, where 19 percent said social media was used for customer care.
  • Seventy-five percent noted the intended increase of social media in the contact center as a customer care vehicle.

The Bottom Line: While contact center professionals are aware of the need to incorporate social media in their centers, there is some reluctance to do so. Of those who are using social media, 64 percent are using Facebook, and 64 percent use social media for networking—two figures that are directly related yet have no apparent impact, positive or negative, on performance or customer loyalty.

Robert A. Kobek is president of CustomerCount.

[From Connection Magazine April 2013]

Misconceptions about Social Media

By Donna Fluss

I recently met with a group of highly experienced contact center leaders to discuss a variety of hot topics. We engaged in a spirited discussion about how best to handle social media. This is a critical topic today, as few organizations appear to be doing this well. During our conversation, a few alarming organizational misconceptions and examples of mishandlings came up. The following are three of the most serious misconceptions and errors we uncovered:

1) Contact center agents do not have enough knowledge or skills to handle social media interactions. Given that a majority of social media interactions for businesses are service or product-related, what department would be more knowledgeable about these matters than contact centers? Not marketers, who are still claiming responsibility for the social media channel, although they generally do not have the company, product, or operational knowledge to handle a large volume of interactions within specific service levels (response times).

While not all agents in contact center or customer service have the ability to communicate effectively in writing – a skill that is necessary in order to handle social media interactions –  these departments are the only ones that have the training, knowledge, and experience to efficiently and effectively handle a large volume of diverse customer inquiries. A reasonable approach is to set up a separate team of service agents to handle social media interactions. If this is done, however, organizations face the risk of having the treatment and information provided to constituents vary based on the channel of contact. This can be a significant and costly challenge for organizations.

2) All social media interactions are required to be funneled to the department or team set up to handle social media. This means that if a friend posts something to an employee’s wall, they are expected not to respond, but instead to pass it on to the “proper” team. As social media is the newest form of conversation, this is akin to asking your employees not to talk to friends or acquaintances about your business or company.

Since employees are the best advocates for businesses, restricting their ability to discuss their company doesn’t make any sense, even if it seems practical. While a centralized servicing team, such as the contact center, should be responsible for handling or overseeing discussions that would typically fall within their purview, employees should be able to “converse” with friends and continue to advocate for their employers, just as they have in the past.

3) Companies are asking their employees to shut down their personal social media accounts. This is offensive and likely illegal (although I am not a lawyer and I’m not issuing a legal opinion on this topic). Not only should companies not have a right to ask employees to disable their personal accounts to avoid the risk of a “friend” asking about their employer, they shouldn’t want them to. Employees are the best and most effective advocates and marketers for a company’s business.

Many enterprises are intimidated by social media and have no idea how to handle these interactions. As a result, they are ignoring them and taking no action, which is the biggest mistake of all – because social media is not going away. Like it or not, social media is a new and increasingly common form of “conversation,” often taking the form of an interaction between the initiator and the public. It is being used by customers, prospects, and anyone else who feels like writing, and organizations truly do not have any control over what is written about them.

However, organizations can have 100 percent control over how they respond if they decide to take the necessary steps to build an effective social media program. As part of this initiative, employees should be given some straightforward guidelines about how the organization would like to be represented in these public forums.

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting and author of The Real-Time Contact Center.

[From Connection Magazine September 2012]

Follow Us on Twitter

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineLast month I wrote about the importance of embracing social media. Regardless how you may feel about it, social media is an increasingly important business enabler that should be part of our overall business strategy. In general, social media can be used as a means to connect with people and their businesses. This means that social media is a tool to provide service to existing customers, reach potential customers, interact with staff, and find new employees.

Calling social media a tool is an important distinction. Like any tool, it can be used for maximum benefit or it can be abused, becoming a huge waste of time. In order to avoid this risk, it may be tempting to summarily dismiss social media – and some businesspeople have. But doing so removes the opportunity to connect with customers, prospects, employees, and job candidates in the medium of their choice. After all, if you want to fish, you need to go where the fish are.

Of the major social media considerations – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and blogging – the easiest to set up and use is Twitter. Essentially, Twitter is a short messaging service that allows you to send public messages to those following you or private messages – as private as anything can be online – to specific individuals. However, these messages must be 140 characters or less. Links can be included in messages, and Twitter will even shorten them to provide you with additional message space.

Setting up a basic Twitter account can be done in just a few minutes. Even if you decide to change the appearance of your Twitter page or upload a graphic, it can still easily be done in under an hour.

Here are a couple of pointers in setting up your Twitter account:

  • Unless you want to make it hard for people to find you, use your name or company as your username. You may have to abbreviate, though, as you are limited to fifteen characters.
  • Use the bio section to tell others who you are and why they should follow you.
  • If you do upload a graphic, make sure the artwork represents your company or use a photo of yourself. Anything else will merely keep people from following you.

Once your account is set up, be brave and send your first tweet. Unless you’re famous, people won’t care about what you ate for dinner or that it’s raining outside; keep things informative or entertaining.

Next, find people or companies to follow. Here are some vendors who appear in Connections Magazine:

  • 1 800 We Answer: ‏ @1800weanswer
  • Amtelco: @amtelco
  • CAM-X: @cam_x_members
  • Etech: @etechtexas
  • Professional Teledata: @pinnacleptd and @pinnaclefreedom

And please follow us: @connections_mag. There I tweet – or retweet – industry news, let you know when a new issue is online, inform you of upcoming events, and provide other relevant information. And if you follow us, we will try to follow you!

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine June 2012]

Do You “Like” Social Media?

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineWhenever the phrase social media is uttered, people have one of three responses: “I love it,” “I’m sick of it,” or “I don’t have time for it.”

Much has been said about social media, and that’s bound to continue, most likely with increasing frequency. Social media is not going away anytime soon – and before that happens, it will become even more prevalent. The nagging reality is that it’s becoming increasingly important for businesses to have a presence on social media. Do you?

While it’s not practical to be on every social media site – there are hundreds – there are some biggies that should be considered: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as blogging. Although in its early stages, Google+ is worth considering.

Connections Magazine on Social Media: Here’s the information for our various social media activities:

We hope that you will be able to make use of these and connect with us on the platform of your choice.

Call Center Vendors on Social Media: We’ve recently contacted industry vendors to find out what they’re doing on social media and to connect with them. About half (48 percent) have a social media presence, while one-third (34 percent) have no social media presence – and the rest did not respond to our repeated requests for information.

Among the vendors we contacted, the most popular social media platform is Facebook, at 62 percent; this is not surprising, given that it’s the world’s most popular site. One-third uses Twitter and one-fourth have company blogs. No one is yet using Google+, but we are there, ready when you are. Also, four of them have company LinkedIn pages.

My Social Media Efforts: Personally, I’ve been blogging since 2008 and now have several active blogs. This has been the primary focus of my social media efforts. I’m also on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, but with blogging receiving most of my social media time allotment, these other options have been shortchanged. Next, I will be giving more attention to Twitter. (If you want the list of my social media links, please go to my personal website, peterdehaan.com.)

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine May 2012]

Social Media Analytics Trends and Predictions

By Rebecca MacDonald

In 2011 I observed two major social media trends, and based on these, I make three predictions for the coming year.

2011 Trends

1) Big Data Cast a Big Shadow: Big data, created by the explosion in social media users, is driving the need for social analytics (including text analytics). Comments from 800 million users on Facebook cross large organizations on a daily basis, not to mention the 230 million tweets sent every day, with over 20 percent of these tweets concerning products and services.

Text analytics has been around for years, but this explosion of big data is forcing enterprise organizations to look for ways to analyze and get insights from social customer conversations. Even though 2011 saw significant inroads in the ability to mine social media, challenges remain.

2) Social Media Drove a Convergence of Customer Service with Marketing: Social media was originally driven by marketing departments, but companies found that the questions generated in social media required input from customer service. In 2011, in order to address the need for more useful and deeper insights from social conversation data, market demand evolved from social listening and monitoring to social analytics.

Organizations began moving from experimenting with social media to getting real business value from their social initiatives by tying them to business processes in marketing, sales, and customer service. For that reason, the worldwide social CRM (customer relationship management) market is estimated to reach over one billion dollars in revenue by the end of 2012, up from approximately $625 million in 2010.

2012 Predictions

1) Real-Time Social Analytics Will Become the New Standard: In 2012, text analytics and CEM (customer experience management) tools will be sharpened to specifically target certain industries and time-sensitive events. In 2011, some industries, which included financial services, hospitality, telecommunications, consumer electronics, and IT, made inroads in this area, but there are still industries that have barely tapped into the social stream.

Across the board, the demand for real-time social analytics on timely events and topics like marketing campaigns, product launches, emerging issues, and news events (such as the ongoing election and debates) is going to become the new standard for success. Those who can analyze social customer sentiment in real-time – and share that information the fastest – will win.

2) Social Engagement Will Move from Specialized Social Teams to Business Users Throughout the Enterprise: With social media, customer issues and opportunities appear and spike very quickly. Enterprise organizations must find ways to address this by integrating social media into their customer interaction processes. The focus will be on solutions that combine social engagement with workflow and business process rules, alerting, and routing.

3) Companies Will Implement Multichannel Tools That Integrate Social Analysis with Other Enterprise Systems: There is an increasing demand among large, global organizations for text analytics solutions capable of analyzing multilingual customer conversation data from millions of sources, while integrating with other systems (such as business intelligence and CRM).

Big data is predicted by analysts to be the next “must have” competency in 2012 as the volume of digital content grows to 2.7 zettabytes (a zettabyte is one billion terabytes or 1021 bytes), up 48 percent from 2011. Over 90 percent of this information will be unstructured, including images, videos, MP3 files, and files based on social media and Web-enabled workloads. It will be full of rich information, but challenging to understand and analyze.

Rebecca MacDonald leads Attensity’s marketing efforts in North America, drawing on more than fifteen years of experience in marketing management with high-growth companies in the enterprise software industry.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2012]

Incorporate Social Media and Unified Communications in the Contact Center

By Bob Hockman

Companies can no longer be satisfied with running a monolithic contact center. Social media has insinuated itself into businesses, rapidly transforming from a form of entertainment into a required asset for customer care. The reach of social media is broad, encompassing everything from branding to awareness, from marketing to customer service. In fact, adding social media tools to the enterprise communication infrastructure engages customers and promotes both loyalty and longevity.

In order to keep up with the competition and retain customers, companies cannot ignore this new key ingredient in the conversational contact center. On the other hand, organizations that rush into a social media deployment without comprehensive planning and validation run the risk of tarnishing their reputations.

So, what do you need to know to ensure that your unified communications implementation will bring you the full benefits available? Here are the top five things to consider.

  1. Customers are always “on” and want to communicate in their preferred way. There is no doubt that voice has been, and still is, king. Across the globe, most people who have to communicate with a vendor want to talk to a person. At the same time, other methods of communication, such as video, IM, and social networks, are growing in importance and usage. With all of these options available, it is important during the planning stages of a unified communications implementation that you gain a clear understanding of the ways that your company’s audience prefers to interact. Since all forms of communication are interconnected in today’s complex networks, you must ensure that one form of communication will not negatively affect another. For instance, if your audience generally sends large volumes of data via the Web, your network must be prepared to handle this without letting it affect voice communications. Customers will not be amused if there is a communication breakdown because your network has not been set up appropriately. Customers don’t care about the complexity of your network; they just care about the way it affects them on a personal level. Not only will these customers lose their confidence, you will lose their business.
  2. Social media is a mode of communication in the contact center, and it’s moving faster than you think. According to a recent survey from Opus Research, 55 percent of respondents are already using social media to communicate with customers. Are you one of those who is staying ahead of the game by adapting to the requirements of your customers? If your company is part of the 45 percent still not in the game, you should know that your competitors probably are. Don’t let your company fall by the wayside because you fear investing in new technology.
  3. Democracy reigns in the enterprise and contact centers. Customers want to have instant access and consistent contact with companies, employees are bringing their own tools to work, and it is IT’s role to maintain order. Different communication modes must be able to work in harmony because the bottom line is that people can no longer tolerate silos and latencies. They want instant gratification, and they want it done their way. Therefore, when you are implementing unified communications technologies in your company, you must first start with an understanding of what your customers – both internal and external – want, and then plan to logically implement those technologies.
  4. Engage your audience: add a social media layer to your communication options. Don’t lose track of the fact that your investment in a unified communications platform is meant to strengthen your engagement with customers and prospects. In order to accomplish this goal, there are a few steps you must follow. First, be sure you have a clear understanding of the benefits of cloud technology so you can gain the most from it. Second, clearly outline the ways that your company will use social media. For instance, will you focus on websites, forums, Facebook, Twitter, or IM? Third, be sure to continue monitoring both your customer interactions and your networks to ensure that customers are getting the most from the engagements. Finally, in order to achieve point number three, invest in a comprehensive, detailed analytics and reporting system that will enable you to get the most out of your investment.
  5. Proper planning and network validation is critical. Changing to a complex – and sometimes significantly more unwieldy – unified communication structure can be intimidating. Increased network complexity gives rise to greater possibilities for error, and as mentioned above, customers will not remain loyal if they experience communication issues.

Companies need assurance that their networks will work as planned so they are confident they can receive the full benefits of their investments. One way to mitigate risk during the transformation period is with an effective validation methodology. Thorough, end-to-end validation processes produce consistent and dependable metrics that can be used to ensure the proper integration of social media channels and confirm that any issues are handled before the system goes live. Catching errors before they affect customers helps organizations gain a competitive advantage.

When implementing a social media strategy, getting it right the first time is key to reaping the desired benefits. Testing during the pre-implementation stage will help you achieve that goal. Once the implementation has been rolled out, it is also important to keep it right with a comprehensive monitoring strategy.

If you get it right and keep it right, not only will you stay at the top of the curve, you will feel more confident in your new implementation and keep your customers coming back for more.

With more than twenty-five years of experience in the network and communications industry where he has been responsible for the creation and delivery of a number of industry-leading products, Bob Hockman serves as director of product marketing at Empirix. In this role, he directs the marketing efforts for the company’s business solutions.

[From Connection Magazine March 2011]

Social Media: Opportunity or Distraction?

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineFor some, the mere mention of it produces a spontaneous smile and causes their eyes to light up. To them, it represents the preferred way to communicate; they would be lost without it. Business leaders seek to stifle it or monetize it. Others groan audibly and roll their eyes at its utterance. Some give it a resigned yawn, quickly tuning out the discussion or leaving the room. Still others are desperately trying to figure it out, while some don’t understand the fuss, and more than a few simply don’t care. The reality is, we should all care, because the future of your contact center may be at stake.

For contact centers, there are two social media considerations. The first is promoting your business, reaching out to prospects, connecting with clients, and recruiting and supporting staff. These opportunities have been amply covered by others, but before moving on to the second consideration, let me ask a pair of questions: First, if your competitor is providing customer service via social media, can you afford not to? Second, if the businesses that tap your labor pool use social media to find new hires, shouldn’t you do the same?

The more weighty consideration for social media is the opportunities that await you in providing additional services to your clients. (While this is of greatest interest to outsourcing contact centers, in-house centers also have opportunities to offer value-added services within their organization – an important factor come budget time.) Consider some of these opportunities:

Email and Chat: These first two, which I’ve covered in the past, provide both a prelude and an entry point to social media. Succinctly, everything you currently do with phone calls, you need to apply to email. Answer email, screen email, route email, add value to email, prioritize email, and escalate email. With chat, which is increasingly an expectation on consumer websites, you can do the same things you currently do for the phone number that is listed there: answer questions, assist with site navigation, and keep visitors from abandoning their shopping cart. Contact centers that are already offering these services are one step closer to embracing social media, but that’s not to imply these are social media prerequisites, just helpful steps.

Facebook: Making a Facebook page is easy. However, to be of use, relevant content needs to be posted and, more importantly, the people who “like” you deserve interaction. When customer service issues surface on Facebook, they need to be quickly addressed. Similarly, if an inquiry materializes, it warrants a speedy response – just be sure to follow social media etiquette; doing sales wrongly in social media can be a painful and damaging experience.

Blog Comments: Most blogs allow comments to be made, but to protect against spam, the comments must be manually screened and approved. This is something that a contact center can do easily, especially since approval notifications can arrive via email. Additionally, a response to the comment is sometimes called for and a dialogue can take place, be it within the blog’s comment section or via email.

Twitter: Although Twitter is a broadcast medium, one that is best left to your clients, sometimes a tweet may warrant a personal response. This is another great contact center service opportunity.

Media Alerts: There are services that scan cyberspace for mentions of a word or phrase, such as a company’s name, a trademark, or an individual’s name. Although helpful, this information generally needs to be filtered. For example, there are scores of magazines with “connections” in the title, so my media alert for “connections magazine” contains numerous false matches. A contact center can receive these alerts, cull out the mismatches, and then process the true matches as appropriate.

Other Ideas: These are just a few ideas. As you investigate social media, you will assuredly come up with more. Also consider LinkedIn, Flickr, and YouTube. Even better, ask your existing clients about their social media frustrations – and then solve them.

For me, in pondering the question posed in this column’s title, social media is both an opportunity and a distraction. I’ve been on LinkedIn the longest, but have yet to complete my profile. I do welcome those who want to become part of my network and occasionally send out similar requests to others, but I’ve yet to actually use it for something practical. Next, after hearing horror stories of the time-consuming and even addictive nature of Facebook, I long resisted it, only acquiescing to it in the past year. Though Facebook held an initial intrigue, the criticism of it being a time-waster quickly proved true. I haven’t “checked” Facebook in weeks; I now use it primarily to communicate with friends who prefer it to other methods – or who won’t respond to email.

Connections Magazine has both a blog and a podcast site. Both were started in 2008, so their three-year anniversary is approaching. The blog (348 entries, serving 1,200 visitors a week) is a means to quickly disseminate news and information, while podcasts of industry interviews (thirty-one recordings, serving 300 visitors a week) are a great way to gain insight from industry leaders. Additionally, the podcasts are available on iTunes.

This year, Connections launched a Facebook page and opened a Twitter account; we’ve also been on Flickr for several years, posting convention photos (but we actually have more photos on Facebook). So far, we’re not on YouTube.

All of this to say, we are simultaneously learning and using social media to provide you – our readers – with options. If any of these seem worthwhile to you, then please check them out – otherwise, feel free to ignore them. Just don’t ignore social media for your contact center – its future may depend on it.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

Connections Magazine Social Media Links:

[From Connection Magazine December 2010]

The New Frontier: Your Call Center as a Social Media Outpost

By Keith Fiveson

If you are like me – and so many other people today – you’ve connected through LinkedIn, set up your profile on Facebook, Twittered your Tweets, and MySpace’d your favorite music performers to view their road schedules. But what business opportunities does social media provide, and how do you integrate them into your contact center?

Social media offers companies the opportunity to connect and communicate every day and get involved in the lives of people that use their products or services, or those that one day might. This is a body of people that want to be seen, heard, and recognized; they have needs, wants, and desires, and they are computer savvy — often with a high degree of disposable money and the time to chat, video, blog, or write articles like this one. They are willing to spend the time to speak out – or shout out – to be heard. Social media levels the playing field; while anyone can create bad press or say nasty things, in social media everyone can jump in and offset any negativity.

Social media can play a leading role as a direct channel for listening, having a conversation, and guiding the discussion – good, bad, or ugly. But having the right team, tools, and timing is essential, as you have to be involved every day to listen, be present, and “be in” the conversation. I believe that the contact center environment is an ideal place for this to happen. Agents can act as a “social media outpost,” casting their net to capture conversations they hear and then be able to deal with the hearts, minds, and problems of people that affect business products or services. Problems are inherent in any business, and it is essential to be diligent in addressing and resolving them. Using a contact center as a “social media outpost” is a good strategy to address concerns, bad press, or consumer affairs issues that can plague the best brand management strategy.

To create a social media outpost with the right people, process, and technology, it is essential to establish a set of rules to help guide this new interaction channel. Internet Protocol (IP) and Voice over IP (VoIP) have enabled multimedia channel support synergies that connect many people over the Web. Some systems are proprietary, and others are open source. Many websites have incorporated click-to-call buttons for making calls to contact centers. A visit to companies like Dell, Continental Airlines, or Sears will reveal that this technology is now mainstream. On the open source side, there are RSS feeds, tags, and rich media functionality that fuel the technology underlying the whole gamut of social media. The most fortunate aspect of setting up a social media outpost is that much of the setup is open source and free.

Facebook has over 200 million subscribers, and in 2009 it introduced its storefront to every one of the Fortune 500. To further enable the conversation, pioneering work was recently completed by the IT giant Avaya when it integrated itself with Facebook. Using the Facebook application Facephone, consumers can now interact with a contact center by starting a phone, video, or IM session.

While one part of customer service is very personal, it retains a degree of anonymity. Social media, on the other hand, is all about personality and authenticity. As a result, service is evolving along with the nature of customer service. There is no doubt that the nature of social networking will undergo even more change in the future. Communicating and connecting through a social networking site to a live customer service representative – who is only a single mouse click away – is part of that future.

Any contact center has a team of agents to handle calls. For a contact center to effectively work in tandem with social media, the first thing to be done is to maintain a dedicated team of agents and create a social media outpost. But this in itself will not produce any tangible results. You must build a framework along with a suitable strategy, one that has a set of rules and exceptions to help guide the conversation. For this to be effective, you will have to learn every aspect of the relevant social media sites and tools, and then move to the next stage: listen to the conversations, guide the responses, and lead with insightful perspectives.

Listening has always been the essence of effective communication. Just by listening, you serve half the purpose of your social media outpost strategy. However, in the realm of social media, the process of listening is done somewhat differently. Based on the various facets of your contact center, you need to sweep, scrub, and filter the information that is conveyed through your channels of communication. While monitoring such communications, you should trace who is saying what and where it is being said. By analyzing this information, you will be able to address, refine, and guide the conversation. By being present on a social media channel, you listen to your customers, and they can be satisfied from every angle.

Keith Fiveson is CEO of ITESA and is a communications consultant, enabling people to be more efficient and effective using tools, training, and processes globally. He is an advisor to call center management teams, assisting them with branding, expanding, and optimizing people in operations globally.

[From Connection Magazine January 2010]