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]