Customer management has come a long way from the days of plain old 'CRM'. It is no longer about call centres and listening to an endless loop of 80s pop music whilst in the queue, but has become a rich multi-channel user experience with customers expecting to be able to access instant support and administer their own accounts through a multitude of different technologies and touch points.
Whether it's online banking and payments, or mobile check-in on your way to the airport, consumers now expect to be able to access their services instantaneously from wherever they are and using whatever technology they happen to have available at the time. In the same way that operators are striving to remove service 'silos' in their back office systems, customers are demanding the same self-service capabilities through all channels and it is no longer acceptable to have to switch between applications or devices to manage a different service.
For most of us, the advent of social networking has meant a sea change in the way we communicate with each other, both at home and in the work environment. The medium we use for social networking has also evolved quickly to meet this changing paradigm. Online social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn and micro-blogging services such as Twitter are now available on multiple platforms, from their roots on the web browser through to devices such as mobile phones and directly on televisions.
This ability to communicate in the 'web 2.0' and social networking space has given the consumer an expectation of being able to access other services with the same fluidity and ease of access to information in the telecommunications space. This gives operators both a challenge and an opportunity; the challenge in meeting the demands of the customer, but also the opportunity to embrace social networking and create value through communities of like-minded people.
Only recently I had cause to contact my service provider, Vodafone, about a problem with their email service. Not wanting the hassle of phoning the call centre, I sent a 'Tweet' to @VodafoneUK and within half an hour or so, I had my response. It was not a conclusive answer, but pointed me to a specific online forum where I could post a more detailed question which would be picked up by one of the experts. Sure enough, 1 hour later I had my answer and the problem was solved.
This was quite a different experience compared with the usual call centre service and in many ways goes against the traditional approach of trying to resolve all issues on the first call. Rather than taking 15 minutes in one call to the call centre to resolve my issue and probably needing to speak to 2 or 3 different people each time re-explaining the problem, I had several short bursts of interaction that fitted into my busy day.
And the surprising thing was that the final solution was not from Vodafone customer services, but from a fellow forum 'expert' user.
These days, many consumers are what you might call 'tech savvy' and like to experiment with their smartphones and all the latest services. But there is also a rapidly growing band of 'super-consumers' who are far more tech-savvy than most operators, using multiple different devices and really pushing the boundaries of what applications and services were designed for. If operators can tap into this expertise and use them to help solve the problems of other users and become advocates of their services then this will become a really powerful marketing tool.
Some users are happy with the kudos of being a recognised 'expert' in their particular community, whereas others may need some sort of incentive to become more involved such as loyalty points or special bonuses and discounts. One mobile service provider who has taken this concept a step further is giffgaff who actually rewards its customers twice a year in the form of a cash payment for promoting its services and helping resolve the technical problems of others.
Of course this change in service channels means a whole new set of issues that need to be considered by the operators and new processes to be developed. In the 'old world' of customer services, if a customer was on the receiving end of poor customer service or even insulted over the phone by a customer services representative, it would occasionally make it into the newspapers if the customer sold their story. With social networking and online forums this information is immediately visible on the world wide web and can be re-posted to millions within a matter of minutes. In fact, earlier this year Vodafone themselves had to suspend a disgruntled employee who posted an 'obscene' tweet from the official Vodafone Twitter account.
However there's no way back from this now. If today's operators don't embrace the changing face of customer management, then smarter, more customer-focussed service providers will. And operators will be pushing themselves further towards to the dumb-pipe status so many of them are so desperate to avoid.
Nevertheless, these new channels do also present a great opportunity to engage with their customers, promote new services, test out new product ideas and above all listen to what customers are saying. Jimi Hendrix said that 'Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens' and operators would be very wise to listen to their customers now.
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