OPINION

Social CRM’s Point of First Impact

Service is becoming perhaps the most important leg of CRM. It’s not just me saying it — it’s many others, including Paul Greenberg, who literally wrote the book on CRM. With the economy in the state it’s in, that makes sense; keeping the customers you already have has never been more important. However, service has some internal cultural hurdles to clear before it gets the respect it deserves. Luckily, technology and the customer landscape are both shifting in ways that will allow more companies to realize the value of service and give it the priority it has long deserved.

The cultural challenge is that service has always been seen as a cost — it’s money you have to lay out even after customers have given you their dollars. Up-front costs around sales and marketing are palatable, but the after-the-fact expense of service is a nuisance, and companies part with those dollars grudgingly — unless they view the customer in the longer term. Good service now can mean repeat business with significantly reduced costs on the sales and marketing sides next time.

So, service plays a huge role in keeping the cycle turning over — but no one has the money to spend on building out a service arm. That’s where the service trend collides with another trend — social media and social CRM — and creates a real opportunity to not only provide better service but also reduce costs while doing it.

Be Part of the Solution

Customers are increasingly taking their service questions to their peers first instead of to the companies that produced the products. In a great many cases, the aggregated audience of customers has more experience and more expertise than even the company with its own product and service — not because the company is lax in any way, but because users form an enormous testing group, so to speak, and encounter real-world scenarios that a company’s staff could never dream up.

When customers go to Google or directly to peer communities to find answers to these questions, people budgeting for service should rejoice, because commonly answered questions are now being partially taken care of by customer peer groups. That means fewer calls to the call center and a potential reduction in costs. However, that’s only the old-school monetary part of the equation.

Don’t forget that customers whose issues are dealt with effectively become more loyal customers. When peers answer questions for their peers, that effect can diminish, since the company now is merely the cause of a problem and not part of the solution. However, by actually participating in a fully transparent way in the social channels that customers use, service organizations can not only avoid a loss of loyalty but also amplify the effects of good service across entire customer peer communities.

That requires two things: an understanding of where your customers are talking, and the commitment of talent to monitoring and participating in those social channels. It won’t be enough to suggest that your agents google your company in their spare time and post a comment or two when they find a conversation. You’ll need to find someone who understands your products, services and procedures very well — and who knows where to find answers within your organization — and dedicate that person to social media channels.

You also must give that person the power to solve problems. Throwing a hapless mouthpiece who can’t actually make useful suggestions into the social media arena is not going to help customers or your company.

Reinvent Your Organization

The advent of social media as a new arm of customer service ought to trigger some changes within your service department, too. While calls about routine things will never stop completely, they may be decreased. People will still call, but they’ll call about things that are more complicated and more unique to their situations.

That will require a new level of competence among your rank-and-file agents. While it’s conceivable that you might have fewer of them, the ones you have must be increasingly skilled at handling unusual questions. They also should have a chance to read posts at the communities their customers frequent, and managers should make a point of reading them, because what a customer suggests may well be a better solution than what the company’s been suggesting.

Social CRM is going to be critical in ensuring that the fruits of these efforts are understood and appreciated in terms of their impact on the bottom line. Discovering which customers said what and where, how their issues were handled, and what their contribution to the bottom line was before and after contact with your service arm is a natural extension of what CRM already should be doing.

Social CRM’s first major impact will be in service, and not only because service has been neglected for so long in CRM thinking. It’s because customers have more to share with each other than with prospects. You can’t discuss, brainstorm over or commiserate about something you haven’t bought yet.

This is an exciting time to be a service professional. It’s a great time to leverage this excitement and reinvent your service organization to meet the new demands customers have and the new ways they want to communicate. It makes sense in terms of costs today and in terms of impact on revenues in the future, but it will require a vision of a more collaborative relationship with customers. Are you ready to put that vision into action?


CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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