Leave aside well-trained live agents, subject matter experts reachable via presence and knowledgebase-connected automated IVR/speech rec and web self-service.
One of the best (and the most affordable) answers to customer service issues--from basic product information to fixing problems—may come from each one of us, which can be termed as peer service or peer support. That is provided that this method is set up and managed right.
Peer service/support is exploding in popularity thanks to social media which has taken it from the rarefied confines of IT bulletin boards, whose establishment predates the Web and whose participants were likeminded geeks to the hoi polloi in the virtual universe. The social media/channel has virtualized a core human behavior i.e. reaching out to others for help just as it has done for buying decisions.
Look at our own experiences. Who knows a product or service better than those who buy and/or use it? Who else is intimately acquainted with their benefits, flaws and quirks and workarounds? Where do we often go first when we have questions, need assistance or gripes? Our colleagues, family, friends and acquaintances…
Let’s face it, do contact center agents, or the individuals who write and update the automated self-service tools have firsthand familiarity with typically the higher-priced goods and services that customers are contacting them about and where the pain points are? Can they then directly relate and empathize with the customers’ inquiries and issues?
This affinity-to-customers matter has been one of the knocks against offshoring, as demonstrated with considerable humor on the series Outsourced that NBC has alas hung up on i.e. the often sexually-charged novelties that the Indian agents were taking orders for. Can those who live/work in hot climes truly relate to customers residing in Minnesota or Montreal calling about their furnaces breaking down? Or sell credit cards when they do not use them?
(NBC ought to change its mind about Outsourced. I would have liked to see episodes featuring the contact center being threatened with speech rec in the form of--what else—a blowup doll a la Airplane (call her “Janet”, the cousin to Amtrak’s “Julie”). And how about this for a series finale: Mid America Novelties coming home but managed instead by Todd Dempsy’s grandmother and her knitting circle, sitting in their rocking chairs on the front porch in Kansas, sporting headphones and laptops…)
The benefits of peer service/support via social media are clear and obvious: quick answers and solutions at little or no cost to organizations. IOW it provides the gains of automated self-service tools without the soulless canned responses and the sometimes disconcerting experiences of talking to machines.
Yet peer service/support has its challenges, hence the qualifier “provided”, and to meet them incurs investments. The biggest issue is accuracy. While typically if a respondent provides what may be a wrong answer others will often correct them there needs to be some authoritative means to judge and state which is the right one. There is also the risk of disinformation from competitors. That means organizations need to put in and maintain integrated thread/matter monitoring, tracking, alerting, moderation and intervention and in realtime knowledgebase updating; the knowledgebases need to be accessible via every channel.
Corporate-sponsored social collaboration sites arguably provide the best venues for peer service and support because the issues can be carefully monitoring and intervention is easy. They can create formal user communities. Firms can readily offer discounts to customers once issues have been resolved or make and at the right time cross-sell/upsell offers. They must be careful to avoid during such sites as sales venues as this would turn customers and users—and those they influence--off at light speed.
Organizations can though also use “open” social media i.e. Facebook, TripAdvisor and Twitter to monitor and respond to issues. Many customers prefer these sites rather than go to sponsored forums.
In both cases, the employees handling the moderating and the responses should be named for credibility and personalized and have their contact information displayed. They must also be trained on social media as media i.e. they are acting as spokespeople whose words may well impact their employers’ brands, reputations and sales/revenues.
Will peer service/support eliminate the need for live agents or automated self-service? No because there will always be questions and issues that can be best managed by directly interacting with customers via professional live agents or tightly scripted machines.
What peer service/support can and is doing—again provided that it is done right—is to improve the customer experience and with this retention, loyalty and referrals while shrinking customer contact expenses in the fastest growing channel there is.