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Why I'm Pessimistic about Social Media and the Contact Center

In the past few weeks I've had three briefings about contact center vendors’ social media and contact center offerings--I guess it's beyond a fad. I remember speaking with the VP of a major contact center vendor about six months ago, telling him that his company really needs to have a social media strategy, and he just poo-poo'd the idea. Not anymore--his company also recently announced a social media play for the contact center.

As Brian Riggs and Sheila McGee-Smith reported, Cisco, Siemens, and Avaya all announced their plans and strategies to integrate their contact center offerings with social media channels, although these products generally won’t be GA for several months. Still, it shows that these companies recognize the importance of social media for customer support and customer interaction, and want their customers to know that they’re on top of this important trend.

We all know that Twitter and Facebook are becoming important channels for customers to interact with companies in order to complain, get information, and provide feedback. In the very near future, companies will be able to route tweets and Facebook posts to their contact center agents, just like they do for voice calls, email, and web chat sessions. But wait--how many companies are actually routing emails and web chat sessions to contact center agents? The percentage is still very small, and an even smaller percentage route these non-voice interactions to telephone-based contact agents, and generally have separate agents handling text-based interactions. I assume the same will be the case for social media--there will be a dedicated and separate group of agents handling social media interactions.

While it doesn't necessarily matter who is handling the interaction, whether it's Twitter's #Comcastcares team or a call center agent, what does matter is that the enterprise treats these interactions just as they would a phone call to the contact center. This means having the tools to do reporting, workforce optimization, staffing, analytics, etc., providing the organization with the same information on the interaction as if it were a typical customer service phone call. While these tools will exist, I'm not sure how many companies will actually implement them and use them as they would in the formal call center.

During my briefings with the vendors about their plans for social media and the contact center, I get very excited to hear about their great plans--how they're going to tie in context and understand who the customer is--what is their value to the company based on purchases, how many Twitter followers they have, what other interactions they’ve had with the company, and so on. This is all great and exactly where the market should be headed.

But unfortunately, I'm doubtful that this great vision will happen the way we expect it to. As an analyst, I know about all of the useful customer service/contact center technologies and capabilities that exist. As a consumer, I know how pitiful most customer service interactions are. Just today I called my health benefits company, "spoke" my account number when the system asked me to, but then had to repeat the number when an agent answered the call. Come on, people--we’ve had CTI capabilities since the mid-late 1990’s – and we still have to repeat our account numbers?

And how many times do you decide to use a company's "call back" option, where you leave your phone number and the best time to reach you rather than waiting on hold for 30 minutes, only to later realize that you never received a call back? And I've given up on "click to chat with a live agent" on websites, as these live agents are generally handling about five other interactions at the same time, and it takes longer to get the information I need than if I had called the contact center.

In terms of social media, while we hear about understanding who the customer is based on their tweets and Facebook posts, we've also been talking about this same type of thing since the CTI days. I'm afraid that even though the technology is or will be available, it takes more than technology to make this a reality. Our industry will need to find ways to get beyond the technology hype to actually implementing these technologies and using them properly. If our CTI experience is any indication, I'm not an optimist. It's not just about the technology. Yes, many companies have CTI, but we still have to repeat our account numbers when we reach an agent.

So while when I wear my analyst hat and get excited about the new phase of customer interactions we're entering, I can't help but be skeptical about the actual implementation of these new technologies and services.

The key will not be developing products and professional service offerings to make it possible to deploy these capabilities, but to prove to enterprises that in order to provide top-level customer support and service, they need to implement these capabilities. They also need to use the right tools to ensure appropriate staffing, monitoring, and reporting. And they have to use the technology properly, tying in all the customer touch points in a holistic way so that the agent gets a complete view of the customer and all of their interactions with the enterprise, whether by phone, the web, or social media.

I'll be thinking about ways to help enterprises move past the hype to actually getting significant usage and success stories about social media and the contact center. If you have some ideas, let me know at [email protected]. And of course, follow blairplez on twitter.