In the past few weeks I've been immersing myself in the world of customer engagement. It's an industry that is having something of a bipolar reaction to the disruption that digital is placing on the way in which we interact with corporations.
At the core of the dilemma customer engagement people face is this: social networks seems to be a very popular, but minority, way for customers to interact with customer service operations. But the social route today is one that bypasses the traditional customer service processes and systems, and so "service by Twitter" just isn't a scalable model for most operations - it's just too labour intensive.
Now here's the interesting part: many organisations trade under the illusion that "customers are at the heart of everything we do". That very phrase brought up 3.4 billion results on Google when I just looked, and there are a huge variety of organisations making the claim.
Yet customer engagement - contact centres to you and I - are places that have seen some of the most extreme industrialisation in the past 20 years. They are driven by technology and process, are often outsourced, and are managed by mechanical- not human-centric performance measurement and metrics. Many resemble a modern-day Panopticon, and you're much more likely to have a conversation about Six Sigma process optimisation at a customer engagement event than, say, a run of the mill IT conference.
What social channels should be prompting in organisations is a discussion about how serious they are about using customer service as a competitive differentiator. Unless it is at the core of company strategy, and invested accordingly, customer service is a support activity to be streamlined and made efficient. Why that's important is because for every new digital and social channel that is added into those efficient processes, new ones will emerge. It just becomes a multiplied cost.
Having customer engagement as an ancillary service is no bad thing. Some brands (to varying extents GiffGaff and RyanAir) have even managed to make an absence of customer service a competitive advantage. The bottom line is that, as customers, we're happy to know that parts of an organisation are optimised primarily to keep costs down, particularly if we know that and we can feel some of the benefits and our experience meets our expectations.
If customers really are at the heart of everything that you do, then the question that social should be raising is what's wrong with our customer service channels and processes that means customers want to bypass them? My hunch today is that Twitter is popular with some to get things done because shouting about poor service in front of innocent bystanders tends to get action by by-passing the formal service processes.
Customers aren't expressing a preference for social networks as a communications channel with brands today - they're expressing a preference for getting their issues resolved.