Do You Know How to Serve Customer 2.0?

When it comes to fixing a service problem, is the telephone about to go the way of the dodo?

Maybe. A new study by telecommunications firm Avaya suggests customers are shifting their inquiries away from the phone and toward new media.

According to its new Contact Center Consumer Preference Study, the telephone has fallen out of favor with 40 percent of international consumers. Most of them prefer to use other methods to interact with customer service centers such as email (55 percent) and web self-serve (38 percent).

The United States is behind the curve, with a little less than a third (32 percent) preferring the phone over these alternative methods.

But not for long. A majority of US consumers â€" 56 percent â€" expect email to become their regular means of contact in the next two years, and half of them say they are likely to use an automated voice response system when offered.

All of which begs the question: Is the call center as we know it dead?

Not entirely. A shift is underway, but it would be premature to shut down those call centers, say experts.

Brett Shockley, a senior vice president at Avaya, told a recent technology conference that businesses are just coming to terms with a new kind of consumer â€" he called it Customer 2.0 â€" and defined it like this:

They're born with a keyboard. They're born with an attitude.

Now that they're graduating from college, they've got a disposable income and there's about 80 million of them.

We've got to pay attention to all the different ways that they want to communicate. We've got to take all of this into consideration in our companies."

But many companies are ill-prepared to handle the digital onslaught of customers. Shockely says few of them know how to scale up their customer-service operations or train for a world in which help comes by way of a tweet or post.

In fact, few companies even know what's being said about them online. How can they address their customers when they don't know what they want?

There's no doubt, though, that call centers as we know them will slowly be replaced with something else â€" a hybrid call center/customer service "social media" operation where customer inquiries are fielded across several platforms, including email, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

How to take advantage of this new world
As a customer, your best bet is to begin using social media to connect with a company as soon as possible. In my own experience as a consumer advocate, I've noticed that social media-based inquiries are assigned a higher priority and resolve faster than, say, phone calls. I don't know how much longer that will last.

As a business, it seems you have little choice but to begin to open new lines of communication between you and your customers. This may or may not include the established social media sites. Next, you'll have to figure out how to integrate these social media operations into your customer service department, or, if you're a smaller business, whom to assign the task of fielding Facebook or Twitter queries.

The potential benefits to businesses could be considerable. Moving transactions from human agents to websites has saved companies millions, and doing the same for customer service could also cut expenses.

Either way, a time is coming when talking to a company may not involve a phone call. And it's coming soon.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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