Expert Interview with Brad Cleveland on Social Customer Support


About Brad Cleveland

Author, Speaker, Consultant, and Senior Advisor at ICMI

Brad Cleveland is an author, speaker and consultant. His focus is on helping organizations maximize their return on customer relationships, by harnessing the full potential of call center, self-service, social media, and peer-to-peer capabilities. Brad has worked in over 60 countries and 45 States, for organizations such as Apple, American Express, USAA, HP and others; he is author/editor of eight books. Brad was one of the initial partners in and former President and CEO of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI). Today, he speaks and consults to organizations around the world, and also serves as a Senior Advisor to ICMI.

Visit Brad's blog

People say that social media is ‘turning the customer service discipline upside down’. Is this just hype or is something big happening here?

Many believe we are seeing the emergence of the greatest customer movement in history, and I certainly agree. Studies are clearly showing that the vast majority of consumers now use search engines, social communities and feedback sites to understand an organization’s commitment to service before making brand or product decisions. Bad experiences (even if they are one in many thousands of interactions from an internal perspective) end up on blogs, tweets, video posts and rating sites – all readily found through search. Good experiences also spread quickly, and organizations that consistently deliver great service can build amazing brand loyalty. For these and many related reasons, customer service has never been more important!

You talk about a Customer Access Strategy – what is it and where does social media fit?

Sure, a customer access strategy is a framework — a set of standards, guidelines and processes — defining how customers are enabled to access the information and services they need. To put effective services in place, you need an up-to-date plan – a customer access strategy that encompasses social media. It should answer questions such as: Who are your customers and prospects? How will they want to interact with you? What access channels make sense? What will your service level objectives be? What technologies and skill sets are required?

Really, it all begins with listening to your customers. So, you’ll need listening tools for tuning in to the broader conversation – who is having discussions about your company through blogs, twitter, ratings sites, etc.? How should you interact with them, and what’s appropriate and expected? You can then define access alternatives that include both traditional communication channels (telephone, email, chat, self-service, et al.) and social networks and communities. But the point is, have a plan!

Is social media better at certain things than other customer service channels – or is it just another channel?

I see it as much more than just another channel, for a number of reasons: The one-to-many nature of service delivery; networking properties; the unique culture inherent in each type of social network; the ability for a community of others with common interests to share information and build trust; the believability of friends’ advice and recommendations over advertising. For these and many other reasons, social media is unique, and must more powerful than just a communication channel.

Will social media replace the traditional contact center?

No – but it will dramatically change it. While social media projects often begin as marketing initiatives or as the responsibility of newly established cross-functional teams, the contact center invariably assumes a more central role as resource requirements for listening and interacting become evident. So, the next generation contact center will be the internal engine many organizations depend on not only to handle interactions with customers, but also to listen to and engage in external communities. And, of course, the nature of call center work will change – these jobs will require more complex analysis, human know-how, and ample empowerment. Hiring the right people and training and equipping them well will be increasingly important.

Is social media an alternative to self-service support on the web?

Yes, it can be and often is (think of how often customers start with search and end up getting what they need, or think they need, from a user community or feedback site). But ideally, social media becomes part of the organization’s self-service support – e.g., self-service capability includes and incorporates discussions in forums, links to relevant communities, and the like. And service is especially powerful when the organization harnesses knowledge gained from agent-interactions, self-service tools and customer communities and forums into one body of knowledge that is constantly being updated and improved (think of Wikipedia in a customer service context). Some software organizations have programmed access to user communities right into their software interface.

Can social media customer support be effective on its own or does it have to be integrated with the other channels?

It’s by far most effective when integrated with other channels. Even now, interactions are increasingly involving multiple channels and serving customers that are connected, informed about their options and diverse in their needs and expectations. They’ll quickly learn if service is better in one channel versus another, leading to channel switching, duplicate work and parallel efforts, if service isn’t up to par in traditional channels. Ideally, service should be viewed and handled across channels with a singular view of the customer.

What about the internal collaboration side of social media (like Chatter) – how does that change the way companies service their customers?

This is an exciting development, a real silo-buster that can help areas across the organization develop a common focus on customer requirements. Further, the most powerful customer service delivery goes far beyond interactions. For example, the contact centers that deliver the most value are integrated with other business functions at a much deeper level, e.g., to help operations pinpoint quality problems, marketing develop more focused campaigns, IT design better systems, and to be an early indicator of marketplace developments and changing customer needs. Tools that enable internal collaboration are an important enabler in this evolution.

What role does the Cloud play in successful customer service strategies?

The answer tends to vary for different organizations. For example, many organizations begin to quickly leverage the capability of the cloud to unify internal resources through communication and collaboration tools. Seasonal companies may benefit most by tapping into the inherent ability to scale services, or to harness distributed resources. Others are finding they can enter new markets quickly, or control costs as they roll out new types of services. And many are improving service through the cloud’s ability to incorporate emerging social channels, and capture and make available important information on customers, products and services. Think of the entire gamut of what the cloud can do—the impact on customer service begins to become clear.

Where can companies discover the conversations that are happening around their brand in social media forums?

Anywhere and everywhere, and here’s what I mean by that. Many executives know their organizations should be tuned into social channels. But there's nothing like seeing these conversations in real time. I recall a Senior VP who works with a manufacturer tell of standing behind a computer with several others on his team, as the organization "flipped the switch" on a new listening tool. The conversations – blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, feedback sites – began scrolling across the screen. Comments about the company's products, services, policies and brand – good and (more often) bad. He describes wanting to literally sit down and begin responding right then and there. And to think they hadn't been. It was like putting on a snorkel mask and jumping off a boat into the Caribbean – a whole new world becomes visible.

Social media has allowed more employees to get out there are represent the company. Is this an opportunity or a risk? How important is it to train social media participants? Should there be social media specialists in the contact centre?

I see it as both an opportunity and a risk. Clearly, there are risks in these interactions – a large audience is potentially watching, and once these conversations are out there, they are recorded, can live forever, and be quickly found through search. But we’ve got to remember that there is an even greater risk to our brand and reputation by not being out there, by not being part of the conversation. Ignoring customers, being deafeningly silent in the conversations taking place, is the worst kind of reflection on our service, our brand and our organization. So, we can start with specialists, those who are best at delivering this service; eventually, for efficiency and consistency of service, we’ll want a broader part of the team cross-trained, ready and able to handle any kind of interaction.

Should companies simply engage with customers on social sites or is it better to have an official corporate presence in the key ones?

Both are important. Having an official presence in at least the key social sites certainly demonstrates that you’re there and you care. But you have to do it right – it has to be useful enough that there’s a reason for customers and prospects to use it. But there’s nothing that replaces appropriate engagement where customers are – appropriate meaning that you’re not crossing social norms and expectations to find and converse with them, but you are available when it makes sense for you to be available and helpful. These are cultural norms that are taking shape, and it makes a lot of sense to get in the game early so that you can learn as you go.

How should companies capture and analyse their social conversations and engagements? What should they be measuring and monitoring?

Yes, just like traditional channels, you’ll want to track, record and measure conversations so that you can build better processes and services. Key areas include volume of interactions and what those patters look like (they tend to happen in patterns, e.g., some days and some times of day are busiest); nature of the conversation; reason and root cause analysis; customer satisfaction if and as survey samples are possible; response times (how quickly were you able to respond?); quality (e.g., using criteria similar to assessing a phone call or chat); first conversation resolution; etc. And remember, the most powerful information enables you to improve your products, services and processes – so you should be capturing and sharing input that is helpful to the rest of the organization.

Should every company be involved in every social platform? How can you prioritise with limited resources?

By listening to conversations across social sites, you can determine where the most important conversations are taking place. I do not recommend trying to be everywhere and do everything; through observation, you’ll learn where you can be most effective – start there. And with the one-to-many nature of many types of social interactions, you can often prevent similar contacts from other customers. Once you get started, you can evolve into a more sophisticated approach, geared around criteria such as a customer’s influence, root cause analysis, marketplace opportunities, etc.

What companies out there are doing a great job using social media for customer service (and why?) [And smaller companies would be great but all sizes are okay]

Most organizations still handle social channels (if at all) as a part of marketing, publicity or corporate communication efforts. But leading companies have integrated channels at a deeper operational level. I wrote a favorable blog about Zappos – who has already admittedly gotten so much good press – several years ago. Within the same hour, someone from Zappos responded, thanking me for the comments. I was curious – I wrote back offline and asked him where he worked in the organization. His reply – "I'm a call center agent." Not marketing, not corporate communications, but a front line call center representative. This is one of the reasons Zappos has been so successful – they build an organization that has the capacity, the tools, the training and the empowerment to be able to respond and interact quickly. They are singularly focused on the customer at the operational level.

And there are so many other great examples beginning to emerge – iContact has done an excellent job of incorporating social channels into their service operations. Intuit has built forums for customer communities to share ideas and information about Intuit’s accounting programs, as well as the much broader world of finance and economics. The National Cancer Institute, a U.S. based government agency, has done a wonderful job of reaching out to families who are battling disease, need support or are looking for information and help. Every day, I am seeing more organizations begin to successfully incorporate social channels into their customer service operations and way of doing business.

What resources can you suggest for executives looking to learn more about social-powered customer service?

The International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) conducts research and develops content on this topic,, and there are many other sources of information becoming available – e.g., customer service conferences and publications. ICMI also works with organizations who are leaders in this space, such as, to bring resources and education to executives.


You can also find our Mini-Guide for Social Customer Service here.

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