Part 12 in a series introducing my new book, The End of Business as Usual…this series serves as the book’s prequel.

Over the years, customer service has been something of a paradox within the organization. The name itself inspires dedication to helping people. And while that is the intention of customer service professionals worldwide, customer service as a line item in business accounting has often placed it in the hands of outsourced organizations, under-qualified personnel, or in the hands of customers directly through self-service or automated technology. The mission of course is to improve profitability. It is what it is.

Perhaps it is the moniker of customer service that stifles innovation in philosophy, process and engagement. Perhaps it’s the conditioned nature of the overall role of customer service to be reactive, a gate keeper to negative experiences, or relegated to the outskirts of a business revolution. I suppose that’s the point however. We’re facing a revolution in consumer behavior which in turn triggers a revolution in business. From philosophy to mission and vision to processes and systems to goals and objectives, customer service is an opportunity to instill loyalty and also positively influence the decisions of others.

Here we are facing the end of business as usual and before us are two incredible opportunities for improving customer experiences and ultimately relationships, the democratization of media and connections and the executive decree to move businesses closer to customers. But before we jump in, we must rethink our approach and supporting infrastructure to not only meet the needs of customers, but also transform the organization to shape and steer them in advance of any impetus that would necessitate a response.

In 2011 American Express published its annual Global Customer Service Barometer to measure the current state of customer sentiment toward businesses.

At first glance, the study quickly noted that consumers believe that businesses are meeting expectations but not exceeding them. In a time when business as usual eventually inhibits growth, meeting expectations becomes a commodity. Creating exceptional experiences from here on out is priceless and will eventually become the minimum ante in business. Click on the images for an expanded view.

While certain companies are cutting costs on customer service or not exploring new opportunities for innovation, customers are demonstrating that now’s the time for transformation. People are willing to spend more for products from companies that have a history of good customer service or that deliver outstanding experiences.

People are frustrated with automated systems. They’re also not fond of the new trend in voice response systems that are now becoming industry standard. Would you be surprised if I told you that they just want to talk to another human being? As the numbers spotlight below, whether it’s on the phone, in real life, through instant messaging or social networks, one-on-one interaction will have a one-to-one-to-many result.

As social media becomes more pervasive in the lives of the everyday consumer, not just connected consumers, a new infrastructure will be required to support proactive engagement. For those sitting on the sidelines or casually experimenting with engagement, traditional methodologies and processes in social media will quickly be tested and almost instantly stretched.

Brands are No Longer Created, They’re Co-Created

The image above is a word cloud generated by the Tweets of customers who shared their experiences regarding @United (United Airlines). I removed the colorful language as this isn’t a discussion about United, but instead how customer experiences are shared and how they influence impressions and decisions. Additionally, this is an example of the necessary examination of how businesses are shaping and reacting to customer experiences in the midst of a digital revolution.

My point in sharing this with you today is that the two biggest words that standout clearly and represent the importance of our focus over the next several years are…CUSTOMER SERVICEIf you look closely enough, you’ll see two other words surrounding “customer service”, which I believe symbolize the importance of of a renewed or new customer focus, which center on…response and change.

Revisiting the American Express study for a moment, it’s clear that experiences impact brand perception and ultimately loyalty. Reacting to experiences is no longer good enough.

Not only does a negative experience reduce the overall satisfaction or perception of a brand, consumers are also willing to switch brands to get better customer service. The importance of customer acquisition is called into question when the value of  customer retention is not treasured or improved.

Connected customers will first take to social networks to ask for input as they consider decisions. Rather than rely on Google’s machine algorithm, the feedback that individuals receive in their networks of preference is qualified, trusted and human–basically these exchanges create a searchable and effective human algorithm. Needless to say, it is the experiences of those to whom I trust that define my impressions and following actions. While a website or marketing material may say otherwise, the collective experiences that populate social networks and ultimately my stream, weigh significantly heavier during phases of consideration than company-generated adjectives or imagery.

Engagement and Empathy Creates Positive Experiences

Customer service is often viewed through a lens of “us vs. them.” Businesses have built an incredibly expensive infrastructure to support customers when they need help while keeping them at arm’s length. However, connected customers have given up on these aging systems and are pushing for a more personalized form of engagement. Expressing discontent on social networks necessitates a response from the affected brand and without a response, those experiences further dilute the customer relationship and also taint impressions of those to whom hopeful customers are connected. Also, expressions open the door to competition.

In a study published by Maritz Research and evolve24 in September 2011, just under 1,300 consumers were asked about their experiences with Twitter and customer service. As the respondents’ ages increased, so did their expectations that companies would read and respond to their experiences.

Imagine for a moment, that as a connected consumer, you try using Twitter to get a response that could solve a problem or retain you as a customer only to feel disappointment in the absence of a response. That’s exactly what happened to the respondents of the survey. Just over 70% said that they did not hear from the company as a result of their Tweet. This sets up a bigger problem if the company is in fact on Twitter. It tells the consumer that their experience is unimportant and that the business is only present in social networks to market or sell products and not provide help. Saying nothing to a customer with a problem says everything about how you value them.

Providing resolution is only one part of the value proposition. Engagement as I’ve defined, is the interaction between a brand and a consumer. But it is in how it’s measured that counts.

No, engagement isn’t measured by Likes, comments, impressions, Tweets or Retweets. Engagement is measured by the takeaway value, sentiment and resulting actions following the exchange. People said that they felt better once they were contacted by a company representative on Twitter. That says everything…

In the end, transformation isn’t easy, but if it were, then providing exceptional customer experiences would become a commodity. This is a time when customers can work for you not just against you. And as customers are demonstrating every day in social and mobile networks, without a thoughtful approach or engagement, every Tweet, update, post, video and interaction is working against you right now. Customer relationships are to be shaped, not simply reacted to or  managed. This is why your role within the organization matters now more than ever.

Become the change you wish to see…