Digital customer service is on the rise. More and more companies are finding their way to the social web to answer questions of clients and prospects. A study I conducted earlier this year showed that about one out of three companies is currently helping clients in the digital world. Even though this percentage is still rather low, I have the feeling that online customer support may become a mainstream element in a social media strategy. The performance of many companies is improving and most of the active players are already preparing for the future.

Looking at this evolution, I was wondering how webcare can be a differentiator in the future. What if the majority of the companies are offering online service, how can you stand out? To offer you a broad scope, I talked about this topic with a broad range of national and international experts, people from the field and opinion leaders. You can find their vision later in this post.

Based upon their feedback, it is clear that the future of online customer support is about being strong in 5 dimensions or at least in a number of these dimensions.

1. Offer speed & real value to customers

Clients will expect service 24/7. At a certain stage, clients won’t care anymore if it’s 10pm or 6 am, they want to be helped in a fast and professional way. Speed and around the clock availability will be needed to stand out. This is not as easy as it sounds for many companies, but it will become a minimum demand. Once that moment is reached, speed will not be a differentiator anymore.

2. Integration

Companies have a lot of data from their customers. Clients call in, send letters, order stuff and ask questions through Facebook. The challenge is to combine all that data and make sure you can follow the customer trail. This will increase the level of service for the customer.

3. Culture of customer focus

This is without any doubt the hardest to install and the hardest to copy differentiator from the list. The moment that your entire organization understands the power of a happy client and the role social media can play in this, your focus will be on the external part of your business. Companies with their eye on the customer, will certainly stand out in social support as well.

4. Customer communities

Clients can help other clients. If the number of conversations increase and you want to keep your efficiency under control, an active and dedicated client community can be a very strong asset.

5. Product performance

In the end, clients want good working products. Social media shouldn’t be the ultimate support tool. The moment that products work fine, the role of customer support people becomes a lot easier.

Here are the ideas of the experts I talked with. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments section of this post.

Theme 1: Offer SPEED & REAL value for the client

Robert Lommers, social media manager at Rabobank

A fast working webcare department should be part of the standard service offering for any company in 2013. The future of webcare and making webcare a differentiator will be more difficult. Companies should look for ways to really make an impact by helping clients in every situation. Moments when a webcare team helps a client who’s abroad in a different time zone, can offer a feeling of client happiness. Those moments become moments a client never forgets. For me the future is about real actions with impact for the client, it’s not just about tweeting back to a client.

Ekaterina Walter, Social media strategist at Intel

When customers connect with customer support, all they are looking for are two things: rapid response and accurate information. . There are still a lot of brands that cannot provide fast enough response and that continues to be a huge differentiator for a number of companies. There is also misconception that blogs are dead. Blogs are the most effective engines of delivering detailed information (like step-by-step instructions and how-to guides) to your users in effective and clear way, something that social networks like Twitter, Facebook and others are not appropriate for.

Clo Willaerts, Author of The Conversity model & business unit manager at Sanoma

The biggest challenge for webcare through social media is the sense of urgency that people have when they tweet or post a complaint or question on Facebook. They expect an answer in a matter of hours, whether is 10 pm on a Thursday or 8 am on a Saturday. The other issue is the fact that tweets and many Facebook updates are, by definition, public. The fact that the company hasn’t responded yet is there for all to be seen. This makes good webcare over social media often a lot more costly than initially assumed

Dave Kerpen, CEO, Likeable Media

Online customer support is table stakes now. In order to truly be different, companies must use online customer service to surprise and delight customers. You stand to gain from delighting both complainers and already happy folks

Theme 2: integration

Peter Caestecker, Webcare project leader  at Mobistar

Companies should fully integrate Webcare interactions in their CRM tools in order to have a real 360 view, regardless of the touch point the customer uses to contact them. They should continue to move Webcare away from a purely defensive approach towards a proactive care approach where in the end Webcare & commercial opportunities could be blended.

Marco Derksen (Upstream.nl) en Ronald van der Aart (RepMen.com)

The main challenge for organizations is to integrate online customer support or webcare -as it is know in The Netherlands- in the day-to-day customer care operation as one of the regular channels instead of a separate channel with a special mandate. That is one of our conclusions in our recent whitepaper ‘Webcare in Nederland, a quick scan’. At the same time webcare will raise service level expectations from customers: ‘If this companies webcare team is able to respond to my complaint in less than 20 minutes, why does it take other customer service agents so much longer?’ This simply means that organizations have to adapt and replicate the most important webcare lessons in all other parts of their service departments.

Sjef Kerkhofs, DGA & CMO of DailyDialogues, social media outsourcing.
Within a few years, every company that has consumer relations will be offering webcare 24-7 (in house or with external outsourcing partners). This makes it very difficult to maintain that early adopter competitive advantage. However, companies will still be able to excel in combining their different customer service channels. At this moment, webcare and traditional service are almost never really connected, which leads to a lot of negative customer experiences and that’s a shame. Your company can excel others by recognizing every customer in person, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, the phone, email, webshop or brick store (if you have one).’ -

Gert Wim ter Haar, Social Media Hub Manager KLM

“Online customer support will indeed very soon become a ‘table stake’. Thus to distinguish oneself from competition, one should take the quality of the customer service to a higher level.

Social customer service will really be about the customer. A response within minutes, preferably in the customer’s own language, will become mandatory. And the answer should not send the customer off to web forms or call centers, but offer complete, to-the-point information. However, that is only the basic level. Social media service agents should be able to pro-actively engage in conversations in order to offer customers relevant information and practical solutions. To this end, companies need to gather more knowledge about the customer through qualitative applications and integrating databases. Although a challenge, our ambition is to use this information at all customer touch points.”

Theme 3: A culture of customer focus

Jo Caudron, author of ‘media tomorrow’ and senior partner Dearmedia

“From our experience with social media strategy development for large European companies, we have noticed the importance of a responsive attitude via social media channels. Companies realize that talking to a social media audience implies risks if you are not ready to be responsive. As soon as you develop “outbound” social activities (you talking to them) they will want to talk back to you too. Yes this could be about your brand but this will also be about how you perform as a company in your (functional) relationship with your market. Being on social media creates the expectation that you are ready to care for all potential issues your clients might raise. So it is no surprise that customer care through social media always scores very high in the results of our clients’ strategic exercises.

And this is a real problem for large organizations: they are aware of the importance of social media care, and they often already have (isolated) teams, tools and procedures in place. But it doesn’t reflect the real DNA of the entire company, thus making it very hard to scale. These companies provide an unseen level of closeness and customer care via social media for a very limited audience, while at the same time being traditionally slow and sluggish when caring for the rest of the traditional market. Their SLA’s for social media are much better compared to their traditional SLA’s. And this will become a long-term problem as more people move towards social media to get help. Ideally the entire company should embrace the new SLA’s to look for a more transparent, faster, closer relationship with the market. Social media care sets the new standard for the way you want to relate to your clients.

But let’s not be too optimistic though: for most companies it could still take many years to inject this new customer-friendly attitude in the DNA of the entire company. Yes, the concept of care through social media will very soon become mainstream, but the real wide-scale implementation will face many hurdles.”

Simon Mainwaring, funder/author We First

There are two levels on which companies must connect with their customers in regards to customer support. The first is the simple act of listening but it has to be followed by action on that basis. Companies that succeed in the future will be distinguished by the quality and implementation of their listening. Secondly, companies must be sufficiently defined themselves, especially in terms of their core values, to connect with their customers on the basis of shared values. Once a company demonstrates an authentic commitment to those values both in terms of how they treat a customer and the causes that they support, those brands will command unrivaled loyalty.

Erik Van Roekel, reputation manager ING

I hope that companies will not need a dedicated social support team anymore. This may sound strange, but today online customer support is often needed because other channels are not offering the right level of customer support. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a dedicated team, but once you create a culture of customer centricity in which the possibilities of social media are integrated, the need for a separate social support team will decrease.

David Meerman Scott, Author of books like ‘real-time marketing’ and ‘the new rules of marketing & PR’

Companies should allow customers to choose the way they want to communicate — be it on the phone, or email, or twitter, or Facebook, or whatever.  As it is now, companies force customers into their own systems and ways of communicating.

Brian Solis, Author of ‘engage’ & ‘the end of business as usual’

If you think about it, that’s a tremendous opportunity to shift negative experiences into positive outcomes. Peer-to-peer influence, not to mention social proof, sways impressions and decisions in either direction. As a business, making an investment in social customer service not only improves sentiment, but also how people perceive your brand. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously said, “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

Theme 4: Customer communities

Koen Delvaux, consultant medemerkers

Customer care is the new marketing. Therefore, we should not systematically redirect online customer care to private one-on-one messaging, but train our agents to handle online conversations in public. This is more expensive than scripted one-on-one messaging, but it creates the foundation for a crowdsourced customer care, where a nucleus of brand fans takes away a lot of the first line questions and cost. In the long run, this will turn the current race to the bottom (decreasing contact rate, increasing selfcare and boringly efficient IVRs) into a vivid customer care community. In the future, the differences between brands will the communities that they foster and not the products that they make.

Theme 5: product performance

Frank Eliason, Director Global Social Media at Citi, author of @yourservice (Frank is the inventor of digital customer service through his work at Comcast)

Social media Customer Service, at least in the manner it is conducted today, is a failure. The assumption has been Customers want social care but the reality is they want the products to work as they expect and they want Customer service to be there when they need it. The reality is Customer care, even with all the technology added to it over the past 30 years, has frustrated Customers. Now Customers have a say in your brand message and they are clearly responding that companies are not properly serving them. Companies have been responding by helping those who are loud but not fixing what is broken, sending a message to the world that the only way to get help is blast the brand publicly. I expect, based on current social trends, this will get much worse over the next 2-5 years. Companies will start to get the message and realize the best way to win in social is creating the right experience in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, feel free to add your opinion on how social customer support can remain a differentiator for the future.