The problem with companies becoming "social"

August 14, 2012: 12:49 PM ET

Using Twitter to respond to customer feedback is a good idea -- as long as that's not the only way a company is doing so.

By Tom Kelly, contributor

FORTUNE -- Saying that social is being used to make some companies less social sounds shocking. But in reality, rather than bringing companies and customers closer together, it could be forcing them further apart. When I look at the companies who are the least loved by their customers, they're almost always the ones that, if you ask them about customer support, respond, "Sure, we have that covered...through our online communities and forums, self-services sites, and other tools where customers can learn from each other."

"Social" has demonstrated beyond all doubt that it's a powerful channel for companies to enable peer-to-peer customer engagement. Company blogs, crowd-sourced forums, and online communities, for example, are great at connecting enthusiastic users with each other, and often are the quickest way to gather and contribute reviews and opinions about a product or service. For certain products or questions, you might even get answers.

While these "social" tools are great assets for customers, the sad truth is that for a growing list of companies, social tools are no longer an adjunct to their customer support efforts; it has become the whole ball game, and other critical interaction points with customers are being severely neglected or abandoned. When customers are ready to purchase or have a specific question – they are often required to jump through hoops to connect directly with the company to get the right answer.

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The message companies risk communicating by directing customers to poorly thought-out social solutions is, "Hey, if you have a problem, go talk to each other. But whatever you do, don't bother us." The euphemism from the crowd-sourcing world is that interested individuals "swarm" around a topic of particular interest. But swarms, though, are for bees. And while swarming can add value and bees produce honey, you can also get stung.

"Social" goes beyond Facebook, Twitter and peer communities, and customers expect more than that. We have a low tolerance for cavalier attitudes toward social in other parts of our lives, and the very word is replete with positive emotional associations. Describing someone as"a very social person" is a great compliment. Social is texting and talking, letters and blogs, tweeting and chatting, and gathering in person as well as in a virtual community or world.

It's the same with companies. I believe that when a prospect wants to buy something or a customer needs support, every company that values its customers needs to offer the option for customers to communicate through their preferred communication channel at the time of their choosing. Customer intimacy can only be created when companies provide flexible options for customers to get "the right answer" as opposed to just "an answer." Business is conducted and shareholder value is created in a multi-dimensional, multi-channel, and yes, in social world.

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There is no question that customer communities and self-service portals are an important part of the experience – but when the right answer is not available, the escalation into the company is the opportunity for a company to differentiate itself. How easy is it to escalate out of the community? Which communication channels are available? Is the agent provided with the context of the self-service and community interaction? And ultimately is the right answer sourced back into the self-service and community apps to help other customers?

Here's another way of looking at it: social customer service done properly gives your company an easy, cost-effective way to be a hero. Providing the right answers to the right people at the right time using the channel of their choice offers a differentiated customer experience. Customers will remember and value companies that know who they are, understand how they want to communicate, and can quickly and precisely provide the information needed to buy or use a product or service. The lines between service and sales continue to blur, and failing to treat every customer or prospect interaction as a value add opportunity will be, in the end, a shareholder value loss.

This is what social really needs to be: a method of creating real value for customers, connecting them deeply and efficiently with the information they need to become – and then stay – satisfied, long-term customers of the companies and brands that matter to them.

Tom Kelly is the President and CEO of Moxie Software Inc. Tom is a veteran of the technology industry, with more than 25 years of experience working in numerous executive leadership roles. From software start-ups to billion-dollar technology companies, he has an established reputation of leadership in a wide range of executive management roles including strategic business development, sales, finance and operations.

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