How Customer Support Organizations Must Evolve

Customer support is tactical, a cost-center, and the clean-up-kids at the company.  Well, that’s the mentality that needs to change.  Instead, customer support can be strategic, a value center, and proactive towards customer needs.

The lines between marketing and support continue to blur, as customers share their experiences (most recently, Dooce vs her Whirlpool washing machine) the support experience she has becomes a PR task. Support organizations must quickly evolve as customers connect to each other –and share their stories –using social technologies.

How Customer Support Organizations Must Evolve:
Companies need to stop treating support as lowly department to deal with customers problems, and start to advance their role.

Go Beyond the Official Support Domain
Some companies only support customers on ‘official’ requests such as calls to 1800 numbers or support tickets generated in help systems.  The evolved support organization must go to where customers already are at, like in the social web to find, triage, and respond to customers.  For example, Logitech was proactive in responding to my customer needs in Twitter –shifting the conversation to email and solving my problems.  The many companies who have joined Get Satisfaction, conduct support on Twitter and Facebook are already demonstrating this value.

Become A Strategic Asset to Marketing 
Outsourced support site Get Satifaction’s credo that “Support is Marketing” is spot on.  As customers share their product experience with their trusted peers –they influence their network.  Comcast’s Frank Eliason and his Comcastcares team as an indicator of a PR blessed support individual becoming a marketing asset. As a result, customer support experiences are indeed the scope of marketing.  Perhaps the most trusted members of a company are not the VPs of marketing and their shiny blog, but the rough and tumble support technician who resonates and resembles a customer.

Influence Product Development
Customer touching groups have more insight to the needs of the market and must integrate with product development teams. For example, Intuit integrates community in their actual product –enhacing how customer voices influence their next-generation. Customer interactions should be recorded, prioritized and share with product teams who are designing the next generation of products. 

Let Go and Allow Customers to Self-Support Each Other
In many cases, customers as a collective know more about the product set than a support team or product team do.  Microsoft and other tech companies have developed a thriving community of customers that self-support each other in their developer forums. Companies struggle letting go of answering questions about products, but should instead use the right collaboration and knowledge capturing tools to allow customers to self support each other.   

Become Proactive, Not Reactive
Support organizations must not only be responsive and wait for customer issues to go awry, but be proactive and head off issues before they become customer problems.  Beyond companies forced to issue recalls, asking customers how their experience is going on a regular basis is key.  Expect support organizations to develop advanced monitoring strategies and couple with CRM systems to instantly alert stakeholders of issues that can be corrected.

Anticipate, And Move Beyond Real-Time
Most companies already have 24/7 support organizations that can handle customer needs round-the-clock yet need to prepare for real time responses.  Shuffling customers with issues (esp influencers) into a queue only amps frustration.  The truly evolved support organization anticipates customer issues using proactive techniques mentioned above.

Get Actionable: 
The path to the evolved state of support isn’t easy, to start with, companies should get started by:

Measure based on Value –Not as a Cost Center
Support organizations must not only measure based on customer sat, number of calls received and closed, but develop marketing and PR metrics. Measure on how many crises were diverted, new knowledge gleaned, and interactions in the open web.

Develop An Internal Marketing Plan
Get a seat at the table by demonstrating the strategic component of customer facing support efforts. Show marketing, product development, and leadership teams why your scope has increased as should your internal influence.

Enhance Your Existing Processes
Put in processes that enable support in the real-time open web. You’ll need the right roles, processes, and tools to grow where your customers already are. Develop a triage system that integrates marketing’s efforts in social with your own internal processes to identify, triage, and react to customers.  

Conduct Internal Training –and Fire Drills
New technologies require new processes, skills, and roles. Support organizations must train staff to learn new tools like mobile, social networks, and brand monitoring tools. Conduct internal “fire drills” and have contingency plans to avoid staying off this list.

Expand CRM and Customer Systems To Connect to Social Web
Customers are off the reservation, as should your systems. Learn to identify, prioritize, and capture customer interactions as they spread to social platforms and the to mobile.

48 Replies to “How Customer Support Organizations Must Evolve”

  1. I agree 100% with the ideas expressed in this blog post (and have reTweeted it as well as am going to forward it around internally).

    That said, I disagree with using Intuit as an example. I had a miserable customer experience with them last Friday. I had a product updater not work in Snow Leopard. The tech basically told me “sucks to be you” with no work around or ETA.

    I Twittered them once on Friday. Again on Saturday. Tuesday (yesterday), I wrote up a blog about my experience ( and Twittered Intuit again, as well as their “Quicken” ID.

    We’re into Wednesday and I have zero response from them. Even with the holiday, you’d think that first Twitter on Friday would have some impact.

    Further, their Quicken ID hasn’t been touched since Sept. 3rd, and the Intuit ID isn’t much better.

    As a customer, in my opinion, they are a huge fail on this.

  2. I think your last point – expand CRM to social web is critical. Customers want a smooth transition between channels. Twitter support, today, is intermittent but pro-active and often of great quality, being staffed by very enthusiastic and qualified people. It has the danger of creating an alternative channel rather than a complimentary one. I have decided to cancel my Comcast account primarily due to customer care issues despite the wonderful work by comcast on Twitter. It does not change the basic fact that Comcast are just really bad at customer care – customer care is a company wide mentality and social web activity might be papering over cracks?

  3. That’s right Terry, customers don’t give a care which department you’re in when you’re supporting them. They just want things to work and are oblivious to departmental hierarchies.

  4. Hey Jeremiah, I think this blog post was really well thought out. I would suggest there be another on how to incentivize the customer service department. They’re not sales people, but need to be treated as so, get commission or some other kind of benefit from their added sales and marketing role. Otherwise, why would they go out of their way to improve customer service? Sure, the companies want what you’re suggesting, but the people behind the phones don’t because those same companies expect those customer service reps to act with no applause from the audience. When customer service stops being a thankless job, then the customer service reps will start paying attention.

  5. Jeremiah,
    I think that CRM should collect information through strategic monitoring so to detect early any possible issue and be ready to tackle it.
    Customers’comment, even if we talk of one single customer, are precious.

  6. Good point David. We use small incentives and weekly recognition awards for outstanding performance. We also have internal competitions that center on helping clients.

    Jeremiah, I was talking with Justin Kistner of Webtrends about this last week. He thinks that there should be a social media call center in larger organizations. I think it’s impractical and that other large orgs have shown that effective social media response can be done with a small group. What do you think?

  7. David that’s interesting, a reward or incentive for proactive customer support, it makes sense.

    I read your blog posts on HomeDepot, interesting. Have you read the company customer pact by Get Sat? very helpful.

    Cory, intersting, a ‘swat team’ for customer support.

    I’m not sure a specific “social media group” needs to be trained, but instead, a customer advocacy program across all of support that gets to know how to find customers whereever they are. Remember, while it’s social now, tomorrow it will be a new set of technologies. The bottom line is companies and support organizations must go where customers already are.

    Have you seen how Best Buy has done it with Twelpforce? All employees (like retail employees) are encouraged to go out and be proactive.

  8. I’ve seen Twelpforce. I tend to side more with the idea that social media should be integrated into existing corporate infrastructure, with perhaps one person or a few people coordinating the effort (spoke and wheel style, like Starbucks has done).

    Do you know anything about how Best Buy is encouraging employees to get involved with Twelpforce? Do they incentivize, or do they just say ‘this is good’ and employees who want to look good try to help out?

  9. Great piece. It often seems to me that this stuff gets puffed up too much. We have enough fancy words, strategies and theories, not to mention corporate philosophies, that cover how “we should treat customers.” Unfortunately, most companies do little to implement them. Possibly this is because few employees want to think about a theory or guiding principle that the company wants them to put in place.

    People just need to care. If you care about your customers, you’ll deliver outstanding service. Most people don’t really care. They may say they do, their company sure will, but they don’t. It’s not enough for companies to tell their employees that they need to care. It’s critical that they explain why they should care, what the results will be, and provide elementary level examples of what ‘caring’ looks like.

    When you place a call to a company for sales or support, do you want to call and hear a real human voice or an automated one? When you enter a restaurant, do you appreciate a warm and friendly smile, or a cold emotionless greeting?

    There will always be people in companies that just don’t get this, not because they can’t, but because they won’t spend the effort on it. Likewise, there will be those that make caring about the customer the number one priority – just like caring for a friend of family member – these are the ones that stand out head and shoulders above the rest.

    It’s a shame more companies don’t really care, it’s the easiest advantage you can have.

  10. Though I™m a big fan of companies providing support on Twitter and think there are many that do it well, I wonder if there will be a backlash.

    For example, if you look at the feed of an account like @gameflyinc you™ll see customer after customer complaining about the service. A prospect evaluating this service may think:

    1. The company is responsive to customer needs
    2. Many customers are unhappy with this service

    While bullet # 1 is the intended effect, bullet # 2 could cause them to re-evaluate their decision / decide not to business with the company.

  11. Jeremiah, great post highlighting the imperative for Customer Support to change. We’ve been working with companies like AT&T, SONY, Best Buy, HP, and others for years by helping them to reinvent customer support with their own online communities.

    One of the things that I think sometimes gets missed in these discussions is the hard dollar ROI of doing this — For folks that are interested, they can listen to HP discuss how they used social media and customer communities to reinvent Customer Support here:

    USA Today just published an article highlighting the value for Lithium customers like myFICO, Lenovo, and Sage Software ” myFICO documents over 40% increase in customer spend; Lenovo sees a 20% reduction in call center activity; and Sage has seen an increase of 20 points in its NPS score.

    That™s good old fashioned money.

    Sanjay Dholakia
    Chief Marketing Officer
    Lithium Technologies

  12. I wanted to update you and let you know that my comment on this blog, combined with Twitter, got the attention of Intuit and a number of people were quick to rapidly respond to, and resolve my problem.

    The takeaway for me during the entire incident (and as I noted on my blog) was that if the original technical support technician had been as motivated and as empowered as the people today, then it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

    The steps you outline above should be studied and leveraged by companies looking to avoid such incidents as the one I encountered.

    Thank you, again.

  13. Michelle, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am curious about’s integration, and Radian 6 has done something similar, but since my company doesn’t use either service, we haven’t been able to look at it.

    Noah, I’m glad you got your problem resolved.

  14. Jeremiah,

    From all the departments in the company you chose one of the two that would love to do what you say, but are unable to do so (the other being field service).

    I am just going to post some advice that my mentor gave me when i first started in customer service many, many moons ago. I later extended it to Field Service through experience.

    You don’t mess with Support.

    He was only half-joking. There is a known truth that regardless of whatever changes elsewhere in the world of enterprise apps customer support moves at their own pace. They (and by they I mean large support organizations) already tested all this social apps at different times. forums, bbs, communities, IM, Chat, Email, Automated, self-service, proactive-service, preventive service, and many more than we are not yet talking about. what worked in the six months (or so) pilots will continue to be used until it loses its efficiency. what doesn’t, goes in the pile… and the pile is as tall as a building.

    Support moves at its own pace, you cannot tell them what do to. You can highlight some good ideas and case studies, show them some new technologies, and then let them figure out what it is that they want / need to do.

    Else, and to quote my mother in this one, you mess with the bull – you get the horns. 🙂


  15. Great post, and just what the customer service industry needs to hear. Thanks for elaborating on the idea of reaching out via the social web in a way that we consultants can present to clients.

    Question I’ve been wrestling with: I’m all on board with all of this, but what if the company is 100% in enterprise sales? It’s not as if there still can’t be benefit from using social media channels, of course, but I haven’t yet seen anyone make the case. If your customers are, say, Alaska Airlines or Starbucks, how many of these rules still apply? Should those entities still be encouraged to reach out and help each other?

    In short, what if you deal with corporations, not individual consumers? How would you make the case for B to B?

  16. Great discussion here. As Cory mentioned, we were talking about this very concept recently at Beer and Blog. It came up because I’m working with our VP of Support and Services on a presentation for the upcoming TSW conference about the hub and spoke model we’re using to extend customer support.

    The CRM everyone is talking about is the need for workflow to delegate and supervise engagement that can be tracked by customer profile. We’re using an integration between Salesforce and Webtrends Social Measurement, which is powered by Radian6. Dave’s presentation will cover the business processes, staffing structure, value gained, and current gaps. Sending this link to him for commentary.

  17. > “Allow Customers to Self-Support Each Other”.

    You also have to make sure that is not the ONLY support they get. Self-supported groups are fine when the answers can all be found within the group, but fails miserably and becomes a network for negative energy when questions go unanswered (by the company). Google is a perfect example of a failure in the area.

    Personally I think twitter is horrible for customer support unless there is another location (forum) that is also used as the foundation of support (linked to). Considering the life cycle of a tweet, most efforts will be lost over the long term. Twitter users also have the expectation of immediate action. If users are getting support to simple answers that they easily could have found on their own (if they tried), why would they make the effort in the first place? How does support improve for the non-twitter users?

    It is also extremely frustrating to watch “lazy users” get quick support (because it is only 140 character), while detailed efforts go unanswered for months!

    How to we get companies to support their own products in a timely fashion?

  18. Heidi,great question about applicability of this in B2B as well as B2C. My organisation BT (British Telecom) serves both customers and I am responsible for our social activities in the B2B space. We are finding great opportunity in both areas. The volumes are higher in the B2C space (15 X more customers), but the value tends to be higher in the B2B space.

    In the B2B space we are using Twitter for customer support, lead capture, marketing and brand monitoring, as well as participating on internal and external support forums. We have set up Ideation to capture feedback from customers and are continuing to develop use cases which let us engage with our customers where they want to deal with us.

    We also have created an online community where business in the UK can go to do business and build out their online presence to leverage social media

    There is still much to do, and I would like to see us develop a portal to bring together more the B2C and B2B communities like Dell does on their collaorative site.

    I think companies are still learning about the opportunity to build the voice of the customer into our processes in Sales, Marketing, Products and PR. The growth of word of mouth marketing and the ability for customers (whether businesses or consumers) to interact with each other in a frictionless way will transform B2B as much as it will B2C in my view.

    Would be interested to see links or references to more B2B specific case studies though.

  19. Esteban

    This is really a “who moved my cheese” moment, If customers have moved away from your formal support group (in some cases, they are self-supporting each other away from your customer team) then they need to quickly evolve or get out of the way.

  20. Jeremiah,

    Love that you broke out this post so clearly. And the point you made above – that customers don’t care what department you’re in – is spot on, and something I’ve been railing against for ages. The idea of “that’s not my job” just isn’t the same as it used to be.

    The lynchpin to a lot of this, of course, is empowering people to a) solve the problems they’re handed b) give them access to the people and information they need to do that and c) actually taking the issues that recur and use them to *change* the business practices. That’s where the long term cost savings and value comes in, when you shift your business to actually remove the problem areas when they become so.

    We’re doing a lot of exploration right now into woven support-account-relationship management through our CRM integrations. The ability for companies to listen carefully now changes the external expectations for how quickly, efficiently, and deeply we can solve customers’ problems. It’s not hollow to say, yet again, that times are changing.

    Thanks for the post.

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community, Radian6

  21. Spot on! And this is not a new challenge. In my experience, several of the points you raised are driven by my clients mindset as to their function within the organization. Perhaps its a result of the message being drilled into the heads of customer service and support people that they are a cost center and the only way to survive is to continue to drive cost out of the operation. When CS professionals come up through the ranks hearing this, the natural tendency once they reach leadership roles is to continue down that path.

    What other function in the organization has such direct, intimate contact with customers? What other function controls the type of muli-channel, actionable customer data that is housed within customer service systems? Its not marketing. Its not sales, finance or operations. Its customer service and support. Perhaps its a confidence issue from having the ‘cost center’ message drilled over and over.

    I wonder if a changing of the guard is required to radically shake up the prevailing management thinking within customer support. i read an article almost 8 years ago with the title “Should Marketing own the Contact Center”. The challenge with getting a seat at the corporate strategy table? Nobody is going to pull the chair out and offer it. Customer Support has to take it. Leveraging some of your tactics here is a good start. Absent of that, perhaps ownership by a function that already has a seat at the table, dragging customer support along, would accomplish the same goal.

  22. Something that occurred to me early on in your post is the issue of pay. The companies that still see customer service and support as a cost center tend to keep pay low. In fact, not that long ago I got a response to something I wrote about increasing pay. A customer support manager chimed in saying he was expected to cut costs and the only way to do so was to cut pay or not offer enough pay. Coupling low pay with the expectation that this person put up with everything customers can throw at him does not compute.

    And they get what they pay for: people who are not motivated to improve customer service, will not go out of their way to sell anything, and will spend their days learning a few skills and then leaving for a more enlightened employer.

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