Social media: the next frontier in customer service

It’s all about social media right? Think again. The number of people using messaging apps overtook social networks two years ago. Globally, more than two billion log on to one of the top five messaging apps every month. In China, Tencent just announced that its WeChat platform hit a milestone – an incredible one billion users. Messaging is the new battleground.

WeChat’s messaging platform, known as Weixin which means “micro-letter” in Mandarin, is more of a social app. A one-stop shop for networking, mobile payments and shopping, it is a super-charged app that has huge implications for the customer service industry globally.

“The number of digital natives in China is growing rapidly and they bring with them changing lifestyles and consumption patterns which are well suited to this platform,” explains Tianbing Zhang, Deloitte’s China consumer products and retail sectors leader.

“While it is easier for shoppers to fill their online baskets with products personalised to their needs, they can do so while gaining feedback on their choices in real time through social networks and messaging. Digital ecosystems, including payment and delivery methods, are now well developed to make social shopping easier and better suited to consumer lifestyles.”

So-called “social CRM” is now powered by endless bytes of consumer information and its evolution is considered the next frontier in this sector

This model is now so developed in Asia, through players such as Japan’s Line and South Korea’s KakaoTalk, that a whole set of customer relationship management (CRM) services have developed around these social apps. So-called “social CRM” is now powered by endless bytes of consumer information and its evolution is considered the next frontier in this sector.

“Tencent and Alibaba are the real pioneers of customer-driven digital services and the scale of data they hold on individuals is awesome, fantastic and scary, depending on how you look at it,” states Maz Amirahmadi, chief executive of market research firm ABN Impact.

CRM platforms are now integrated into the likes of WeChat or Weibo, whereby a user’s social profile and preferences can be pulled into a company’s system, providing the brand with a single source of data for analysis and deeper insight as well as gauging ways to fine tune the user experience via the application.

“WeChat has gone way beyond being just a messaging app. It has consolidated social interactions into an omnichannel experience. The platform is now critical to customer engagement in China and has a whole economy around it,” says Martin Hill-Wilson, who heads up Brainfood Consulting as a customer engagement strategist.

An all singing, all dancing social app is yet to evolve fully in the West. Facebook has moved forward with its Messenger platform and is teaming up with PayPal to offer payment options. However, the ecosystem for shopping, socialising and messaging is much more diversified in Europe and North America.

“The goal ultimately is to take control of the customer. If a search moves off Google and on to a messaging platform then the likes of Facebook control the consumer data going forwards and that’s crucial. This is the year that Mark Zuckerberg will look to monetise messaging and make it work for customer service,” states Mr Hill-Wilson.

There are lessons that can be learnt from China as social apps ascend in the West. Tens of thousands of merchants in Asia have learnt quickly that they must have an omnichannel strategy in place that is engaging at all points in the customer journey, integrating social CRM with data from traditional sources such as call centres, stores or bots.

“We’re in the era of great expectations. People now expect more and seamless interactions in real time. The connected customer’s expectations are very high these days. Everybody wants it now. You don’t want to wait one minute, you want to be able to connect,” says Antony Bourne, vice president of global industry solutions at IFS.

Customer service in China has now reached dizzying heights. On average workers from online stores are available to chat with customers for 12 hours a day or more, with some even offering 24/7 availability.

“They are very quick at handling requests here,” says Thomas Guillemaud, chief operating officer of Shanghai-based IT Consultis. “Retailers in the West will need to be quick to listen to customers, improving the products they offer, how quickly they respond to chats, how they handle changes to orders, deliveries, returns and more will also be crucial.”

The opportunity for brands globally as social apps and social shopping flourishes is that there will be many more touchpoints and interactions with corporations, their products, people and bots. It also has the potential to permeate many more facets of our lives.

“Be it on social media, dedicated online marketplaces, or even thanks to QR codes strategically located on any surface – anything could lead to a purchase,” states Mr Guillemaud.

However, the consensus is that although social apps are likely to become a more important part of the mix in the West, they are unlikely to reach the same level of dominance that they have achieved in, say, China. Customer service providers can take a collective sigh of relief. They will still have to up their game though, incorporating a strong offering in this sector.

Mr Hill-Wilson laments: “Social apps are not the next silver bullet, it won’t kill or solve everything. Messaging will in fact experience the same problems as say call centres have… as they become more popular you will still have to get in the queue to get a response and customer service.”