The rise of the prosumer

Social media is creating a new super customer who both produces and consumes online content

Waiting in line for 45 minutes to send a parcel at a Paper Plus store doubling as a NZ Post outlet, the customer used the time to complain online about having to wait while people did banking transactions when all he wanted to do was buy a stamp.

His post on the Geekzone website attracted a number of sympathetic comments in which people shared similar experiences. But then out of the blue came a comment from ‘Bren’ suggesting that maybe the problem was with him, not Kiwibank.

“It’s called the lunchtime rush – and you get cues (sic) in every bank. It may be worthy to note that humans every now and then need to be “patient” and a little bit understanding. Contrary to popular belief – the world does not revolved (sic) around you,” Bren commented.

Geekzone spotted that Bren was sending the message from NZ Post’s internal network. This unleashed a string of comments that spread to Twitter about transparency and honesty and corporate values.

This anecdote on how to get to get it wrong on Twitter was told by Peter Fletcher-Dobson, head of online channels for Kiwibank in his presentation to the FST Media banking and technology conference recently.

Fletcher-Dobson shared the experience after mentioning other high-profile instances of how companies have misjudged their online presence and paid for it in bad press.

He says financial institutions have followed their customers into social media, and that they are “playing catch up”, with few organisations showing any thought leadership in this space.

But as smartphones become the favoured tools for both business and personal transactions, banks have no choice but to get to grips with the rise of “prosumer”, who will tweet, post and blog about your brand 24/7.

The ‘prosumer’

Fletcher-Dobson defines the prosumer as “a hybrid being that produces as much as it consumes – you can only marvel at what the prosumer is accomplishing,” he says.

Kiwibank, like many large organisations, has a team of tweeters, and Fletcher-Dobson says they have a cross-functional social media working group which includes staff in marketing and the contact centre. It’s here the personal and professional can collide (if you are linked to an organisation, especially on Twitter, then you need to be upfront about that).

According to research cited by Fletcher-Dobson, only four percent of complaints are solved through Twitter, but it’s challenging for resources.

“Just managing customer complaints and social media requires effort. You need to be able to respond to customers rapidly and they will contact you at all hours. It is fundamentally unsustainable as it’s an insecure channel. All the enterprise is trying to do is move the customer to a place where they can have a secure conversation.”

To get a sense of what he means, Computerworld began following KiwibankNZ on Twitter and spied the following exchange.

Customer tweet:

“@KiwibankNZ stop sending me loan offers. If you knew anything about me as a customer you’d know I don’t want them.”

Kiwibank responds:

“@AndrewENZ I’d like to pass on the feedback. Do you mind sending a DM with your access number and how the offers were sent? Thanks. ^JS”.

Kiwibank uses cheap Software-as-a-Service tools such as CoTweet to monitor mentions of its brand online line, and is looking into adopting more in-depth tools. But Fletcher-Dobson says these can be expensive and there doesn’t appear to be the software currently in the market that will “munch through big amounts of unstructured data.”

Interacting with customers is currently a manual process. The organisation’s designated tweeter spies a mention and responds, when what is often being asked for by customers is standard information that could be answered through an automated response.

“Humans are always trying to find the quickest way to get resolution,” he says, referring to a Twitter hashtag called lazyweb which is designed for people who can’t be bothered going to Google or searching through a website for information.

In his view, this is the way the internet is heading as people lack the patience to trawl through information architecture to find what they want. “They just want to go into the net and say, ‘Kiwibank, x,y,z’, and what we need to be able to do is find some form of automated system of business information and knowledge management to get that information to them in a scalable way for the business and then be ready to pick up that conversation if its going to be of benefit to us or to the people.”

In this graph below Fletcher-Dobson illustrates “the great divide” between secure IT systems and the open access customer-friendly online interaction.

“Traditionally banks online have been poor in using the information we know about a customer to make their banking easier... with personal and mobile devices there’s more of an opportunity to make more easily available – to those customers that want it – basic day-to-day banking information. But it’s crucial to balance that with the right level of security or guarantees for the customer,” he says.

Ponoko’s hybrid customer care

This isn’t just a challenge for large organisations; small, nimble online companies are also wrestling with ways to respond to customers’ increasing demands for timely information over the web.

Ponoko is an online bespoke furniture maker. Established in 2007, its software has been used by designers and DIY manufacturers to make more than 100,000 products, ranging from small jewellery to large pieces of furniture.

More than a dozen staff are split between offices in Wellington and San Francisco, but with around 85 percent of Ponoko’s customers located in the US, the company’s community manager Josh Judkins is based there.

Judkins says all enquiries are pushed online, with email being the primary source of customer contact. The volume of customer interaction fluctuates between 50 emails a day and 100 emails. The turnaround time for emails to be answered is 24 hours, but customers are told that if they tweet their query, they may get a quicker response.

That’s because Judkins’ customer service teams may be able to direct them, in 140 characters or less, to a posting in Ponoko’s forums that will provide an answer to their queries.

Using Zendesk software Judkins says they have integrated email with the forums so that content from an outbound email – in which the customer’s query is solved — is automatically stripped and posted onto Ponoko’s online forum.

The idea is that if a staff member spends more than five minutes on a customer query, it should automatically be turned into a forum post, because they don’t want to have deal with the same query over and over again. This creates an online interactive knowledge base, which helps with customer queries and builds an active online community.

“People are shy so you have to lead by example. We try to give people a framework to encourage sharing. The biggest challenge is just getting people to the forums. So we try to build compelling content to attract them there,” Judkins says.

In the past Ponoko staff wrote how-to articles on blogs, but posting them to the forums makes it easier for customers to find them, he says. He also notes that the queries they are getting now are a lot smarter – with customers referencing forum posts when seeking new information, and often providing solutions amongst themselves rather than via online interaction with a Ponoko staff member.

Customer care in NZ – the stats

At the Contact Centre Institute of New Zealand’s conference recently, Fifth Quadrant managing director Catriona Wallace presented the company’s annual benchmarking report for New Zealand contact centres. This year 75 individual centres were surveyed.

The contact centre dominates as the most favoured way for customers to interact with an organisation, capturing 84 percent of interactions. This is followed by branches (six percent) and the sales force (four percent).

In the contact centre, voice is the most dominant channel, handling 74 percent of enquiries. Email is second at 10 percent, followed by self-service (two percent), speech (one percent) and web chat (0.5 percent)

Social media/online forums remains a very tiny channel in terms of volume. In addition, according to the Fifth Quadrant survey, only 12 percent of New Zealand customers “were happy to receive the information via a social network” and just 11 percent “were happy to receive contact from a company based on comments/tweets they had made”.

But while the numbers are low, they are growing, and pushing customers into self service online channels can be both cost effective and provide high customer satisfaction, says Wallace.

“We know there are about 30 percent dormancy of customers who are currently using phone and don’t want to use phone — ‘if your website worked, if I was confident I would get a resolution, I would use a website for myself’ — is what they are telling us.”

Email is also a growing channel, which Wallace puts down to the “coming of the smartphone” and the fact that customers are using it as a channel for business to consumer interaction. Often the email channel is handled by a different team in the contact centre to voice — at Kiwibank, for example, a dedicated email team is also responsible for social media interaction.

But emails present a challenge to contact centres as New Zealand consumers expect an eight-hour turnaround on an email enquiry, when a lot of organisations can only manage a four-day turnaround.

Wallace, whose organisation surveys contact centres throughout the Asia-Pacific region, says that social media interaction generally starts in the marketing department and, when they can’t resource it, it passes over to the contact centre. When this happens, the contact centre plays a more strategic role in the organisation.

“You need to be thinking of this multi-channel approach,” she says. “It’s not just voice any more, we call it the convergence of integrated channels and right now we’re at an unprecedented time of rapid change within the customer contact world.”

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