Timely Tweet could help you recover lost airline luggage quickly

Visualize this: you’re on a business trip and the airline loses your luggage. A not so uncommon occurrence!

Only this time, as you queue up at the carrier’s “lost baggage” counter waiting interminably for some face time with an agent, rather than nervously bite your finger nails, or wearily twiddle your thumbs, you put those digits to far better use.

You send out a Tweet to the airline on your smart phone saying: “Help my baggage didn’t show up in Orlando!” The airline’s customer service staff accesses that information, looks you up in their system, locates your misplaced suitcases, and Tweets right back telling your where your luggage is, and outlining next steps.

Is this for real? Can there be such a Tweet conclusion to your bitter ordeal?

Absolutely, says John Hernandez, general manager and vice-president, Cisco Systems Inc.’s customer collaboration business unit.

In fact, he says, San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco has created an application that makes it all possible. “It provides airlines that use our technology a way to access a customer post about lost luggage – sent over Twitter – and after taking the necessary steps to locate missing items, to tweet back in a matter of seconds.”

“We’ve prototyped the application, though it’s not in production yet,” Hernandez told ITBusiness.ca.

It’s among the offerings being showcased and formally launched at the Cisco Worldwide Collaboration Partner Summit 2010 being held in Pheonix, Az. in November.

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That’s just one example of how social media can be interwoven into a company’s customer care operations, the Cisco exec said. There are others.

In a Web cast last week, Hernandez also demoed an app. that enables a business using Cisco technology to harness a variety of social media tools to enhance customer service. The demo described how a fictional electronics firm, CWI, used these tools to help its customer “Paul”, who had purchased a Plasma TV from them.

DEMO VIDEO – Electronics firm uses social media tools to solve customer problem

Courtesy Cisco Systems Inc.

Paul returns home one evening to find his kids have scribbled with crayons all over the TV screen, and is clueless about how to go about cleaning the display. He vents his frustration via Twitter.

The demo then cuts to the Cisco app used by the CWI client service team to monitor customer satisfaction issues. Not only does the app show Paul’s current post, it also displays his posting history.

For example, by looking at a previous Tweet, the agent knows Paul had purchased this TV only recently, and at the time had even shared information about the model – data that can help with resolving his problem.

The agent can also access Paul’s social media data, such as the number of his Twitter followers, his public LinkedIn profile, and so on. Contextual information offered by this composite profile helps the agent provide the best possible customer service, Hernandez said.

The app also enables the CWI agent to respond appropriately to the post. When he or she clicks the Information tab on the screen, it pulls up instructional articles on cleaning plasma TVs, as well as a recommended response to Paul’s problem. A single click allows the agent to insert the suggested response into the reply and send it to Paul.

By offering the customer timely and accurate information on how to clean their TV, the electronics firm not only provides great customer service, but can also likely avoid warranty claims, the demo video noted. And it also supports brand building. “As Paul appreciates this experience, he would likely share it with his friends, improving the brand perception of CWI.”

Apart from helping with customer service issues, the app also helps agents monitor posts for potential sales opportunities.

“We have this app in beta trials right now with a number of our customers and it will hit the market in November,” Hernandez told ITBusiness.ca.

These tools, he said, target — not just the enterprise and service provider market — but also the small and mid-sized firms, which account for a “sizeable portion” of Cisco’s business today.

For instance, the Cisco exec said, a small business could layer the social media app on top of Unfied Contact Centre (UCC) Express — a Cisco call centre and reporting app purpose built for the SMB space. “The social media application is an additional purchase, but it would plug right into the core UCC Express offering.”

Many channels, single experience

However, social media is just one customer interaction channel and not necessarily the most popular or preferred one.

The challenge, according to another industry insider, is knowing how to blend interactions across multiple channels so customers have the same positive experience regardless of the channel they use to contact you.

Marty Marcinczyk is vice-president, national customer operations at Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., a provider of cable, entertainment, and communications products and services.

“Our clients are all different. Some like to use the Web, others the phone, and so on,” Marty noted in a Webcast on “the evolution of customer service.”

He said in many cases, Comcast customers use several or all of these channels to communicate with the company. “They go on the Web and look for answers but may not be satisfied with the responses they get, so they start an online chat session with an agent. Perhaps they don’t get a satisfactory answer there too, so they pick up the phone, go through an IVR (interactive voice response) routine, and then to an agent.”

He said it’s vital the transition from one channel to the next is as seamless as possible and customers aren’t forced to repeat questions or information over and over again. “It’s such consistency and convergence that drives a positive customer experience. Social media – the newest channel – should also be incorporated into this model of convergence.”

A big obstacle to accomplishing this, he said, is integrating the disparate tech systems that undergird may firms’ customer interaction channels.

He cited Comcast as an example. “We grew through acquisitions. We bought local mom and pop cable companies and inherited many of their [legacy] technologies. Bringing these disparate systems together is a challenge. On the voice side we have PBX and ACD systems. We also have e-mail and chat systems, SMS, and now social media.”

A major tech trend today is meeting the convergence challenge head on, according to Cisco’s Hernandez. It’s the rising popularity of session initiation protocol (SIP), following the “disaggregation of computer telephony integration (CTI).

A SIP-based infrastructure supports convergence between multiple contact channels, Hernandez noted. Regardless of the underlying systems, multiple applications providing a broad range of services could reside on such an infrastructure.

Marcinczyk cited an example of convergence in practice at Comcast, and how this has enhanced reporting from the company’s call centres. “We’re trying to improve our reporting and get greater insight into what’s really going on in the business. So we recently deployed a Cisco system that allows us to view metrics from all our call centres as overlay to our disparate PBX and ACD systems.”

Moving forward, he said, the goal is to have such reporting across all customer transactions regardless of the channel used — voice, IVR, social media et al. Having this data would also help the various business units pinpoint where the issues are and what improvements need to be made.

As Comcast delves deeper into social media, he said, it’s not just customer contact channels that are starting to converge, but various departments within the business as well. “Our sales group, customer service group, the marketing, and branding folk … are all touching this space in their own way.”

Marcinczyk said an important part of is role is creating of a common experience across customer contact channels. But equally important is synchronizing agent channels.

He cited a recent example of how this worked in practice.

“We wanted to integrate branding into our IVR and had Shaq (American basketball player Shaquille O’Neil) do the commercials for that. Then some of our marketing folk suggested having a greeting with Shaq. So we put this greeting on our main IVR.”

Marcinczyk got the Comcast Cares group at his firm to do a survey on customer reactions to this greeting. “We got many responses back – some loved it, others hated it. But it was a really neat way of extending beyond the service, to branding and marketing, through these new channels.”

“Your social media strategy won’t save you!”

According to Cisco’s Hernandez, for social media’s potential as a customer communications channel to be fully realized, firms should integrate it into the operational functions within their call centres. “We need to reach a point where using social media becomes just a normal, everyday part of a call centre rep’s life.”

For at least on Canadian marketing expert, however, a great social media app rollout does not automatically mean great customer service.

“Your social media strategy won’t save you,”  Canadian author, speaker and marketing consultant Tara Hunt told attendees at the Canadian Marketing Association convention held in Toronto in May.

Social media isn’t a band-aid, said Hunt, who rued the tendency of some firms to use Web 2.0 tools to compensate for pathetic service, citing her own “infuriating experience” with Rogers Communications. Inc.

She recalled a time earlier this year when she received a call from Rogers, and an automated voice told her she needed to phone a number. “I dialled the number the robot gave me, and got another robot that told me that this number wasn’t being used anymore … there was a new number. So I hung up, dialled the new number, and got a third robot who told me that to continue in English I would have to press ‘8.’ I pressed 8 and it gave me French anyway.”

Hunt said she was thoroughly exasperated as after this cycle of futile calls and automated agents she still didn’t know why she had received a call from Rogers in the first place – “were my bills overdue, were they going to cut me off any second, or are they trying to sell me something?”

Hunt vented her pent up frustrations in a Tweet : “Phone system FAIL. Rogers robot calls + asks me2 call #. I call that #+ press 8 for ENG but gives me French!”

Some time later, she said, she got a response from Mary Pretotto, a Rogers employee. It read “Hi Tara, this is Mary w/Rogers. Saw your tweet. If you can provide me w/a few more deets, perhaps I can help.”

On the left side bar on Pretotto’s Twitter page there is disclaimer that reads: “We’re not here to replace existing channels for communications and customer care, but to complement them.”

“So which are those channels that they are not replacing?” a nonplussed Hunt wanted to know. “All I did until then was talk to robots.”

She said such claims about using social media to complement existing channels are a lot of tripe.

“If they are complementing those robots, I have a piece of advice for Rogers: Instead of hiring people for Twitter, why not hire people to answer your freakin’ phones!” 

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