Will social networking drive customer service in the future‾

Salesforce.com has long been the poster child for on-demand software vendors and has the vision to see that if it is to continue its stellar growth, it needs to expand into new areas. While customer relationship management (CRM) applications is listed as part of its portfolio - and as its stock ticker symbol - its success has primarily come from one area of CRM: automating sales organisations and processes.

This area alone is likely to be responsible for Salesforce.com to be the first on-demand application service provider to hit $1 billion annual revenues. But it needs to progress in other areas of CRM to drive growth.
 
On January 15, Salesforce.com unveiled Service Cloud, a multi-piece solution for customer service and support. The bright new idea is to incorporate numerous formerly disconnected internet experiences - primarily those involving social networking or social computing - into the client interaction process.

New approach to supporting customers

At the launch event, Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff described the Service Cloud as a mechanism to 'enable businesses to join the conversation' already taking place about their products and services on the web. The crucial point is that, for the bulk of these dialogues, the companies have no way to participate and, in many cases, no inkling that the conversations are taking place or where.
 
Service Cloud is the first tangible result of Salesforce.com acquisition of Instranet, which specialises in knowledge management, last year. Its knowledge capture and organisational functionality comes from Instranet technology and Alex Dayon, former CEO of Instranet pre-acquisition, is in charge of the company's customer service and support business,
 
As Dayon describes it, Service Cloud aims to tap into the conversations on web community forums and discussions between friends on social networking sites. The utility of that information can then be ranked based on its popularity on those sites, essentially using a 'crowd sourcing' method to determine which conversation generated the most useful information. This can then be distributed to end users through search engines, partners and contact centre agents.
 
The vision driving Service Cloud is expansive, essentially redefining the multi-channel contact centre to include phone, chat and email, search engines, social networks, web fora and business partners.

As with any scheme this ambitious, the first iterations are bound to be incomplete and Service Cloud is no exception. In this release, for example, Salesforce.com took the sensible route and built its new solution around the products and partnerships that it announced at its recent annual user conference, including its integrations with Google and Facebook. That means, however, that when Salesforce.com says 'search engine', it means Google and only Google; when it talks about social networks, it means Facebook.


Needs to include more partners

Given the popularity of those two companies' services, they make a patently great place to start, but Salesforce.com clearly has more ground to cover before enterprises can truly tap into 'customer conversations no matter where they take place', as the company's marketing materials would have it.

 

Twitter, for example, can spread negative news about a company - say a service outage for a wireless carrier - faster than Facebook. Companies such as Bank of America are even starting to experiment with Twitter as a tool for agent-assisted customer service. Integration with Twitter would be an obvious next step for Salesforce.com.

Although the company would not comment explicitly on this, Salesforce.com executives did hint that they were working on incorporating some form of text-mining into the service as a means of pulling actionable information from more unstructured conversations on the web.
 
There are also issues that would need to be worked out around opt-in mechanisms for an expanded Service Cloud. For forum-style conversations, in communities such as specialised company-sponsored Facebook groups, the act of joining the forum can include an explicit opt-in, allowing a company to use discussions on the forum in other contexts.

When tapping into any conversation anywhere, privacy issues will inevitably crop up. Still, Datamonitor takes an optimistic attitude towards Service Cloud; even the issues mentioned above simply mean that Salesforce.com has ample room to grow this solution through new partners.
 
Getting the right info to the right place

During the service's unveiling, a Bluetooth headset and a mobile phone were demonstrated as possible sources for Service Cloud. The number of potential combinations of handsets, headsets and service providers make it unlikely that knowledge articles on every possible combination of the three will reside in the handset manufacturer's contact centre knowledgebase (or the headset manufacturer's or service provider's knowledgebase, for that matter).

The information needed to solve the pairing issue probably exists somewhere on the internet, though. Using Service Cloud, a handset manufacturer could tap into that information via Facebook, for example, and distribute it to its own contact centre agents - as well as those of the headset manufacturer and the service provider.
 
Datamonitor is even more impressed that the knowledge can be pushed out to a search engine: using the same hypothetical Bluetooth pairing issue, Service Cloud can populate a search engine's results. When a consumer anywhere types in a Google query that covers that particular combination of phone, headset and wireless carrier, the solution for pairing (possibly originally gleaned from a Facebook conversation) pops up as one of the search results.

Service Cloud's foremost achievement could be recognising that Google may well be the most prominent customer service channel in existence. Using it as a way to provide direct support to end users could mark a great leap forward in customer self-service.

Ian Jacobs, senior analyst, Customer Interactions Technologies, Datamonitor

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