On Friday, I discussed the value of customer knowledge. But how do you put that knowledge to work? What role does community play?

Let’s move on to the issue of customer service, or literally serving the customer. That term covers a lot of terrain, so I’ll start with a few examples from my own experience. I’ve been having trouble with my phone line recently, so I decided to try and find out what the problem is. When my own attempts at troubleshooting failed, I called the Telekom hotline. I don’t even want to get started on the voice-activated menu, which made me want to tear my hair out. After the computer had finally come to terms with my accent, I got a real human being on the other end. The service representative identified the problem with some input from me (it seems my ancient Eumex 404 ISDN unit has given up the ghost) and suggested a solution. I now run my ISDN through the existing AVM router. It took a bit of configuring, but it was up and running very quickly. Then the same Telekom guy called on Monday to ask if the problem had been solved. So, take note: I felt I had received good service, so I was a satisfied customer. Calling to ask if the problem has been taken care of should be standard for any service center – no matter how annoying the customer might be.

But things don’t always go so smoothly. Anyone who’s been using a camera for a while is probably familiar with the problem: You accumulate piles of photographs — and in my case slides as well. We recently decided to have our slides digitized to increase the chances of our actually looking at them again. I did a search on Google to find a company providing this kind of service. The one I chose was among the top 10 links listed, is located nearby (so Google knows where I live), and appeared to be fairly small, but capable. The website advertised a trial offer — scanning five slides and photos for free. I decided to take advantage of it, and I sent them my slides before Christmas. Weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. So I sent the company two e-mails — no reply. I tried calling, but no one answered the phone. I had practically written off the pictures altogether, but when I opened my mailbox today: Lo and behold, there were my photos, slides and a mini CD with the scanned images. No cover letter or anything, but at least I got them back. Will I be sending my hundreds of pictures and slides to that company to have them digitized? Hardly.

Customers today demand transparency and communication. The service provider I just described obviously hasn’t recognized that fact, and many others haven’t either. I like to be informed that a shipment has been sent out to me, and I definitely want to be informed if it’s going to be delayed or if it hasn’t been possible to take care of a given service. In the age of social business, communication should create transparency and aim for sustainability — the customer should truly be king.

Of course service costs money, and in the current financial climate it is frequently outsourced, voice-recognition systems are used and call centers are shifted to countries where wages are lower. But I still believe there are many areas where companies will have to give good service and that customers won’t make decisions based on price alone, but will go to companies that offer them the best service. I also believe that businesses need to think about new, intelligent ways of offering good service. I often talk about self-service communities, and for me these are one of the intelligent solutions that can create a positive customer experience.

Helping customers to help themselves — that’s the basic idea. IBM, Cisco and other companies have set up customer communities on their websites. The communities focus on specific products and solutions, and allow customers to help each other out by sharing their experiences, and offering tips and tricks. There are always participants in these communities who like to show off their expert knowledge. The human animal can be a social animal – so it makes sense for companies to set up and support such communities and to make their own experts and knowledge available in them. The IBM and Cisco communities have been instrumental in saving costs and providing a service that customers feel is better. (Full disclosure: I work for IBM.)

Are there risks involved? Of course. It’s more difficult to conceal potential problems because members of the community can read about them, and that might mean other customers find out about them. Things could snowball quickly. Plus, competitors might well read about the problems. But seriously, in the 10 years that I’ve been supporting customer communities and groups, I’ve never seen any major problems like that. On the contrary: Customers feel they are getting added value if they can communicate with others who have similar hobbies or interests. It’s not for nothing that I participate in some of these communities in my spare time. I think it’s fabulous when someone who knows what they’re talking about recommends me a good, inexpensive wine. And as a company, it’s great to be able to exchange ideas with people from other companies on the best way to introduce a certain software.

Businesses that support these kinds of communities are smart. I’s a great way to stay in touch with customers and what’s on their minds. Some time ago, we asked our customer community what features they’d like to see the next version of our social software IBM Connections. By involving customers directly in product development, we run a much lower risk of developing a product that doesn’t meet their needs. Customer and self-service communities are one of the pillars of ensuring a good customer experience. They are also one — possibly the — distinguishing feature of a social business.

In the age of social business, a good customer experience is personal, personalized, comprehensive, sustainable and transparent. It supports multiple channels and is coherent, communicative, and active on social networks. How’s that for a list? And I bet I still forgot something.

What do you think I should add? Where do you agree with me, and where do you disagree?

Stefan Pfeiffer is IBM Deutschland’s marketing lead for social business in Europe. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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