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Social customer care has been around for roughly five years and I'm wondering how much it has really moved on in that time, since the first Tweet was sent by Frank Eliason, #Twelpforce, giffgaff and United Breaks Guitar.

Does Amazon's Mayday and NatWest's use of Vine videos for customer service give us cause for optimism?

Social customer service 2008-2011

The last time I wrote a post on Econsultancy's blog was in June 2011 I think. Much has happened since then in the area of social customer care; my particular area of focus, both as a past practitioner and now with a consultant’s hat on.

Note to self: must stop living on past glories!

The period 2008 - 2011 saw traditional customer service boundaries, not being pushed, but rather ignored. Ignored in favour of creativity, curiosity and serendipity. Perhaps resulting in the same level of excitement that hadn’t been seen since the introduction of moving assembly lines by Henry Ford in 1913?

The convergence of broadband, access to technology and the increasing ubiquity of smartphones saw a level of creativity that allowed people like Frank Eliason and Dave Carroll, companies like BestBuy and giffgaff to willingly suspend disbelief for a moment.

Their actions challenged existing norms, assumptions and models of service delivery, and in turn, returned a sense of intimacy and humanity, that the assembly lines had over the years eroded away. The pursuit of empathy (it’s all about empathy, right?!) became an aspirational goal for organisations willing to suspend, albeit for only a brief moment, all that Taylorism had taught them.

Even marketing departments tried to get in on the act, and we witnessed a sudden influx of endless ‘customer service is the new black’ type of clichés into the growing lexicon of social customer care.

But customer service die-hards still held sway. Social customer care couldn’t quite shift AHT and Erlang formulas. The exceptions, early pioneers like BT, ASOS, O2, Easyjet, Virgin Trains, The Carphone Warehouse, were just that, exceptions, curiosities.

The die-hards couldn’t quite bring themselves to commit fully to something that might still be a fad (hope, hope!). Postscript: Damn, it wasn’t!

Vine and Mayday

Two things have stood out for me recently. NatWest’s use of Vine videos and Amazon’s Mayday. Both visual mediums.


I wasn’t expecting any organisation to use Vine in that way. But why Vine? Why not Pinterest? Who cares! It doesn’t really matter. 

But for me, NatWest’s use of Vine is still very much simply putting a social spin on a traditional story. Let me explain. IMHO, NatWest have taken a social medium, applied a very traditional marketing approach to it, and then dressed it up in social customer care clothes.

Safe, safe, safe. But then organisations play safe, don’t they?! Has NatWest pushed boundaries? Yes and no, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back quite yet.

Yes, the bank has used a new medium, but in the final analysis, it’s just a very short, highly crafted, albeit humorous, video. Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely supportive of any company that is willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ and use the emerging platforms that are out there. It’s scary.

But, what if NatWest had simply said to their agents: Go use Vine to help your customers and each other (knowledge management, right?). What would that have looked like?


I was reading the Techcrunch post about Mayday and what I was struck by was how entrenched the thinking of the author was in the operational minutiae of today's customer service challenges around scale and cost-efficiency.

Amazon Mayday

While there was an underlying sense of hope, you felt that ultimately Mayday would likely be unable to break free from the shackles of today's operational challenges: We love the concept, but can't quite believe it enough to think it might succeed. We will it to succeed, but no more.

Rather than celebrate what Mayday represents - a glimpse perhaps, a primitive precursor or rudimentary first step - we feel obliged to suppress hope in favour of what we know, the comfort blankets and familiarity of cost efficiency, call deflection and scripted responses never too far out of reach.

But we must strike back. We must dare to stand up, to be heard, to be seen. We must dare to challenge the status quo. Not for the sake of it, but because there is something better to be had.

The ineluctable truth is that whether we like it or not, the way we work, the way we engage with each other is changing. It is changing because, quite simply, the people who will be the next generation of leaders, workers, consumers, participants, voyeurs and complainers, have a different way of doing things. We are in a period of flux.

The next generation of leaders, workers and consumers are not in a period of flux, it is us, the generation before who are.

It is our natural inclination to think about telephone calls and contact centres, and the costs associated with each. We find it difficult to think about the implications of Mayday and what it might represent.

Our thinking is so entrenched that we are unable to see Mayday for what it could be. A glimpse of the future, perhaps? It doesn’t have to be right, does it?!

The way I view Mayday is so entrenched and intertwined in the world of today. The sum total of my collective experience only allows me to be the cynic and critic. I am unable to comprehend what Mayday might represent. I am unable to…

But let me try to look beyond Taylor and the Erlang formula for a moment. Let me in a quiet and peaceful corner contemplate Mayday...

  • Let me think about the implications of embedding the resolution or the means to a resolution in the product, the device, itself.
  • Let me think about a time when the internet is never broken.
  • Let me think about a time when customer service simply equals a conversation between people.
  • Let me think about a time when cost efficiency no longer exists.
  • Let me think about a time when AHT or First Time Resolution are distant memories.
  • Let me think about a time when we remember Mayday as pushing the boundaries, as challenging our current thinking.
  • Let me think about a time when having support on demand is the norm.
  • Let me think about a time … that isn’t that far away perhaps.

The challenge we face is not coming up with products and services such as Mayday, but rather freeing ourselves and our thinking of what we know. And actually, it’s not about freeing our thinking, it’s the cognition(?) to know that we have freed ourselves from the limitations of our current thinking…

So where are we today, roughly five years on?

The die-hards are still there, but I’m more hopeful. Social customer care is going from strength to strength. The curiosity, creativity, serendipity…the excitement is returning. Mayday and Vine point to a shift that is taking place.

There’s still much work to be done. We need to enable our agents to take ownership of the tools at their disposal to create ‘point of need’ Vine videos for their customers; a type of customer service ‘on the fly’ perhaps.

Likewise, we need organisations to accept that their customers also have a role to play, but that only comes from understanding and being confident in what their own role is within an everchanging and ambiguous environment.

But I am hopeful…

Guy Stephens

Published 30 September, 2013 by Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens is a Social Business Consultant at IBM and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter (@guy1067) and check out his blog

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