The rise of social media and mobile search has profoundly changed how customers seek advice and support when they need service from a company. They’re as likely today to do a quick search on Google or to ask contacts on social media for help as to get in touch with official company channels. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for every enterprise.

A survey from Gartner shows that younger people are especially likely to start their self-service journeys outside company-owned channels. The research shows that 52% of millennials and 44% of Gen Z customers have as much confidence in noncompany guidance (such as a subreddit, Google search or YouTube videos) as in customer service guidance.

For brands, the upside is that customers who need an answer to a simple support question can resolve it fast without needing to come into a store or pick up a phone. Often, they can get help outside business hours. Provided the issue is quick and easy to resolve, it won’t hurt the customer experience if they get help from a peer rather than a company representative.

This can benefit your company indirectly via lower support costs. In helping each other, customers are helping to divert traffic from your company channels. They’re also often helping to nurture a sense of community around your products and services, which can help to build loyalty and customer satisfaction.

High levels of satisfaction 

In fact, Gartner’s research shows that customers who use noncompany channels report high levels of satisfaction, even higher than customers who began their journeys on other channels. Net promoter scores (NPS) and value enhancement scores (VES) are higher among customers who begin their issue resolution journeys outside the company’s service and support channels.

However, the loss of control at key moments in the customer journey presents challenges of its own. There is the risk that customers will be given bad advice or information, which damages their perception of your products or services. What’s more, opportunistic competitors could jump into the conversation.

Brands thus walk a fine line between being there to help their customers when necessary, while benefitting from the power of non-official support channels. Getting it right arguably begins with accepting that brands cannot control the customer experience as tightly in the online world as they could before and finding ways to partner with their customers.

Here are a few practices that could help:

  1. Understand the customer journey 

One of the biggest dangers of customers seeking help outside your formal channels is that you may lose touch with their most common concerns and issues. As such, it’s important to offer them ways to provide feedback using the channel or touchpoint of their choice – whether it’s inviting them to fill in an online survey or allowing them to respond to a WhatsApp with their feedback.

  1. Offer a selection of convenient channels, including self-service 

One of the major reasons users will seek help from social media or the internet before an official channel is that they don’t want to spend 20 minutes holding for a call centre agent or wait days for an email to be answered. For that reason, it’s important to consider offering them options such as social media or live chat, in addition to support from a call centre or branch.

Tools and techniques such as chatbots or even a YouTube explainer or well-written frequently answered questions can help them get to the info they need faster, and without needing help from a human rep. While it can be complex and expensive to manage multiple channels, companies should look at which touchpoints their customers prefer and try to be there.

  1. Invest in SEO 

Gartner advises companies to ensure that company-owned webpages dominate the first page of search engine results by investing in search engine optimisation (SEO). In some cases, it may even be worth allocating some budget for search ads to help customers with the most frequent questions or complaints to get to help faster.

  1. Monitor social media 

Even if you don’t necessarily want to turn a social media platform into one of your core customer service channels, it’s important to keep an eye on customer conversations. You can get insight into which issues and questions are most common in your customer base. And if a customer can’t get help from a peer or is receiving unhelpful or inaccurate guidance, you can step in to direct them to someone from your business who can help.

A new world of customer service and support 

Gartner says that the trend toward customers seeking help from third parties will not end anytime soon. As such, companies should expand the scope of their voice of the customer programs to better reflect this shift in behaviour. Those that do it well will be able to improve customer engagement and build better customer relationships.


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