Not so long ago, a great deal of customer care in the age of the Web revolved around channeling income phone calls to the right contact center representative and handling emails from the website. Now, mobile devices and social media have changed the customer support communications landscape. How have they affected customer care?

CMSWire recently spoke with an executive at Cisco -- a company heavily involved in the technologies that enable customer care -- to find out that company’s perspective.

Not Just IVR Anymore

John Hernandez, Vice President and General Manager of Collaborative Business Applications at Cisco Systems, said the proliferation of smartphones and social media represents a great opportunity for customer care to become more pro-active. “It’s not just about IVR any more,” he said, referring to interactive voice response, those seemingly endless trees of menu options for inquiries by phone.

At a high level, he said, companies are now having to move from a traditional contact center, to a more pro-active, internally collaborative approach to take care of on-the-go customers.

For instance, Hernandez noted, companies can now “extend call center functionality into the app,” such as a bank transaction app that allows contact with the bank through the app itself.

“The bank already has full authentication through the app,” he noted, “and it knows what the customer was doing” when the problem occurred, such as trying to transfer some funds from a checking account to a savings account. Regardless of the vertical industry involved, he said, adding contact center functionality into mobile apps can expand the scope of customer care.

‘Mobile Customer Assistance Portals’

Cisco has provided APIs to third parties like Bucher-Suter, which has a Mobile Connect smartphone app for the Cisco Contact Center. That API can provide account information so the call can be directed to the most appropriate agent. Bucher-Suter said their app transforms smartphones into “mobile customer assistance portals,” with click-to-call, the ability to schedule a callback to a mobile device from a website, SMS and chat.

Hernandez noted that the fluidity to find the most appropriate agent has been made possible, in part, by the wide adoption of IP-based telecommunications systems over the older PBX systems. “IP systems are on the fast track” to adapting to the fluid environment created by mobile devices and social media, he said, and are inherently “open and extensible.”

That fluidity includes not only flexible management of incoming communications, but the ability to go to where the experts are. “One of the inherent values of the IP switch,” he said, “is you can be anywhere you have an IP connection.” As an example, Hernandez noted that advice nurses, whenever they have a free shift and wherever they are, can now be included in customer care communications at a health care company. “The work at home agent is now a solid trend,” he pointed out.

‘Single Face to the Customer’

One of the key issues for companies in an era of such fluid customer care is not technological, but organizational. When an inquiry arrives via a social media app on a mobile device relating to, say, an advertised offer, which department is responsible?

“Call centers don’t generally own social media responsibility,” Hernandez said, noting that social media teams are still attempting to find their rightful place in a company, in many cases “transitioning to a shared responsibility.”

“What we’ll see over time,” he said, “is that these teams will morph into their own self-standing groups,” so they can deliver “a single face to the customer.” He compared this merging of teams to the way telecommunication and IT departments began to share and merge in the 1990s.

The Lost Luggage Scenario

A potential use case of this kind of merged customer care in the age of mobile, Hernandez said, is lost luggage. For example: an airline customer, standing at baggage claim, doesn’t see his bag and contacts the airline via a contact link in a social media app on his mobile device.

“The vast majority of customers,” Hernandez pointed out, “expect one transfer that connects with the correct representative,” a seamless, all-knowing management of their problem that, eventually, could reach the baggage handlers in the terminal where he’s standing.

Social media, he said, is causing changes to customer care that are “much bigger than mobile.” A consumer could be on, say, Facebook, and bad-mouthing a brand because of a product issue that they can’t get fixed -- like a lost luggage bag. In this case, Hernandez noted, customer care needs to be pro-active, made possible by the numerous social media tools that are becoming standard in customer relationship management/customer service platforms.

Benefits of Video

One such tool is Cisco’s own Social Miner, which it describes as “proactive customer care.” As with many other such tools now populating the landscape of customer service and CRM, Social Miner enables social media monitoring of brand-related issues, conducting marketing campaigns to social media channels, routing issues to the appropriate contact center rep or subject expert -- and managing Social Miner from mobile devices.

Pro-activity, Hernandez said, is also being driven by the inclusion of video, which means that actively engaging the customer can help in the delivery of customer care. “Companies are starting to realize the benefits of using video,” Hernandez said, such as the assistance provided to an insurance company when a consumer streams from the scene of a car accident, or when a photo is transmitted to the electric utility shortly after a wire has gone down.

Cisco has been promoting its integration of video into communications solutions ever since online video became a reality, and the use of video is one of the company’s key emphases in its customer care solutions.

Pinpointing the Customer

Mobile not only means the customer can be anywhere, but, with GPS, that the customer is somewhere that can be pinpointed. Hernandez noted that customers increasingly expect such location awareness from the company, and suggested that, as this property becomes more common in mobile apps, inquiring consumers may come to expect that companies will immediately know their location.

This leads to another opportunity -- delivering sales incentives and marketing at exactly the right time and in the right place. When customer care becomes less reactive to inquiries and more pro-active to customer needs, companies can initiate the conversation with such approaches as store-specific discount coupons delivered to a mobile device as that customer steps into a mall.

Cisco, among others, has been exploring this more active approach. For instance, it has developed with IBM a Mobile Concierge solution that delivers a customized shopping experience with coupons, promotions and other unique offerings, as well as analytics and the ability for customers to use multimedia to interact with expert store assistance via their mobile device.

Someday, business schools will give lectures about the quaint old days of customer care, before the customer could be anywhere and their instantaneous conversations could be with anyone.

Of course, those lectures will probably be delivered to students sitting anywhere, each one watching on a mobile device and each one chatting remotely with friends.