The Great Equalizer: Twitter Savant Barry Dalton on Social Media in the Call Center

Barry Dalton

You might call Barry Dalton a "twerson." He is an avid Twitter user, and as the VP of Innovation and Architecture for Telerx he's the social media champion for his call center. While many call center executives fear social media Dalton embraces it. Dalton says social media is the "great equalizer" in the corporate power structure. He believes "social" media gives customer service the opportunity to grab a seat at the corporate strategy table. In this interview Dalton talks to Call Center IQ about social media in the call center. Additionally, Dalton explains what the buzz phrases actually mean and their relevance, including social crm. Dalton talks candidly about Telerx (a BPO owned by Merck) as well as other social media minded call centers.
Tell us about your background and your current interest in social media.

I’m currently the VP of Innovation & Architecture for Telerx Marketing, a contact center business process outsourcer (BPO) based in suburban Philadelphia. This is a newly created position six months ago at Telerx. Before that, I was a consultant focusing on customer loyalty, sales and service strategy and customer relationship management (CRM) implementation, going back to the initial days of SFA and customer service automation in the '80s.

My mission now really is to flip the call center business model on its head. So, how do we move our core business of call center and customer service operations from the end state goal to a means to an end? That end is the creation of value through new products and service-based solutions that exploit all that rich information we gather at the point of customer service interaction. The tip of the spear for our future growth is now actionable insights, advisory services and engagement through emerging channels such as social customer relationship management (social CRM) and community management.

Are call centers ready for social media?

In general, I would say no the call center is not ready for social media. Every client I’ve spoken with over the last year is thinking about social media in the call center, trying to define the place of social media in the call center and understand more about how the call center figures into this equation. And while this doesn’t just fall on the call center, organizations in general are jumping a head and focusing on tactics before the call center strategy and implementation plans are developed.

Social media, in my opinion, could be the great equalizer in the corporate power structure. With the courage to do so, social is giving customer service the opportunity to grab a seat at the corporate strategy table. In terms of defining it, there is still a lot of unnecessary conversation around who should own it. Digital or PR have a valid argument. But think about who has the most intimate relationship with the customer? It’s not marketing. It’s not sales. It’s not finance, accounts receivable or operations. It’s customer service and support. This doesn’t mean customer service owns social media either, but they have a legitimate obligation to lead the charge in a cross-functional model.

So, to be ready, call centers need to shake the "cost of doing business" label, drive the strategy development then develop the implementation plans, the engagement guidelines, the operational workflows, measures and data architecture. A basic question of ‘what is a contact’ has huge implications in social CRM. I think there is a lot of work the call center has to do before it is truly ready to lead the charge.

Please share a case study of a company that you think is doing really innovative work with social media in the call center.

I might have a myopic view but based on the fact that I see most call centers focusing on the tactical execution and technology elements of social media, I haven’t found a model yet that has the completeness of vision, strategy and implementation plan needed for long term success. Once those things are put into place real innovation happens.

They’re positioned well because they understand how to build and nurture deep customer relationships, they empower their call center representatives to service the customer and push decision-making down to the front lines. Some of these companies are the usual suspects we all admire like Zappos, eBags, Comcast, Jockey, South West Airlines

What is the best way to manage social media access in the call center? What works and what does not?

It’s all about empowerment.

The lines are blurred between personal and professional lives in the social world. You certainly need guidelines for call center engagement and training to educate call center representatives. But, if you’re going to weave social into the DNA of your customer service strategy and operations, you have to have trust in your call center representatives. Once you put your call center on the right path, they are going to do the right thing. Are people going to screw up? For sure. Recently I heard a story of a senior marketing executive who was defensive about his brand in the social web and the response was swift and unfriendly. The answer is hiring the right people, paying them well and empowering them. They’ll do the right thing.

This is all very new to the corporate landscape. I’m not sure anyone has the right answer to what works or what doesn’t. Opening up access to the social Web also means someone could potentially land on a site that they find objectionable. Or someone shoulder surfing finds objectionable. So, yes you have to have remedial HR mechanisms for addressing those concerns. But, what I know isn’t going to work is the contradiction in those organizations that are locking down access yet talking the talk about social engagement.

What will the social media landscape look like in the next five years?

Whew! If I knew I had the right answer for that today, I’d be selling futures on those ideas. Technically, certainly every Web site will be socially enabled, by choice or otherwise. With the proliferation of applications like Side Wiki, customers are going to be calling "BS" even in places where brands thought they still controlled the content and messaging. Technology vendor consolidation is going to accelerate. With Microsoft and Google developing social media monitoring and social CRM tools, vendors are in for a roller coaster ride.

As a customer service business model, we’re going to continue to migrate from social CRM, which by definition, requires us to continually chase conversations around the web to on-line groups and communities. There is a clearer ROI and scalability advantage for social support communities over social CRM. So, communities are going to enable problem solving peer to peer, co-creation of new products and allow consumers to form buying consortia to further tip the balance of power.

Today, consumers feel in control on the social web, partially by keeping brands out of the conversation where they want to. In the future, the power shift will be complete, creating an even greater level of confidence in customers that in turn cause them to want to circle back closer to brands and collaborate.