Connected online communities can be a wonderful source of information and improved engagement, provided that companies can harness the spirit of social media platforms through software support.The social media experience of connectedness, ease of interaction and drawing on many and varied sources of information, has changed consumers’ expectation of interactions with blue-chip companies. Especially those companies with a digital and social media presence.Having an online presence, however, comes with responsibilitiesand opportunitiesthat many companies are not prepared for, says Meyer Theunissen, Business Unit Manager: Professional Services at Bytes People Solutions. “The rules of customer engagement used to be clear and rigid. A customer would go to a shop, speak to a salesperson and buy what was on the shelf. If there was a problem, the customer had to come back to the shop, stand in the customer service queue and speak to the person behind the desk. However, the model has evolved over time. Customers now choose the channels they want to use, and expect an appropriate and professional response in all cases.” The disappointment when companies don’t meet this expectation can prove lethal to brand loyalty.Companies are responding by providing solutions for the different channels, but these are typically channel-specific and do not allow cross-channel visibility of queries or requests.An example that clearly illustrates the situation is the disconnect between marketing and customer service interactions.Most modern contact centres use systems that incorporate a social media component, thus allowing agents to service customers via social platforms. When a customer complains on Facebook, for instance, an agent will pick it up and respond immediately. Although these systems allow for reporting, generally speaking, their features and functionality are not great.In a different corner of the company, the marketing department also uses social platforms to reach out to customers, often by running campaigns. However, marketing doesn’t use the contact centre systems to publish content. The result is that the same company engages with customers in the same online spacethrough different systems.Customers are neither aware of this, nor would they care if they did know. Customers engage based on their needs. It is therefore often the case that a customer responds to a marketing campaign message with a service complaint.And this is where the flaws are exposed. Someone in marketing has to copy the service complaint into an e-mail and send it to customer service. The contact centre agent then has to find the comment on the Twitter or Facebook feed and only then can a response be published. This might have taken only an hour, but 60 minutes is enough time for an online conversation to go viral.”Companies try to address this problem by having different handles on Twitter or pages on Facebook, but customers don’t care which handle belongs to whom,” says Meyer. “The bottom line is that the company can’t respond quickly to queries, different role players have no view of each other’s responses, and they don’t know when the customer starts a new conversation.”Software to the rescue”In the digital arena, companies face efficiency and effectiveness challenges. In terms of the former, they must find ways to manage conversations easily, make contact centre agents more productive and handle volume peaks,” says Dr Madelise Grobler, MD of Bytes People Solutions.The effectiveness challenge involves how to personalise the customer experience, make decisions based on data and measure success.With new-generation social media software, these changes can be addressed, resulting in a positive transformation of the customer’s engagement experience. “Only when there is one company-wide view of the total online community can you claim to have successfully migrated to digital,” says Meyer. “For this reason, it is vital to choose your software carefully.”The solution is to connect into one digital conversation from branded communities, social networks and third party Web sites. The power of such a single platform is that the business can connect with customers through social media, the company Web sites and online communities and, through these interactions, understand them better.Power of connectionAn intelligent and powerful software system has to enable and support a connected community. Partly as a result of slow responses and partly because of the nature of social media, connected communities can form spontaneously as customers converse about a shared frustration, or can be purposely and strategically created.What starts out as an outpouring of irritation can take on a different vibe as customers start sharing solutions. Someone might have a direct number for a helpful person hidden in the bowels of the company; another might have figured out a way to override an annoying design flaw. “The potential exists for such a spontaneous, natural community to solve problems without direct involvement of the organisation,” says Meyer. “But it is obviously not desirable that such interactions continue without your company at least knowing about them.”Meyer cites the example of a company forum where one member actively helps other users with complex queries, based on his knowledge and experience as a communications engineer. “People play this role for different reasons,” Meyer notes. “In some cases, the company rewards them, but in others they help because that’s what they enjoy doing. It’s really the same concept as people chatting in a physical queue. The great advantage is that in a well set-up forum or community, all the valuable answers and pieces of advice are stored and users can search for help on their own. This can substantially reduce the number of calls to the contact centre.””By engaging with consumers in the spirit of social platforms, and combining it with intelligent and efficient technology, companies can benefit greatly and give their customers a much improved engagement experience,” says Meyer.