Could social media in its mainstream form become the go-to technology for customer service? The Gartner Group certainly thinks so. In a research paper published in April, Social Media for CRM Will Force a Shift 

From Contact Centres to Customer Engagement Centres, VP and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner Michael Maoz notes that customers expect to be supported, regardless of channel.

“But social media engagement is missing from current CRM customer service contact centre products, frustrating chief customer officers and vice presidents of customer support. This will force the evolution of customer engagement centres in 2013,” Maoz says.

However, investing in a social media project to improve customer service is a very different proposition from a traditional IT project notes Maoz’s colleague, David Willis, senior VP at Gartner Research.

“It’s important to recognise that the Nexus of Forces (the combination of mobility, social interaction, cloud computing and information) is made up of elements that are largely exploratory,” says Willis.

“It isn’t always clear what the payoff will be when you approach an employee engagement project or attempt to better understand your customers through big data. But this is where leaders are placing their educated bets, and leading organisations will ultimately get results.

“The risks of not knowing exactly what you’ll find — what the payoff is, when it will happen, how much it will cost to get there — can make operationally focused CIOs uncomfortable. It isn’t the traditional set of IT projects that would have been approved a decade ago.”

Many organisations have set up Facebook and Twitter pages which they monitor for customer feedback and sentiment. But these two main channels to customers carry their own risks, not the least of which is that they are each very different animals. Richard Firth, serial entrepreneur and CEO of MIP Holdings says that Facebook tends to create silos of interaction while Twitter does just the opposite.

“Because it is so easy to retweet something, a poor interaction by a customer with your brand can spread very quickly on Twitter,” says Firth. “That doesn’t happen on Facebook. On the other hand, the value of company pages on Facebook seems to be limited to the initial ‘like’ with participation falling off to an average of 2% afterwards.”

Firth says that much of the hype around social media as a form of contact centre is because of customers’ general dissatisfaction with the contact centre experience.

“Calls are often answered by unqualified people in another part of the country – or another country entirely – to save money, and customers rightly feel that many organisations do not take their support seriously because of this.”

Is there a middle ground between the anarchy of retweets, deserted Facebook pages and the outsourced call centre? Firth says yes, and it’s easy to get started.

“Since ubiquitous communications brought us all in contact with each other, people have shared their experiences – good and bad – on online discussion forums. Brands of all sizes have had meaningful, in-depth and helpful conversations with their customers by creating communities and allowing their customers to communicate with them openly, and crucially, helping them to help themselves as well.”

Firth says companies should not be throwing out social media entirely, or only focusing on this arena.

“It needs to be integrated with a mechanism for proper interaction that is built and owned by the brand itself. Facebook and Twitter are excellent sentiment gauges and outward-facing communications vehicles but the real conversations must happen on platforms that a company controls and where it can nurture its own social communities.”