Customer service has traditionally been defined as the interaction between a customer and a company — either its employees or its online channels — to obtain information or resolve an issue before, during, or after a purchase.

As we enter 2011, I’ve been thinking about how the definition of customer service has been changing. There are three forces that I think are challenging our traditional definition:

  1.  Social media is tightening the relationship between support and brand. Social customer service is about using social technologies to provide or facilitate customer service or support. As I noted in my report “Getting Social Customer Service Right,” the essence of social media is having conversations, and customers want to talk about their experiences and get resolution for their issues. Social customer service is offered publicly: The complaint and resolution (or lack of) are out there for the world to see. Marketers are acutely aware of the impact this has on brand sentiment and reputation. As a result, customer service is becoming an essential element to brand strategy.
  2. Customer service is becoming more proactive. Traditionally, customers initiated contact with companies to request assistance. But proactive technologies are changing that. Proactive chat and click-to-call have been associated primarily with sales objectives, but there is growing interest among eBusiness leaders to employ proactive live help technologies to assist with customer service issues. This means proactive chat capabilities that have sat on the sales side of an organization are shifting onto the customer service side.
  3. Mobile apps are expanding the scope of customer service. Mobile apps allow us to offer new functionality. We can now use our mobile devices to learn if an item is in stock, to deposit checks, and to get assembly instructions. This functionality is often a service or deflects a call for service.   

This is fundamentally changing organizations’ perceptions of customer service. Customer service was once viewed as an operational function, a cost center composed primarily of telephone reps. For the most part, marketing didn’t want to own customer service. In my experience, we marketers just wanted customer service to work, to be the voice on the other end of the 1-800 numbers we put on brochures.

 Today, customer service requires collaboration among marketing, public relations, IT, eBusiness, sales, product development, and legal/governance. 2010 marked the first time I’ve heard people embark on a turf war about who owns customer service.

 But while the definition of customer service may be evolving, its goals haven’t changed: customer satisfaction, supporting sales, driving loyalty, and enhancing brand favorability.  I'm looking forward to writing about how online customer service can support these goals in 2011.