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21 Questions – part one September 17, 2008

Posted by David Gillespie in conversation, digital strategy, social media, web 2.0.
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Earlier this year I had some trouble with Vodafone. In fairness it started when the great southern ocean danced with my BlackBerry and came off best. Then the troubles came whcih manifested itself in my Open Letter to Vodafone. I posted it one evening and woke up the next morning to find Vodafone had spotted it and responded, wanting to help. The only catch was Vodafone UK were the ones coming to the rescue, Vodafone Australia were none the wiser.

Eventually the issues were sorted and in the aftermath I got the chance to pose some questions to the Vodafone UK team. The were great about it, if perhaps a little heavy on the marketing speak at times (I’ve removed the offending questions). Have a read below and let me know what you think, I’ll also be speaking to Vodafone Australia in the near future, if you have something you’d like to ask them, leave a note in the comments and I’ll follow up with them.

This is the first part of an interview I did with Samantha Bottling & Aileen Thompson who heads up the Group Consumer, Enterprise and Brand Media Relations for Vodafone UK.

A lot of consumers have fairly lukewarm feelings towards phone carriers, it seems to be something that transcends borders fairly easily. The forum you have seems a positive first step, how far do you think companies in this space are truly willing to go in terms of transparency?

Customer service over the last 10 years at Vodafone UK has focussed on giving the customer a choice about how they deal with us as no two customers are the same. Customers also expect that choice, which traditionally has been in the shape of help and advice over the phone, in a retail store, through help centres on a web site or by contacting us by email.

However, web 2.0 has moved the expectations of customers on. More and more customers are using forums to get help from other customers or mobile phone users be it about a particular service or a handset or advice on what decision they should make when choosing a price plan. This has generated a very interesting customer service phenomenon for Vodafone UK.

The early adopters of web 2.0 were in fact those looking for more technical specialist help. Two years ago the dedicated technical services team who take the calls of people who need technical help began to notice a trend online for using forums and decided to monitor the activity. Gradually they began to intervene on the forums helping out customers who were having difficulty getting a mobile to perform a specific function for example – making it clear that they were from Vodafone and a credible source of help. The activity has grown over the last two years as more and more customers grow familiar with the web for help and as more and more forums spring up.

The response to the help the team was providing on forums was extremely positive and has helped to forge a very strong reputation for concise clear help from Vodafone. But not only is there an appetite for this kind of help so the breadth of topics on the forums has also grown – no longer is it just technical handset help that is required. The natural step for the team was to set up a Vodafone hosted forum, which would allow the team to help with very specific technical queries right through to queries about Vodafone services, as well as more general mobile questions.

Another reason for having our own forum is that we can use the content more effectively by linking to and from it – using the forum content cleverly to maximise value to customers. So in the Help Centre if customers need more specific help we can direct them to the forum, and in the forum we can link to existing help content, inter-linking the content and making it more valuable overall than two stand-alone areas.

ROI on social media and blogs is pretty hard to justify in traditional terms. How was that tackled at Vodafone? Is it something that requires a constant effort to justify the existence to the bean counters or have you managed to find a way around it?

We can measure it in relation to how the service is used, frequency and the strength of the ‘customer delight’ it brings. Since launching the forum last autumn, Vodafone has seen a steady growth in registrations and page views. Around 3,000 people visit the site each day and use the forum as a database for help.

The forum runs like any other forum in that customers are helping each other out, sharing experiences, solutions and tips and also recommending services and products. The forum has some guidelines and Terms & Conditions for use and is monitored and moderated 24/7. The forum team is always on hand and very quick to respond because it is managed around the clock. The team intervenes to help when a customer’s query can’t be answered by another customer and if necessary make factual corrections to posts. If the query is sensitive and shouldn’t be discussed in front of other customers – like a billing query – then the forum team arranges to contact the customer another way.

What we have also found is that this is not necessarily replacing calls to the contact centres – though it does replace the calls that are complex. In fact we believe we are helping customers who might not have otherwise contacted us and would have struggled on or just not used a service properly or at all. We are filling a customer service gap.

It is also giving customers more confidence to try new things because it is a safe anonymous place where they can share their experiences. The forum is also a place where people can either quickly find an answer using the forum as a database or can post a question and come back to it later in the day if it’s not urgent and they don’t have the time to make a call to us – the forum is simply a new way for customers to get help but with minimum effort, which is just as customer service should be.

It is also very cost efficient for us. We can answer a question that perhaps 1000 people will view and find useful because it saves them the time having to post a question and wait for an answer.

I was talking to the MD of a digital agency recently, and he said quite candidly that we’re still figuring out what “digital strategy” really means. How much of your approach is to throw it at the wall and see what sticks?

We do have a strategy in place for CRM and for online. It is executed according to what suits the local market. For example in Spain forums and blogs are set up in relation to particular campaigns on music for example and run the length of the campaign. In the Netherlands Vodafone has a combination of forums for campaigns,  as well as monitoring external forums to help out customers and blogging on new editions to the handset range, adding handsets to Flickr, blogging on news service. The Dutch online audience is so great in Holland that this blend of activity it is expected of them.

I’ll post the second part tomorrow, thanks to Aileen and Samantha for their time.

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