In the next two years, 30% of large companies will extend their online community activities to include improving customer service, compared to only about 5% in 2010, according to Gartner Inc.
Today, most social CRM (customer relationship management) efforts are centered in corporate marketing departments and geared toward brand management. That means putting up a Facebook page or opening a company Twitter account.
Gartner argues that smart customers are now using the marketing outposts set up on these social platforms as a backdoor way to get faster customer service than they might otherwise get through formal channels. As that type of behavior becomes more common, it will be incumbent on companies to create standard practices to deal with CRM via existing social marketing initiatives.
"We expect the high-profile nature of social networks and social CRM for customer service to rapidly advance adoption from early adopter to mainstream deployments despite the volatile and rapid evolution of social networks in general," said Drew Kraus, research vice president at Gartner.
But the firm also identified several hurdles slowing the shift to customer care through social sites. Despite the hype surrounding social media as a customer service tool, there is a lack of back-end technology in place to support customer service operations through online social channels. "There are a myriad of technology and process issues that arise when you go from ad hoc support to scalable and structured support," he said.
And because social CRM is still at an early stage, the policies and procedures for handling consumer interactions this way are lagging.
Furthermore, plunging into the unpredictable social media milieu brings a level of uncertainty that keeps many companies from adding social CRM to customer contact centers until others have helped establish standard practices in the space.
"Instead, they will opt to allow their marketing departments -- which often have access to near-term budget for such investments -- to take the lead in handling all social CRM interactions in the interim," stated the Gartner report.
Lastly, because the online social landscape is evolving so fast, it's hard for companies to know where to place their bets. A case in point is Second Life. Two years ago, the virtual world created huge buzz and drew brands such as Coca-Cola and IBM, only to slip into obscurity as rapidly as it rose. That leads to a conservative mentality when it comes to embracing social tools to see what sticks.
Still, Kraus in an interview Friday pointed to companies as diverse as HP and Drugstore.com leading the way in social CRM for assisting customers. HP has used monitored forums to resolve some 5 million customer issues, while Drugstore.com uses Twitter to divert some customers to Web chats.
A separate blog post by social media expert Jeremiah Owyang of digital consulting firm Altimeter Group last week, however, warned against an overreliance on Twitter as a marketing vehicle. He points out that tweets are difficult to find after being published, which means they quickly lose value after initially appearing onscreen. But to stay top-of-mind, people tweet more, resulting in more noise.
Owyang recommends that companies and others rethink their social media mix. He points to a variety of different tools from newer Q&A services, like Quora and Focus.com, to blogs. His rule of thumb: If you're tweeting more than 20 times a day, you should have just blogged instead.