Vala Afshar: Why Customer Service Needs to Get Social — Or Else

As chief customer officer at Enterasys, an Andover, Mass.-based enterprise networking company, Vala Afshar has piled up 81,800 tweets — about 130 per day —  since signing up for an account in early 2011. His Twitter feed reads like a constant stream of daily affirmations and insights about management and marketing. But for Afshar, who doubles as Enterasys’s marketing chief, being a social junkie is no gimmick.  He’s using the platform, he says, to create a culture of transparency, which leads to engaged frontline employees, and, in return, top-notch customer service. It’s also the backbone of what he calls a “social business.” The co-author of The Pursuit of Social Business talked to The SmartVan about how field service organizations stand to gain by embracing the same idea.

The SmartVan: What is a social business?

Vala Afshar: A social business is not about social media or social tech — it’s about a mindset of inclusiveness and shared compatibility. Not one of us is as smart of all of us. You have to have a collaborative mindset to deliver solutions that matter to customers. And happy employees translate to happy customers. The reason for our success at Enterasys has been our culture, our transparency. We believe communication improves culture.

How exactly have you implemented a social culture at Enterasys, and what have been the results?

In 2010 Salesforce introduced Chatter, a social technology for the enterprise. We were one of the first companies to implement it. Employees connect to you and follow you just like in Facebook. We offer Chatter in our customer service and support space. We created tech groups: a wireless group, a routing group, etc. Field personnel and engineering personnel can be part of these groups. If a field worker has a question about wireless, they can chat about wireless and about a solution in real time. By using this ecosystem, we are able to improve contact culture. We can publish a response and solution to any scenario. Social collaboration improves delivery. This has led to $1 million a year in terms of cost savings. There is less need to hire additional staff and there are efficiency gains in processing cases.

How does social business relate to field service?

In the service world, companies are challenged in terms of a new complexity of technology. There’s a shift that’s happening where it’s less and less about the product and more and more about solutions. How do you solve the problem? The support department is no longer siloed – it is now a process. You have to connect the engineer with the field worker and IT department. You have to connect frontline employees with service personnel. You need more and more frontline employees to have access to information in real time.

Studies show that customer loyalty and commitment is no longer about customer satisfaction. The execution of service is linked to loyalty. The faster you deliver a solution the more likely you’ll have customer loyalty. Social has helped us improve this business agility.

How do you create a culture among a dispersed workforce?

There are critical success factors for social business satisfaction and superior customer support: First there is culture. For culture you need people. You need to hire for attitude and train for aptitude. If person has passion to serve, you are winning as a business. The company’s brand is the frontline employee. Trust the people you hire and trust them to do the work. A social mindset is where there is clear transparency. Then there is process. If you are process-heavy, you are not a social business. Social business is about agility. It’s counterintuitive – you have to shift from command-and-control to collaboration and co-creation. Define a lean process first, then find the tech to support it.

So how does tech fit into all of this?

Tech shrinks the ecosystem. After this interview, I’m going to get on Chatter and say I had great talk with The SmartVan. My 500 followers will see it and some will chat back. I will get on Twitter and other folks from Twitter will see it. Over time people will — hopefully — find you interesting and compelling. Tech is a pull that gets us more connected. Regardless of whether you are under one roof or in the field, communication improves culture. Mangers have to be interested in their employees’ work. It means you have to stretch yourself. Collaboration is not easy. Social tech helps you connect and have a better understanding of field personnel. It helps overcome field elements in terms of transparency and communication.

What’s the future for service organizations?

Companies that are not social and not embracing mobile are going to put the field service profession in real trouble. Social and mobile is about a lifestyle now. The customer is driving it and service organizations need to adapt. Leadership is conversation and you have to be where the conversation is. Customers spend time on social networks and you want to deliver messages where you think the user will be. My customers can send a tweet on Twitter asking for advice and I can respond. My guess is three to four years from now, we will all be collaborating in real-time video.

We are also going to see more machines talking to social networks. When a component fails, the machine sends a social message on Facebook, Twitter or Chatter to the closest service station, along with the customer. That’s the future of service delivery – social machines communicating to call centers and field personnel in real time. The future of social business is not just people, it’s people and products.

More: How Successful Field Service Organizations Go Social.

Click here to download a free whitepaper, “Five Steps to Make Field Service Profitable.”

ABOUT Marisa Wong

Marisa is an online content strategist with a focus on developing and launching digital editorial products. She has a journalism background (Time Inc., WSJ) and have been working in online media since 2007. She is currently managing editor at SlideShare.