Anyone who has had reason to contact a large organisation – bank, telecoms company, utility, government department – will have noticed some changes in the last decade or so in how these organisations communicate.

There has been a shift from having a physical presence to communicating via telephone and/or online; visiting a branch office has been replaced by interactive voice response (IVR) phone systems and ‘check on our website’; letters of complaint by emails and webchats. The reasons are simple – cost and scale.

The demands of customers have grown beyond the ability of points of contact to adequately respond; insufficient branches, too short opening hours, insufficient contact centre staff. Customers expect to be able tocommunicate at any time with people who know who they are, the history of the relationship and direct them to experts who can solve the problem instantly.

It should be no surprise that organisations find it a challenge to meet this level of customer expectation – especially as they try to maintain or boost margins, shareholder returns, and ultimately perhaps executive bonuses?

Hence the move to get people to phone or look it up online. Use automated systems where possible, and even when real people are required, lump them together into call centres and consider outsourcing them to countries where the rates of pay are lower. In the meantime, the call centre has changed to embrace new technologies and more flexible ways of working, evolving into the contact centre. No longer necessarily a physical place, but a virtual web of people and locations using diverse modes of communication to deal with customer requests.

All well and good, but frequently all the customer hears or sees is the equivalent of ‘computer says no’ and the website or IVR does not have the option they are really trying to find. All too often they might feel the message “your call is important to us…” tells them just how important they really are (Not very, otherwise there would be more staff to answer the call)

The problem is not necessarily in the technologies used, but the way they have been adopted. Automated systems have allowed companies to become lazy with their processes. They create streamlined processes that fit the perceived needs of the majority of customers but rely on automation and associated tools like a crutch. This then allows the business to have lowest cost staffing and to try and forget about exceptions.

Processes streamlined, costs cut, large volumes of customers handled – job done? Well not really as most of these same organisations notice their customer loyalty falling and churn rising, especially when regulators get involved to make the process of switching easier as they have in many industry sectors.

The problem is that while these processes address issues that impact the organisation, they do not always tackle those issues that have greatest effect on customers. This is especially the case with so called ‘exceptions’ i.e. the things that companies have not included in their processes, but tend to happen to their customers with more regularity than admitted. The problem is further exacerbated by reliance on the process as the final arbiter, and not the discretion of well-motivated and well-trained customer service employees who have been granted authority to act on their own initiative.

However there are examples of solutions to this problem through the use of social media for customer support. Here, connection is simple, contact is rapid and the ramifications can ‘go viral’. Perhaps for these reasons it becomes important to select good and well-motivated staff, give them responsibility for their actions and reward them appropriately.

Consumers will often hit their social web for unresolved issues and complaints, news of which breeds in the oxygen of widely shared experiences – “yes, something similar happened to me with…” and spreads rapidly through the Twitterverse, blogosphere and Facebook pages.

Customer service teams that interact with customers through social media need tact and diplomacy couple with the ability to deliver empathy in simple text, sometimes fewer than 140 characters. They also need the same direct access to customer records and powerful support tools for data mining and root cause analysis as all other customer care channels.

Companies in the telecoms industry appear to have recognized this, and there are highly visible and responsive teams operating on behalf of BT, VirginMedia and Vodafone, among others. Anecdotal evidence suggests these people are already delivering excellent service and this seems to come from them being small, highly focused teams, close to the core of the organisation, able to call on resources as they need them and make decisions on their own initiative.

This model changes customer service in a far more positive way that the over-simplistic and ill thought out deployments of automated telephony and web technology. By taking the best of IT and communications tools, but putting people at the core of processes, organisations can improve their customer service and more importantly perhaps from their perspective, retain customers.

Organisations would do well to step up their investments in their social media customer support teams. The computer may say no, but the people say yes.