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9/28/2011
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Roomba Robots Listen To Social Media

For iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum and other household robots, responding to customers on social media is a daily chore just like email, chat, and phone support.

10 Cool Social Media Monitoring Tools
Slideshow: 10 Cool Social Media Monitoring Tools
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When iRobot customers air service and support complaints on social media, global technical support director Maryellen Abreu and her staff are listening and ready to respond.

That does not mean, however, that they want to try to resolve complex technical support issues with an exchange of Twitter messages. Most businesses don't. Instead, following what is widely considered a best practice, iRobot will try to identify the customer and reach out to them through a more private channel. Or, if the customer can't be readily identified through their social media persona, iRobot will send a message through the social forum inviting the customer to call, email, or follow up in some other way. Rather than airing the entire discussion needed to resolve the customer's complaint in public, the goal is to circle back to the social forum with a final resolution.

"As a matter of fact, I prefer the phone--especially if it's a bad service experience," Abreu said. "We really do want to bring it into a more controlled environment."

Although it also makes military robots for tasks like disarming improvised explosive devices, iRobot is best known as the maker of the Roomba vacuum and other robotic household helpers. That is the part of the business Abreu is responsible for. The support team staff uses hosted contact center software from RightNow to manage calls, email, chat, a support forum, and, now, social media contacts.

Abreu said iRobot uses the full range of these capabilities but still tends to favor the phone as the best channel for troubleshooting. Although chat can be useful for pre-sales support, customers who have already purchased typically get a quicker answer to their issue over the phone. That's because the robots make "a lot of noises that help us troubleshoot," just by holding the robot up to the phone, or the phone up to the robot, she said.

Abreu said iRobot initially selected RightNow to support the outsourcing and offshoring of some of its contact center operations, since the hosted service could be accessed from anywhere. The company also provides some support through distributors overseas, for example to provide replacement batteries, so if one of those inquiries comes into a U.S. support center by email, agents will route it to the right place.

[Social media is a powerful tool to connect with customers, but it can create big problems for your company if it's not done right. Learn more at 10 Social Networking Don'ts.]

Customer relationship management (CRM) industry analyst Esteban Kolsky said he considers RightNow, along with competitors eGain and Kana, to be in the top tier of "customer interaction hub" vendors that can meet the service and support needs of large enterprises across all channels, including social media and dedicated support communities on a company's own website. Alternative vendors such as Moxie, Genesis, Parature, and Fierce Digital may be more appropriate for smaller companies, he said.

One advantage of integrated systems like these, as opposed to more specialized software for social media and chat that must be integrated with solutions for other channels like phone support, is that they make it easier and smoother to hand off customers from one channel to another, Kolsky said.

"Buyers want to be able to buy an integrated suite of products that will be easier to manage over the long term," agreed Kate Leggett, a Forrester Research analyst. "If you want the absolute best of breed in forums, go to one of these forum vendors" like Jive Software or Lithium Technologies, she said, but many enterprises prefer to treat that as "one capability of an entire customer service suite."

The same logic applies to social media listening technology designed to track mentions of companies, brands, and products on social media sites and flag those that contain a question or complaint requiring a response from the support staff. Although accomplishing this requires very large-scale data analysis and advanced natural language processing techniques, cloud computing has reduced this to a commodity service available to any of these products, Kolsky said.

Abreu said iRobot monitors all the major social media sites and blogs, as well as some specialized forums for robotics. In many cases, the RightNow software is able to match social media comments with specific customer records, as more people are using their real names online as opposed to obscure handles. In some of the robot forums where identities are not as clear, she will encourage the user to call, write, or come into iRobot's own support forums where their identity can be determined.

Before RightNow added these monitoring features, she used to try to identify some of these issues through Google searches, "but they brought back way too many results," she said. Responding to issues quickly is important because when customers air their complaints in public, they often get a lot of attention. She recalls one case where a customer posted a video account of the trouble he was having to YouTube and very quickly racked up 60,000 views. "His message was essentially, 'Now, iRobot, what are you going to do about this?'"

Currently, she has one agent tasked with full-time social media monitoring and response, with others tapped to help on an as-needed basis. Though social media adds yet another channel to monitor and manage, Abreu said it also means iRobot gets more feedback it can use to make its products and services better.

"I'm trying to make sure people are getting the level of service they expect from iRobot," Abreu said. When she and her staff come up with a solution for a problem raised on social media, they also have the opportunity to post a response back to that forum--turning it into a one-to-many communication that may be seen by others experiencing the same issues.

"I don't see that it's increased my budget at all," Abreu said. "Although it requires a higher caliber of service agent, our overall call center costs are more under control now than they've ever been."

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