“Fear of Chatter”: The Implications of Virgin America’s Social Network-based Customer Care

Dreamforce has always had elements of a Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) when it comes to its views of contact centers in the future. Sure, the exhibit hall and break-out rooms featured cloud-based contact center partners – like Angel, Genesys, Interactive Intelligence, InContact, Five9, LiveOps and others (whom I hope I haven’t offended) – that use resources in the Servicecloud, AppExchange or Data.com to populate agent desktops or control call routing subsystems.

This year, however, the true nature of Dreamforce came into focus with with its emphasis on “transformational” and “social business” approaches that circumnavigate the contact center and swing the power pendulum to “collaborative resources” that carry the name Chatter and closely resemble Facebook, with its central timeline and divided screen that features presence indicators and links to video, programs and other activity options.

You may remember that we featured the introduction of Chatter in this post from November 2009. At the time, the user interface bore a strong resemblance to Twitter and (by default) Facebook which was undergoing a facelift at the time to make it look more like Twitter. Well, in the past months, according to Salesforce.com co-founder and EVP of Technology Parker Harris, the company’s software engineers have been busy retooling (he said “completely rewriting”) Chatter to add a different look and capabilities that add the ability build and foster communities, to embed more data types and to support more display options (not just tablets, but – in the case of Virgin America Airlines – the flat display screens on the seat in front of a specific passenger).

In addition Chatter will be augmented by a Dropbox-like service (to be piloted in Winter 2013) called Chatterbox. It provides a very easy way to “drag-and-drop” files to be shared among fellow Chatter users. These enhancements are but a few of the hundreds of product introductions, upgrades and updates that Salesforce.com presented during the five days of Dreamforce.

It was quite a lot to assimilate, so use cases and “vision” was provided by a handful of exemplary customers during the course of the conference keynotes. Executives from the aforementioned Virgin America Airlines offered a vision that may capture the unquestionable momentum away from “chain of command” oriented contact centers (quoting the airline’s CEO David Cush), toward a more egalitarian approach where, quoting Cush again, “As a tip of travel, the best way to get a response is through social media, not through the normal consumer relations department [presumably meaning an agent in a contact center].”

Cush’s comment was made after the tens of thousands of attendees were treated to Parker Harris’ Chatter and Chatterbox demo. In it, a fictional frequent flyer was “amazed” (perhaps) to see an message appear on the screen on the seat back in front of him showing that (because they knew his initial flight had been delayed) a Virgin America “Team Member” would be awaiting him at his arrival gate in order to escort him to his next flight and ensure that he arrived at his ultimate destination on time. The in-plane display aspect was the icing on the cake that Salesforce was featuring. Chatter and Chatterbox made it possible for Team Members to (1) detect that a high-value customer (in First Class) was in jeopardy of missing a flight; (2) create an electronic placard (for an iPad) with the passenger’s name to be held by the Team Member at the arriving gate; (3) create a map of the airport to be displayed both on the iPad and on the in-plane display; (4) provide the Chatterbox which enabled sharing delivery of these files from the Team Member who first detected the flight delay (not an contact center agent or computer but a flight technician of some sort) to the fellow employee who would welcome the customer.

In this age when a company or brand fears that social networks will be a source of disintermediation, Salesforce.com and Virgin show that it has its greatest potential at the front line of customer care or “best way to get a response.” All that gets disintermediated, in this case, is the contact center.

It certainly is provocative; but it raises two major questions: First “Does it further empower customers?” That remains to be seen but it is unclear whether this traveler was given any say in the matter. Through Chatter, the original Virgin Team Member was able to ascertain which customer should get the most attention thanks to frequent flyer status and the location of his seat in the airplane (First Class). Whether there was a chance for him to react and make his preference known was left unclear.

The other question, of course, is “How will this scale (both operationally and economically)?” Answering that question, of course, gets to the heart of why we have contact centers in the first place.

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