I had the chance to tackle the topic of proactive customer support during a panel at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference this week in Austin, Texas with some pretty heavy hitters - Jon Swartz (USA Today tech reporter), Kimarie Matthews (vice president of social Web for Wells Fargo) and Bruce Temkin (customer experience transformist at Temkin Group). It was far more than your typical panel discussion.

In fact, I left there with some perspectives that have me excited to explore new ways for Microsoft to more deeply engage with our customers and their needs. (Make sure to check back here soon to hear our spirited discussion when we post a link to the entire panel discussion.)

SXSW lived up to its reputation as the “premier destination for discovery,” attracting to the discussion a robust and thoughtful crowd—on-site and virtually. At Twitter’s #SupportSXSW, the comments ranged from the legacy of support and loyalty (@RightNowNews: Wells Fargo says proactive support isn't something new, milk men used to deliver goods to the door) to explorations on how support fits into a company’s overall communications strategy (@dvap: Marketing and support need to work together. Marketing isn't equipped to support one-to-one conversations. Support can).

There was quite a bit of discussion about the opportunities and limitations of social media:

• @humbertomoreira "Heroes don't scale" - panelists describe the perils of unreasonable social media cust serv expectations
• @jimroth Only 3-4 percent of people share their customer service experiences on Twitter @btemkin

Great conversations continued after the panel as well, including service insights with Tony Hsieh, CEO of online giant Zappos, as well as a librarian exploring ways to strengthen her library’s service through the use of social media and Web-based e-book support.

Those of us invested in customer support know that our work increasingly plays a critical role in achieving brand loyalty, which is what we all strive for with our customers. In fact, according to research from the Customer Contact Council, for 96 percent of customers who have to work for their own satisfaction (find resources, solutions, answers, etc.) their loyalty to the company brand is challenged.

So after all the discussion, here’s what I’ve been thinking about since I left Austin to come back to Seattle:

1. Listen first – Echoing my fellow panelist Bruce Temkin’s recommendation that companies listen long before they start responding, I’m in full agreement that effective customer support begins with finding out what your customers are saying, and then taking steps to meet their needs. This sounds obvious, but in a customer service era that’s characterized by social media frenzy, companies often can get carried away with establishing myriad digital destinations for their customers and using these sites as platforms for brand promotion, rather than first using active listening systems, whether digital or traditional, to better understand the voice of the customer.

2. Engage second – After finding out what its customers need and want, a company can and should engage. This certainly can occur via social media destinations, but engagements need not be limited to Facebook, Twitter and blogs. For example, at Microsoft, we cultivate relationships with top technical influencers designated as Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) because we know that, in a sense, MVPs speak for the technical community at large. Personally engaging with these influencers creates a ripple effect that enables us to improve our products and services, and, in turn, deepen our customer relationships.

3. Always be proactive – Again, being proactive means more than just leveraging the rising tide of social media. It means thinking specifically about how to reduce customer effort and how to address issues before customers are even aware they exist. Proactive support must be embedded in the very fibers of business to create positive customer experiences. At Microsoft, we know that means all customers, from the consumer to the enterprise level. That’s the thinking behind one of our newer technologies, code named Atlanta, which proactively assesses server configuration, alerts IT pros of top support issues and gives them advice on fixing those issues. The beta released last year.

By no means has Microsoft simply “arrived” at proactive support – it’s an evolving and continuous process for us, as it should be at any company. Our commitment to deliver solutions that reduce customer effort demands that we keep listening, and we thank everyone who shares feedback with us.

Posted By Toby Richards
General Manager, Community and Online Support, Microsoft