Co.Design

How to Build 24/7 Relationships, Using New Media

New rules for how to keep in touch with your customers.

This is the next piece in our PATTERNS series, written by IDEO. Read more from the series here.

The old 1-800 style of customer service is slowly being eroded. Companies are recognizing that every interaction matters and are therefore starting to open up new channels of communication to offer instant access, robust feedback loops, and rapid response.

Customer service is often driven reactively, relegated to a cost center and considered a negative touchpoint. Despised by customers and riddled with clichés, it's a broken system that reflects poorly on an organization's underlying structure, culture, and brand values.

Today, real-time connectivity is changing the game. New communication tools are supporting open access, robust feedback, direct participation, and immediacy of information. We are seeing consistent evidence that one-way, linear flows of communication are shifting to continuous dialogue through multiple channels.

TAKE ACTION: Designing for Life's Changes


1. Don't invade, connect
Build continuity throughout the life of the relationship with your customers, without invading their space.

2. Transform monologue to dialogue
Host a dialogue that gets both sides talking in order to create a continuous loop: listen, respond, act.

3. Create redundancy
Design multiple points of entry. Allow access from all sides, in multiple channels, tailored for any number of situations.

4. Outside in/inside out
Open up access to what's going on behind the scenes. Make it human by making it authentic.

5. Leverage existing platforms
Don't invent, integrate. Systems are already in place so that you can communicate via tools consumers already use.

THE EVIDENCE: Stories from Around the Globe


Always-on Customer Service

People are vocal when things go wrong and new media tools amplify this, but the online shoe company Zappos has turned that to its advantage. Zappos maintains an Insights page, a Facebook account, and each employee has a Twitter account, which allows them to act as ambassadors for the company.

Jeanne's last job was at a traditional call center, where it was just one call after the next: "I felt like a robot, with no connection to the people I worked with or the person on the other end of the line." When she started at Zappos, the first thing she was asked to do was to set up a profile and Twitter account. "Once I even sent a woman flowers after she'd opened up to me about a family incident."

How might you build personal connections with your customers? How might you turn negative interactions into positive ones by responding to issues in real time?

Meaningful Micro-moments

It's been hard for Jane, a 33-year-old New Yorker, to find a doctor she can trust. And it doesn't help when she has to wait two hours for a three-minute appointment: "If I'm sick, I'm sick, and I want to know what's wrong as soon as I can."

Since she signed up for the Hello Health service, she's able to communicate with her doctor rather than with the system. She can use IM, video chats, and Facebook-like profiles to ask about even the smallest things. Jane is a self-described hypochondriac and needs reassurance that, yes, it's just a cold. The fact that her doctor is always there for her, either in person or just a simple email away, means everything to her.

How can we transform the old system with new tools? How can we make getting a medical checkup as simple as getting a coffee at Starbucks?

The New Public Dialogue

During the 2008 US election, Jenna watched speeches on YouTube, got updates on her mobile phone, and subscribed to feeds. "Never before have I felt so involved," she said. "When it came time to watch the inauguration, I could see it with my Facebook status updates on CNN."


Citizens the world over have discovered the utility of mobile phones, YouTube, and Blogger to produce their own news coverage and influence world events. Dumisani Ndlela, a journalist in Zimbabwe, wrote about the use of SMS jokes to make sense of the election stalemate. Halfway across the world, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi regretted that his governing party ignored alternative media there: "It was a serious misjudgment. We made the biggest mistake in thinking that it was not important."

How might governments reach the public using the social networking tools? How can citizens and NGOs use them to make government more transparent, accountable, and responsive?

Simple Tools for the Little Guys
Michael Coffey, chief executive of BlueCotton in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is using tools like Twitter to enhance customer service without significant infrastructure investment. The 25-employee, $4 million company lets customers design their own shirts online. Two of Coffey's factory workers have recently used iPhones to send photo tweets of completed shirts right before shipping. "Customers have some anxiety when they purchase shirts online," Coffey says. "The tweets help alleviate those concerns and create real fans of the company."

Bridging Services for Direct Access
Being stuck in a tree of menu options isn't what you need when things are going wrong. Often what people want is to simply talk to a person. GetHuman.com is a cheat sheet that tells frustrated consumers the right buttons to push on a telephone to reach a human in the customer service department at hundreds of companies. From full-service suites to message boards, many services are emerging to help consumers navigate complex systems that weren't built for customer satisfaction.

Portals for Public Action
Services that aggregate voices to support popular action are already widespread. Vote Report India is a collaborative election-monitoring platform that disseminates information and supports citizen action. Users contribute direct SMS, email, and web reports on violations of the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct. The platform compiles these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos, and tweets related to the elections. Citizens can monitor all relevant sources, in one place, on an interactive map.

Be a Pattern Spotter


Now that you've been exposed to a few different examples, don't be surprised if you start seeing Life's Changes patterns all around. Keep your eyes open and let us know what you find, especially if it's the next new pattern.

PATTERNS are a collection of shared thoughts, insights, and observations gathered by IDEO through their work and the world around them. Read more pieces from the series here.

Jenny Comiskey has collaborated with a wide range of clients to define new platforms, service experiences, and innovation strategies. She has an abundant curiosity for uncovering the small nuances of individual behaviors, complementing that with a macro view of emerging social and cultural patterns. Jenny is most at home when tackling messy systemic issues, applying design thinking to reframe complex problems, enable positive impact, uncover new opportunities for value creation, and define "what's next."

Aradhana Goel is the design and innovation lead for IDEO's portfolio in India and focuses on strategic program and partner development in the region. She has extensive experience ranging from architecture and urban design to experience design to service innovation. She is passionate about understanding human behaviors, how they inform the collective societal patterns, and how these patterns intersect with technology and business needs to inform innovative products, services, environments, organizations and systems.

Simon King is an interaction designer whose work spans macro and micro, from long-term platform strategy to pixels and milliseconds. His areas of interests include adaptive systems, multi-channel platforms, and information visualization. At IDEO Chicago he has worked on a diverse range of projects including medical devices, financial services, mobile payments, and the digital experience of the Olympic games. Simon holds a masters degree in Interaction Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a BFA in Graphic Design from Western Michigan University.

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1 Comments

  • Guy Parker

    This post is very apropos to communications today. Customer service must change from reactive to proactive and learn how to take advantage of new media channels to engage customers in conversations. The 24/7 relationship model has become the new brand experience model, old media model versus the new media model, and what was once a one-way communication is now a two-way relationship. Henry Jenkins discusses this in depth in his book Convergence Culture (2006), as the collision of old and new media that is amplified by a collective intelligence with a participatory culture. Technology has had a dramatic affect on consumer expectations and the timeliness of responses. As Jenkins points out, customers used to be media consumers and have now become media producers. Customers are voracious participants in an exciting new culture of collaboration and sharing. Humans have an inherent need to share opinions and experiences with family, friends and like-minded strangers and companies have to be prepared to leverage social media to participate in these new “word-of-mouth” communities in honest and proactive ways that don’t ignore the brand’s authenticity. Consumers are quick to see through false claims and instantly broadcast to their networks. This creates the new “pattern” for customer service and raises the bar for fruitful customer engagement.