(It looks like the original post for this was lost to the internet. So here we bring it back!)

We’ve talked before about why we run this blog, our Twitter account, Facebook fan page, and myriad of other social networking haunts. What you may not know is that Staffing isn’t the only industry to take to social networking – customer service and support is likewise finding out that social networking provides new ways to reach customers and more importantly: to help customers. Toby Richards is at the helm of some of Customer Service & Support’s own social networking efforts so we are very excited to bring this profile to you today. We’ve heard Toby speak on a few different occasions and each time it’s a real treat. He’s obviously passionate about what he does and he is able to energize the audience with that same excitement for connecting to our customers. Here’s your chance to learn more about CSS, learn more about how we incorporate social networking (and why), and also get some great advice from one of our own.

What is your Microsoft anniversary date? January 12 

What office/campus do you work at? Sammamish 

What is your current role in Microsoft? General Manager, Community & Online Support

How did you get to this role – what is your background and career path so far? 
This role appealed to my background in CPE and its global reach. At Microsoft, I have been in a number of customer and partner marketing roles, plus several years in CPE, so the ability to bring that experience together and focus my strengths on global community outreach, and developing great online experiences, was very appealing.

What does the Community & Online Support group bring to CSS and Microsoft?
My managers and I just met to talk about our big bets, and where we add value to the customer and to Microsoft. Here they are:

1.   Customer Experience Strategy – While we don’t fully “own” online support strategy when you consider our many stakeholders, but we are so close to the voice of customer, we have the opportunity to shape the customer proposition in a way that brings a one CSS approach to the post-sales online experience (workflow, content, community and automated solutions). Our goal is to reduce customer effort in finding a solution, and when we do that well, it is statistically proven to improve company loyalty.

2.   Community Support – we create a great community Q&A experience online so that customers can get answers from their peers, Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) and from Microsoft engineers. Our forums today are offered as part of the TechNet (IT Pro), MSDN (Developer) and MS Answers (Consumer) properties. This fiscal year alone, 600K questions will be answered, with 800M page views. The reach is incredible!

3.   Community Feedback – we partner with product engineering and our CSS quality people to deliver the voice of customer via our MVP feedback engagements, and the analytics of social media and Q&A forums.

4.   Advocacy Channels – our 4200 MVPs are our best advocates when it comes to evangelizing our products, and the use of social media is giving us new avenues to communicate our new support solutions like FixIts, videos, code samples, etc.

5.   Business Information & Analytics – CSS has a tremendous amount of online support and community data. We have opportunities to use that data in more strategic ways, thus we are investing in business intelligence capabilities and headcount to provide better customer and behavior analytics to inform our decisions going forward.

How is PQO leveraging social networking? What does it bring to the group and customers?
Social Media is used for listening and customer engagement. Daily, we issue social media reports so that product teams can better understand what customers are talking about in Twitter, Facebook and third=party blogs. Already, these reports have been used to influence key fixes and decisions. We also guide the customer service strategy in Twitter (@microsofthelps) so that customers receive a positive concierge service, linking them to answers and other solution assets. In the future, we will use social media more to make customers aware of our solution assets in an effort to reduce customer effort in finding them.

How did you become involved in social networking for the business climate? What gets you excited about it?
Since my team works with community every day, I needed to jump in and engage. You can’t be a credible business leader if you aren’t investing the time in the ways in which your customers want to engage. Frankly, I was a little leary about Twitter, not fully understanding the value. But since I have been using it for the past year, I have found that there are many industry people interested in knowing what I care about, what I have to say, and the topics/articles that I find interesting. I also use it as a way to keep track of the thought leaders and influential community members and analysts. I like to be on the forefront of current business and competitive news so that I can add the most value to my team, so tracking the key folks via Twitter has been immensely helpful. My Twitter account is @tobyrichards and I use it solely as a way for “business” outreach, whereas my Facebook account is for family and friends.

I heard you speak a few weeks ago and you mentioned a visit to SXSW. As a music festival geared to a younger audience, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about our presence there. Tell me about that trip – what were you talking about and what did you take away?
SXSW brings a very eclectic group of people together to talk about ideas and business issues related to media, technology and music. I was there to talk about support in 140 characters or less (get it?) and with me were folks from HP and Comcast who have similar social media practices. It was a well-attended event with a long lasting conversation on Twitter. Some of the issues discussed were the legal and PR implications of customer service in the social space, where a large following can be created by anyone without the corporation’s approval. Some companies feel they need oversight over social media engagements (especially by people outside of PR), but our philosophy supports a more open approach as long as some core business principles are adopted by customer service agents. This is a new area for customer service and we’ll need to monitor it carefully. But what I do know is that in social media, you need to engage in conversation and not use it as an amplifier or treat it like the break/fix mentality of the phone. If you aren’t prepared for two-way dialog, then customers will get turned off.

Any advice for potential candidates looking to connect to Microsoft?
Stay grounded to the voice of the customer. There is no better use of real customer data and comments than when to demonstrate that you understand the market and what customers are saying. There are a few really influential analysts that follow Microsoft, and each of them stay connected with business customers and end users to ensure their articles accurately reflect market perceptions. Follow their blogs and Twitter feeds to understand what they are reporting on and talking about each and every day. You would be amazed at how connected you will get by understanding their lens on the market and our opportunities. Some of those that I follow include Mary Jo Foley, Ina Fried and Todd Bishop.