It’s well established that social CRM and the use of social media for sales and marketing purposes can be a difficult concept to fully grasp and integrate into business operations. That’s because every business needs to understand its audience in order to put together a social strategy that makes sense for its unique circumstances. A one-size-fits-all template fits no one in the social era.
Still, there are some things that you don’t do. You don’t use social data to creep out your customers, for instance, by revealing that you know things about their kids, their travels, or their interests when it’s not appropriate. That should be clear.
Another no-no is to try to control the conversation. The customer now owns the conversation about your company; you can participate, or you can ignore it. What you can’t do is try to steer or squelch the conversation. It is not yours to manipulate — even in cases where the conversation is taking place in a community your company has created. If you do attempt to dominate the conversation, your community will be essentially obsolete overnight.
If you want an example of that, look no farther than Apple and its recent woes regarding the iPhone 4. I love Apple products — I have two of them whirring away in my office at this very instant — but while the company is advanced in design, marketing and service (in many cases), it’s way behind the times in other areas. Specifically, it lags in appreciating the power of its customers, many of whom, ironically, are empowered by devices like the iPhone.
Apple Plays Thought Police
If you haven’t been paying attention, the iPhone 4 debuted with the same fanfare as its predecessors, but the excitement was quickly subdued by word of an antenna issue that caused calls to drop if the phone was held a certain way. Initially, Apple denied and downplayed the problem, then suggested a fix that customers could pay for.
Meanwhile, Consumer Reports issued an unflattering evaluation of the iPhone 4 that advised skipping this version. Eventually, Steve Jobs was forced to break out his best black long-sleeve turtleneck and make essentially a public capitulation and offer free bumpers to all iPhone 4 users.
All the while, users were talking about this subject all over the Internet, including on Apple’s own support community. For a while, that is. Last week, it became apparent that Apple was deleting discussions of the Consumer Reports story from the community. The practice was discontinued after news of it emerged in the tech media, but it also stimulated reports of past scrubbing of negative threads. Endgadet reported that Apple “routinely deletes discussion of hardware flaws that it’s not ready to ‘fess up to, or just generally negative lines of thought about its product.”
Alone in the Bubble
Apple’s leadership exists in a bit of a bubble, which might explain why it thinks that deleting the threads on its own community would cause the discussion to go away. However, consumers don’t live in that bubble — they have lots of places to find peers and talk about the products they love (or love to hate).
Taking steps to squelch the conversation points out how poorly Apple understands its role (and its significance) in the customer conversation. Apple does not control it, nor can it. Ironically, the iPhone represents technology that allows users to become even more deeply involved in the conversation — it has a role in increasing the customer’s power and tilting things away from the company-controlled relationship Apple still seems to believe exists.
What Apple should be doing is participating in the conversation, and doing so fearlessly — especially on its own support boards. The iPhone 4 issue is a gigantic elephant in Apple’s virtual living room, and the company should explain how it’s going to tame it, lead it into the front yard, and get it out of the customers’ way. Ignoring it just causes the manure to pile up, and deleting customers’ discussions about it causes the manure to pile up faster.
If your company has a problem, the era of social demands that you be upfront about it, take customer concerns seriously, and behave as a partner with your customers. Clinging to the outdated model of control of the conversation only makes your business look inconsiderate and out of touch. That’s a way of making your customers “think different” about you that should be avoided at all costs.
CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.