This story was originally published on April 30, 2010, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
There’s been much ado about social media as the latest, greatest customer service tool — but all that ado does little to help a corporation steer the conversation around perils and toward profits. So, buzz aside, where is the leverage in a set of tools that is seemingly all talk and little substance?
Talk is all social media really is. Leveraging social media, then, requires a deep abiding understanding of how to manage community chatter. It is about quickly turning negative talk to positive and positive talk to sales. It’s about sweating the small stuff and getting personal.
It is easy to preach this mantra, but it is so terribly difficult to actually accomplish the task. Yet, it can be done.
“There is not necessarily a wrong or right way to leverage social media because it’s an emerging and changing platform, but there is an effective way to do it,” Sasha Muradali, a PR professional at Burson-Marsteller’s digital advertising agency, Proof Digital Media, told CRM Buyer. Muradali also owns and operates the PR trends blog Little Pink Book PR.
The Fountain of Anger
Once upon a time, the customer was king. And everywhere he went, he was always right — even when he was most certainly wrong.
Then, big corporations discovered a glut of sales in global markets and demoted individual customers worldwide to the rank of disposable commodities. Some, like a few folks at Best Buy, went so far as to call customers who dared enter without leaving the company a sizable profit “demon customers.”
Shortly thereafter, a global recession returned the kingdom of commerce to the rule of customers again. Corporations struggled to relearn the old language that favored phrases such as “How may I help you?” over “Please listen carefully for our menu has changed…”
The tables have turned, and customers are angry. They demand an attentive audience — not an automated menu. One glance at the comments beneath any online post or the customer reviews found below any product listing tells the tale in vivid language.
Social media can quench that fire — or ignite it further.
“Organizations should be aware that while engaging in social media may leverage their customer service, poor customer service can now be more harmful than ever, as customers can take their grievance global and change public perception of a brand with a click of the mouse,” Dianne Durkin, founder and president of Loyalty Factor, told CRM Buyer.
“Customer care via social media is a viral movement — both positive and negative,” she said.
Developing trust is job No. 1 for corporations now. It is the only hope for sizable, bankable profits on a sustainable scale. However, trust can’t be built by ad campaigns and call center agents’ scripts alone. No, trust must be built and maintained one customer at a time via an actual conversation with the customer in the lead.
“Social media is an investment — it takes time to build a network and more time to keep your followers engaged,” Heather Deschenes, director of digital marketing at Staples, told CRM Buyer. “To succeed at social media, it is important to be aware of what is going on in your community of fans and followers.”
Social media is a way to cuddle up with a customer, one human to another. It is not, and never has been, about automating platitudes.
“Finding the right balance between being responsive and overcommunicating to your customers is key,” explained Deschenes.
For corporations that have trouble embracing the warm and fuzzy aspect of social media, a new term is hereby coined: “C.A.R.E.,” an acronym for “Customers Are the Revenue Engine.” This thought must be firmly affixed to the social media strategy: Without customers, there is no business.
“Tools aside, companies need to have a comprehensive social media policy and strategy for customer service,” Taylor Ellwood, business and social media coach at Imagine Your Reality, told CRM Buyer.
“Additionally, companies need policies on how to handle negative criticisms and what is considered negative criticisms. Having these policies in place will help them provide consistent customer service,” said Ellwood.
After you define what “customer care” means to your company, the way forward becomes clearer.
“Not every businesses’ audience is online-savvy, so first determine if using social media outreach for customer service will be worth your time,” said Staples’ Deschenes. “If you do decide to use social media outlets for customer service, you must be ready to be responsive. Take time to train your staff to ensure that you offer the same quality customer service, regardless of customer channel.”
As far as social media strategies go, there are two basic approaches: reactive and proactive.
“Reactive customer service can be done, for example, by setting up Twitter listening posts using Tweet Deck to search for conversations with key words meaningful to your company,” Nicole Donnelly, founder of BigRuby and Seattle accelerator chair for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, told CRM Buyer.
“A company can then give their employees who ‘listen’ parameters around solving problems, so that they can be the ones to go in and take care of any issues directly,” Donnelly added.
“Proactive customer service engages customers before there is a problem and interacts with customers to further product and service development,” she said.
Bonobos, an online men’s pants manufacturer and retailer, is a good example of a company successfully using a proactive approach. Bonobos uses several social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook and a company blog.
Three social media-driven projects exemplify its proactive approach:
- Bonobos will soon be launching dress shirts, and the company has formed 1,000-member alpha and beta testing groups solely through Twitter. “Through this, we have gained priceless info regarding fit and style preferences of loyal customers, and have translated that information into the design of our product,” Mike Hondrop, spokesperson for Bonobos, told CRM Buyer.
- The company ran multiple blog-based contests. “It is a highly-engaging way in which we crowdsource content for our site via the Web,” he said.
- Bonobos recently launched a new section on its website called Bonobos “Stuff”. “This category is our version of curation: products from outside vendors, but sold through our channel and endorsed by us,” he said. “The ‘stuff’ on this site has been cultivated through customers’ preferences and needs, which they communicated to us via social media tools.” Instead of having the customer look outside of Bonobos for products and suggestions, the retailer brought the products directly to the customers.
“These three examples illustrate how a small and growing business like Bonobos relied heavily on social media to improve our customer service,” Mike Hondrop, spokesperson for Bonobos, told CRM Buyer. “We engage our customers to give them ownership, we ask their opinions, and we directly respond to their needs — ALL via social media outlets.”
Does this mean that social media is a better game for small businesses? No, large corporations are finding ways to leverage social media too.
“In December 2009, Dell attributed more than US$6.5 million in net new sales to Twitter,” Rob Howard, founder and CTO at Telligent told CRM Buyer.
“Both Dell and Starbucks are well known for applying idea management applications alongside customer communities,” added Howard. “This strategy enables them to leverage user engagement to spur innovation and improve their products and services.”
Getting new sales, however, is not the only way companies profit from social media.
“Companies using social media for customer service include Wells Fargo, Dell, Lenovo, General Motors and Zappos,” Pam Abbazia, manager of SEO and social media programs for Digital Brand Expressions, told CRM Buyer. “Many report that they’ve been able to reduce the size of their call center operations and have increased sales as a result of their online customer service efforts.”
Social media should be approached as one way among many to engage the customer. No matter which method of engagement your company pursues, there are no shortcuts; there are only countless paths from which to choose.