Troubleshooting vs. Engagement: Opposing Attitudes About Social Media

I like the saying, “Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude toward us.”

It’s a nice quote, although it was uttered by John N. Mitchell, a convicted prevaricator who participated in the Watergate conspiracy and ended up in an Alabama prison as a result. (Apparently, his attitude wasn’t all that great.)

Paraphrase it for business and it might sound like a mantra for the social business era: Our attitude toward business determines business’s attitude toward us. Or, our attitude toward customers determines customers’ attitudes toward us. This concept came to mind during a recent discussion I had with a colleague about social CRM and social monitoring tools.

Not Just Eliminating the Negative …

There were two distinct attitudes at work. Attitude one was that you need to monitor social media for mentions of your business so you can spot negative things that are being said and move to stop those things from being said. Attitude two was that you need to monitor social media to see where people are saying good things about you and move to become involved to help amplify those good things.

No one should stick to one attitude exclusively, obviously — no matter how diligently you cultivate your positive participation in social media, there’s going to be an issue or an individual which pops up and becomes a thorn in your side and a potential threat to your business. You’ll need to deal with that.

However, that should not be where the emphasis takes place. I’ve seen many businesses look at social media as an alarm system or a place of vulnerability, where they can be pilloried by those awful, awful customers. The mood becomes reactive: How do we shut these people up when they start carping about our business? How can we use social media to mollify them and make them stop talking about us?

This was the genesis of many a business’s Twitter strategy, starting with Comcast and spreading into the operations of other industries, notably airlines. The goal was to make the customer happy — but that was a means to also quiet him or her down.

Here’s where that strategy hurts: It addresses a symptom of broken processes within the business and quiets the loudest of the customers complaining about those processes, but it leaves the broken processes in place. The percentage of people who actually complain is very low, so while dealing with the vocal few may be good for PR, it does nothing to help the others impacted buy those defective processes.

The objective should be to go back and fix the underlying problems so that there are fewer negative social media comments to monitor and thus fewer to which you feel compelled to react. This goes beyond the people in marketing that typically monitor social traffic and far deeper into the business, making it vital that you have a champion at the C-level to help shift the attitude and to make real and meaningful change.

… but Also Accentuating the Positive

The other attitude — engagement is good — is a much better way to approach customers through social media — and, in fact, it’s a phenomenon more native to social media. Engagement strengthens relationships, builds your brand as a business that contributes to its customer community, and creates an army of customer advocates. Then, when things do go wrong, you won’t be forced to face them on your own; your advocates can come to your rescue and help or redirect the disgruntled social media user and do so, in may cases, before your team ever realizes that disgruntled person’s started commenting.

There’s something else at work here. This approach has a totally different philosophical underpinning. It says, “we want our customers to talk more,” as opposed to the idea of getting customers to quiet down. It says that the business values customer input — but more than that, it understands that customers’ natural inclination is to talk and share, and that that inclination is something the business has no control over.

Social media should be seen in that light – as a window into the opportunities we have to engage with customers in an arena where businesses have about the same ability to control the conversation as any other participant. Handle the positive conversations as opportunities to build relationships and establish your business as helpful, constructive and happy to share its knowledge. Handle the negative discussions as symptoms of real-world things you should fix.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 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 three books on World War II aviation.

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