You and I may be fully participating in popular social media like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but I'll bet your company isn't - at least as well as it could be. While these networks have exploded over the last few years for personal use (Facebook with 800 million users, Twitter with 175 million, and LinkedIn with 115 million), most businesses are at a loss for effective ways to engage with customers in this brave new world. And social media growth is showing no signs of slowing; newer networks such as Google+, Pinterest and Instagram have seen incredible growth in a matter of weeks.
Social media has transformed the way we connect with each other. We all have a voice, and we make ourselves heard, sharing wisdom and gossip, connecting with new friends, and documenting our lives. This new communication channel has empowered us and changed our expectations of the world, including the companies with which we interact.
Today, we are more influenced by comments from friends and anonymous reviews than we are from traditional online or TV ads that we easily ignore. That means the game is changing for businesses of all sizes and types. It's no longer about telling your customers what to think and do. It's about listening and engaging, guiding and supporting. Creating a Facebook page is a start, but let's be clear: Having a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter isn't enough. People, not sites, are the fabric of the new Web.
As a company, it's not only possible, but also imperative, to develop a relationship with each of your customers. Here's how:
1. Your entire organisation needs to participate
The first mistake most companies make is to hire "community managers," lock them in a room, and expect to use social media as just another marketing tool. This is not a social business.
Certainly community managers have a role to play. But to become a true social business, every single employee in the company needs to be part of the social conversation. Salespeople need to listen to their customers no matter where they interact, understand their needs and build deeper relationships. Product people need to listen to product feedback. Customer service people need to proactively help and guide the customer. CEOs need to keep their finger on the pulse of the business. Everybody needs to listen and bring that knowledge back into the organization. Everybody needs to engage with the community.
Let's use Best Buy as an example. In 2009, 3,000 Best Buy employees volunteered to answer customer questions on Twitter (@twelpforce) as part of their daily work responsibilities. In three years, 50,000 questions were answered, employees engaged more deeply with their community and customers became evangelists for Best Buy.
2. Be social internally
You can't present yourself as a social business to your customers if you are not a social business inside your company's walls. You must enable the voice of the people to flow through your organization -- both the voice of customers and employees. Empower your team to make important decisions in favor of the customer at the moment of the interaction.
To do that, you need to break down the silos and boundaries that exist between departments. You need to give front-line employees the authority to be responsive to customers' frustrations (such as offering a month of free service for their troubles). You need to create the same sense of community internally as you create externally with your customers. This means listening to every individual in the organization and helping them to collaborate more effectively, with the goal of continuously improving the customer experience.
3. Be real
What kind of relationship do you have with the credit card company that sends you an incessant stream of new card offers? What about your barber, your real estate broker, or your colleague in another department?
People like to connect with real people. They like to share their ideas, questions and frustrations with people who will listen and engage with them. They do not like canned responses, impersonal messages, or one-way communication.
People buy from people they like, and they can only like people they know. They cannot know you unless you step out from behind the curtain and reveal yourself as a man or woman from Omaha, or wherever you call home. Start by sharing things about yourself: your successes, your lessons learned, your observations, and your passions. When you open yourself up and really engage, your customers will begin to trust you, be responsive to you, and guide you to success.
4. Leverage technology
It's impossible these days to stay connected with customers and employees without a myriad of tools: email, calendar apps, social networks, Skype, wiki's, project management, CRM systems, etc. While you can survive with all of these tools, they make building and nurturing relationships a headache, because they leave business contacts, communication and activities scattered all over the place. None of the data is well connected, and social intelligence is absent.
This is why social businesses need to leverage the power of socially enabled software platforms. These tools unify customer communication and provide businesses with a 360-degree view of all your customer interactions. They provide deeper insight into who your customers are -- as individuals and en masse. As a business professional, you can tap this knowledge to find ways to connect and engage on a personal level.
Social CRM tools also help companies better collaborate and bubble up internal ideas that would have otherwise never seen the light. They help companies centralize their activities around their constituency's feedback, be it from customers, prospects, influencers, or partners.
Social CRM is the glue that will help your business become a true social business.
Jon Ferrara is founder and CEO of Nimble. A social entrepreneur at heart, Jon Ferrara founded GoldMine Software in 1989, which helped pioneer the entire Sales Force Automation (SFA) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) market.