• March 17, 2011
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

Interacting with Social Customers, 101

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When I teach classes on social CRM, one of the first things I tell attendees is that I like CRM because it’s the only science of business that reflects an art of life. That art of life? Human interaction.

My first definition of CRM that gained stickiness in the industry goes back to these very pages in a column I wrote in 2003: “CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a system and a technology designed to improve human interactions in a business environment.”

In other words, what governs this science of business is how customers (aka human beings) in a particular role interrelate with businesses.

Customer-business interactions are complex for multiple reasons:

1.     The expected value derived from those interactions by each party not only can vary widely but also clash at times. 

2.     The customer, because he is an individual and not an institution, wants his experience to be unique to him.

3.     The business, because it is an institution and is dealing with all those unique personages, must figure out how to mollify customers without damaging institutional business imperatives.

4.     To color the prior three with vivid paint, the customer is no longer a passive receptacle of messages. He is an active and demanding participant in how he wants to share a portion of his life with that business. In short, these are social customers.

Let’s take a fresh look at what a social customer is. He is a human being who does things in an identifiably different way, one that will affect your business.

The Social Customer

I know this is the equivalent of beating a dead (actually very much alive) horse, but let’s do some more beating (no animals were harmed in the production of this sentence). As of 2011, the social customer is an established part of the business cloth. To clarify, a social customer meets the following description:

a.    comfortable communicating on the social Web, both externally (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and internally (i.e., communities);

b.    conversant with the tools for that communication and never afraid to use them to communicate for positive, neutral, or negative reasons;

c.    focused on communicating with peers as a most trusted source, defined as “someone like them,” not necessarily “someone they know”;

d.    knows that he can influence a company’s brand by these conversations and that the business has no proactive say in his ability to do that (the business can react, however);

e.    demands a deeper engagement with the companies he cares enough to engage with (Note this one, businesses: He cares enough about you to engage more deeply. That’s an opportunity to embrace, not something to fear.);

f.    demands a personalized experience with the company, based on individual, not demographic, preferences;

g.    knows he has a willing audience to hear about his experiences with a company;

h.    communicates through multiple channels, tethered or untethered; and

i.    is considerably harder to please than customers have been in the past (for example, a recent article in 1to1 Media referenced a Yankee Group survey that found the customer satisfaction rates with customer service via social channels is 65 percent—almost 11 percent less than the overall customer satisfaction rate as determined by the American Customer Satisfaction Index).

This social customer isn’t:

a.    a majority of the world’s customers;

b.    a customer who has a deep commitment to lots of brands (his relationship with most brands is entirely utilitarian); and

c.    inclined to complain about companies, but is more likely to complain to larger audiences, known or unknown, because he can.

What’s a Business to Do?

You’d think that the business practices that you already employ successfully with your existing customers would work with social customers, right? Not necessarily.

I’ll tell you a story. In 2006, Disney Destinations, the travel arm of Walt Disney, announced it would stop calling its customer program CRM, changing it to CMR.

What drove this statement was that Disney had become aware that its customers and prospects were unhappy with the planning requirements of a Disney vacation, primarily through travel agents who did most of their business on the phone. This entailed potentially hours of tedious conversations with agents that involved complex sets of choices (is there an easy Disney vacation?) that left families tired and frustrated.

Naturally, Disney Destinations didn’t consider this a good thing.  So Disney announced that “customer relationship management” would become “customer managed relationships” and that the online tools to support the vacation planners would be developed. Not only would the tools be available to customers 24/7, but they would be able to stop in the middle and come back to complete the planning at their leisure. This represented a huge change.

Aside from the immediate business benefit to Disney Destinations—generating greater interest in Disney vacations—a longer-term benefit became apparent that befits a social customer’s demeanor and supports a business’s requirement.

The customer has control over his experience with the company. The company provides the products, services, tools, and consumable experiences that the customer needs to sculpt that highly personalized set of interactions with the company in the fashion and using the channels that the customer wants.

What makes this key to interacting with the social customer of 2011 and beyond is that the business has to do it. I’d love to say that businesses can do it at their leisure, but their options are limited because the demands from the customer for the business to differentiate itself in ways that are specifically meaningful to that customer are greater than ever.

Lessons Learned

What are the lessons learned from companies like Disney Destinations? First, acknowledge that the social customer is not just in control of his destiny; he is actually impacting your business in ways that could be beyond your control and is likely doing that in channels that you don’t own.

Second, make the decision that this is an opportunity to improve the relationship between you and your customer. If you play your cards right, you could create customer evangelists who would become passionate supporters out in those channels you don’t control. If you spend time to find out what he wants, map his desires against your business requirements (and budget), develop a program, and then provide your customer with what he needs to control his experience and interactions with you, you’ll be on the road to producing these customer advocates. 

So get to it. Find the social customers and talk to them because they’re out there.

Paul Greenberg (@pgreenbe on Twitter) is president of consultancy The 56 Group (the56group.typepad.com); cofounder of training company BPT Partners; a CRM magazine columnist; and chair of the magazine’s CRM Evolution conference (Aug. 8–10, 2011, in New York; www.destinationCRM.com/conference). The fourth edition of his book, CRM at the Speed of Light (McGraw-Hill)—from which this article is adapted—is now available in bookstores and online.

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