Is Social Media Still Just Hype?

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In today's digital world, consumers have a wealth of information at their fingertips, giving them more control than ever over who gets their business. They know they have choices and are ready to switch providers if the companies they are using are not willing—or able—to meet their needs.

The problem for most companies actually starts with a willingness—or lack thereof—to recognize that things have changed at the core of the sales experience. The traditional sales and marketing funnel doesn't take into consideration a selling environment with ongoing engagement that emanates from the customer, rather than one that is just pushed at him. Companies are finding that to win in business, they need to adopt new models that meet customers where they are, whether on their mobile device, laptop, or in the store. In many cases, this translates into the need to create a strong and consistent social media presence.

To make the most of social media, companies should first look to improve their consistency in how they approach and react to their customers. Once that foundation is in place, there are two areas that are critical to get right.

First, companies need to make the leap from treating social media as a separate initiative or channel that can be treated differently from their other customer-interaction touchpoints to weaving it into their multichannel sales and marketing plans. An Accenture survey found that only one-quarter (26 percent) of B2C companies have formally linked their social media channels to a customer-related function. The vast majority of companies are still not linking social media with their other customer-related channels, and risk confusing customers with conflicting messages or offers.

Take, for instance, a valuable airline customer who missed her connection due to a late arrival and immediately tweeted her displeasure. The airline social media team saw the tweet and "did its job"—by quickly replying and offering a credit on the airline's next flight. A few hours later, the customer received an email that simply acknowledged the situation and stated that there was nothing more the airline could do—another group "doing its job" and following policies. Clearly, the two departments were not connected, causing confusion for the customer and embarrassment for the company.

In contrast, a speedy response and seamless experience would have been noticed and valued by the customer if there had been integration across customer services processes, technology, and organizations. Social media would have increased the airline's responsiveness, cut down the cycle time, and simplified the customer service costs—all tangible business levers.

The second key area that companies must consider is how to treat online customer reviews as an opportunity to interact with the customer as they might via social media—not just for e-commerce use. At many companies, such reviews are thought of primarily as part of the e-commerce function. Too often this can result in mismanagement of customers and missed opportunities to either reward customers or address complaints.

So, what can a company do to capitalize on the power of online reviews?

  • Technology platforms that manage and monitor social media can be extended to include online reviews, as these tools are often more advanced than what most companies currently use to track review sites. By extending this technology, companies will be able to more effectively respond to customers.
  • Put the responsibility for review management into the hands of the social media team, rather than the e-commerce team—or at least make sure there is close collaboration between the two. This will ensure that the job of managing reviews is performed with the knowledge of social media policies and customer engagement practices.
  • Initiate a new process for checking a wide range of review sites, not just the channels managed by the company. This is critical for those organizations that sell via multiple retail sites, as it allows them to monitor and join the conversation about their products and services across the Web. This way, the company can fully understand what all its customers are saying online and how to best engage with them.

By combining social media efforts with sales and service channels, companies have the opportunity to improve the customer experience and fuel business results—and that's not just hype.

Robert Wollan is the global managing director at Accenture Sales and Customer Services.

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