• September 20, 2010
  • By Gary Edwards, EVP, client services, Empathica

Anyone Can Post a Status Update

Social networking sites are no longer the domain of merely the tech-savvy teenager, but most businesses — multi-unit bricks-and-mortar retail enterprises in particular — are struggling to learn how to approach and benefit from this new community environment. 

In the retail industry, a pervasive, well-established external site presents both opportunities and challenges. Essentially, social media has taken brand messaging out of the hands of companies and delivered it into the hands of customers, making customer experience management more critical than ever before.

The standards of any brand can be eroded through a dispersion of responsibility across a growing network. This operational challenge is exacerbated by the growing influence of online social networks, where there exists little to no control over the spread of negative commentary about a brand. Viral or word of mouth transmission through social media applications such as Facebook cannot be controlled.

That being said, social media also provides a means for satisfied customers to broadcast their positive experiences. Satisfied customers that have "social influence" can be turned into brand advocates. To create brand advocates, however, you have to truly understand how your customers think and how they respond to your products and services. This goes beyond a simple survey. It requires getting inside the customer's head and mapping out her "customer journey," from the moment she first engages to the period following purchase.

Identifying the "Drivers of the Drivers" of Advocacy

The first step is to identify markers of disaffection, and customer surveys can reveal a likely source of negative word of mouth. Take, for example, the attribute "employees appeared to be enjoying their jobs" — not itself a direct driver of loyalty or of positive praise, but an early warning sign when scores dip that customer disaffection and negative promotion are likely to occur. While these markers do not necessarily provide much insight into the customer's specific purchasing behavior, they allow retailers to take action about potential problem areas that could deter future visits.

Once problem stores have been identified, what needs to be fixed?

Most reputable customer experience management firms will identify the drivers of advocacy, but this is not enough. The answer to a survey question reveals little if you don't have a good understanding of the motivation behind that answer.

It is important to go an extra critical mile in identifying the "drivers of the drivers," or the reasons a customer reacted the way she did. To create actionable insights, brands need to uncover their own unique pathways to success. This work begins with identifying cues in the environment, both behavioral and in design, that lead to winning at the all-important drivers.

How do you get a customer to be highly opinionated about habits she follows and choices she makes? How do you convince her that your offering is better value or quality? The key is to answer these questions so you can get customers to a level of brand insistence.

Moving from "Hearing the Voice of Customers" to "Conversing with Customers"

Campaigning for improvement begins once you know what to focus on. Once you understand your customer, you're able to take that knowledge and begin interacting with her. It is imperative to do this using the customer's language.

Find a way to capture the voice of the customer and code the sentiments (positive or negative) of customers/guests into a proprietary customized brand dictionary. It's just as essential to capture key moments when loyalty is at risk as it is to immediately readdress customers at these moments. No complaint, however small, should be left to fester. Similarly, no positive experience should go by without the opportunity to elicit not only positive reinforcement for the employees involved, but also recommendations for the brand via social media.

Continue to extend your relationship with your social influencers and get a better understanding of who they are. Take a comprehensive look at all the data you have — demographic, survey results, testimonials — and decipher the drivers behind them. With this knowledge comes the power to turn your customers into brand advocates.

Retailers should not be intimidated by new social technologies. In fact, the reach that social media offers can help retailers understand customers and enhance the perception of a brand. Social networking offers retailers the opportunity to engage with their customers at all levels of the business, an opportunity not only to listen, but to interact and engage in dialogue that ultimately improves long-term relationships with customers.


About the Author

Dr. Gary Edwards (gedwards@empathica.com) has led worldwide and domestic projects in customer and employee research for more than 15 years, and is currently the executive vice president of client services at Empathica. He is responsible for oversight of client management, marketing science, and retail insights. For more information, visit http://www.empathica.com.


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