This article originally appeared in the Jan. 2012 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions
Facebook (News - Alert), Twitter, LinkedIn… everyone is on them, or so it seems, using these social networks to share their pictures and experiences with friends, family, colleagues, and by extension, the world. But what happens when those experiences are commentary on products or services from your business?
Whether positive or negative, whether a 140-character or 140-word commentary, as a manager or corporate executive, do you want to know what your customers are saying? Should you want to know? And if yes, what is the best way to collect that information, and what do you do with it once you have collected it?
These are questions that should be on the minds of every business manager today. Yet, it’s difficult to determine not only how to engage in social media as a business, but even to understand how to begin. Unfortunately, there is little real perspective to be gained from market experience due to the infancy of social media as a business tool.
“There is a lot of hype,” notes Christian Goffi, strategic communications consultant and social media global program lead at Avaya. “Businesses understand there is something that needs to be done, but the perception of what social media really entails is still quite limited.”
In many cases, businesses build a Facebook page or start a Twitter (News - Alert) feed, but get stuck after that. They don’t know how to build followers effectively or how to engage their audiences effectively with their outbound social media. Nor do they have an understanding of how to track social media discussions that involve their businesses, or what to do with them if they do somehow track them. They are in the very early stages of social media maturity.
“I am asked quite often about best practices for operationalizing social media,” says Andrew Maher, managing principal and strategic communications consulting and social media for Avaya (News - Alert). “There really are none because it’s such a new area that is changing very quickly, and businesses have a hard time understanding what effect it will have on their businesses.”
Helping businesses identify that impact and how to appropriately address it is one of the major initiatives for Avaya Advisory Services, which has developed a multi-phase process to help guide businesses as they seek to understand social media.
Social Media Presence
It begins with understanding the current state: Where are we, and what are we currently doing? The answers vary greatly. Some have done nothing. Some have set up Facebook pages to help promote certain initiatives. Some may have assigned specific staff to follow social media mentions. And still others may have disparate groups or individuals within the company engaging or listening on their own. The latter tends to be the most common today.
“There are pockets, little groups within companies, that are creating their own presence and pushing out information,” says Goffi. “It’s disjointed, it’s not coordinated, but it’s happening, and they have a presence out there.”
One of the reasons there is limited understanding about how to manage social media is businesses have no control over it. The community at large is able to engage and comment without any input or solicitation from businesses. Nor do businesses have any control over who reads that commentary -- it’s exposed to the world, and all current and prospective customers.
Thus, while it may be uncoordinated, having an initial presence is important because it means businesses already have people listening and understanding what customers are saying about them. While responses may not be standardized, they are interacting with customers with the intent of providing assistance. If there’s one thing that can be said about customers, especially dissatisfied ones, the one thing they desire more than anything is recognition of their causes. The first step in managing social media within a business is knowing what is being said, both internally and from you customers.
“Whether you like it or not and whether you push it or not, things are going to be said about you, especially in areas in which you have a recognized brand,” agrees Goffi. “Listening will allow you to understand where you are from a presence state perspective.”
Before businesses can make intelligent decisions about their social media strategy – including whether they even wants a formal program – they must build an awareness of the conversations that are already taking place. Without that knowledge, they cannot determine the scope of their opportunities.
Awareness is, perhaps, the easiest of the steps in the social media maturity process. What to do next is more complex and requires not only an assessment of the social activity that is already taking place, but also development of social strategy and the impact on personnel and infrastructure. According to Maher, nearly three-quarters of customers he deals with have a minimal presence and need help understanding where social conversations are taking place, and what their customers, business partners, and competitors are doing and on which social channels.
Engagement isn’t as simple as it might seem. While some groups or individuals may already be listening or engaging to a degree, pulling it into the core operational structure requires coordination, standardization and training. Why?
Social conversations, by definition, take place in public forums, but companies have to be careful of how to handle the chatter they hear. You wouldn’t inject yourself into a conversation two strangers are having in a coffee shop, just because they happen to mention your company. Why would you do it in the social space?
This is why corporate strategy is critical. Social engagement can’t be faked. It immediately puts your business in the public light, exposing values, culture, and commitment to the world. Social presence must run parallel to the overall corporate presence, which requires development of social strategy in order to understand, build, and convey the business rules that will guide social engagement.
“Once you get into an engaged phase, you start to build intelligence around what is being said, who is saying it, where are they saying it, and how are they saying it,” Goffi explains. “These really become the drivers of finding a strategy around social media.”
Fundamental to that strategy is determining who should be engaging in social conversation and how and, importantly, how it will be utilized in different parts of the organization. Customer service, marketing, IT, and sales will all likely have different social agendas. They all have to be combined into the corporate strategy to allow each group to function independently under a prescribed set of guidelines.
“Setting up the right organizational model is key,” says Goffi. “It’s not so much a single point of validation or restriction, but teams being built to build uniformity in activities while, at the same time, allowing each entity within an enterprise to retain its own identity.”
Often, the instinctive reaction is to have younger employees handle social media. This is a medium born from the younger generation, which tends to be more engaged in their personal lives and understands social lingo and conventions.
But, with an understanding of social channels comes an awareness of their viral nature and the risk factors that go along with that scale. When it comes to corporate messaging, every business group is trained in how to engage customers appropriately, from sales staff to call center agents to media representatives. This most often leads to a more prudent and mature approach, which entails finding the best equipped staff to provide the best answers in the shortest amount of time. The realization is that social is easier to teach than corporate responsibility.
“There’s a strong consensus with companies that are considered to be leading edge towards experience over youth when it comes to social response,” says Goffi.
Working with Social Data
So once you’ve determined who the appropriate individuals are to handle social media and have started the corporate engagement process, what do you do with the information you collect about what’s being said in the social cloud?
It’s one thing to know there are 2,500 comments that relate to your business or your market segment in a week. It’s another to turn those into business intelligence. The next step in the maturity process is recognizing the need for analysis and determining which interactions should be prioritized for action. Not all social comments require reaction. Most, in fact, should become part of an aggregate data set for deeper trend analysis.
“There’s a goldmine of information that can be used to better understand a customer base,” says Goffi.
That’s not to say individual conversations aren’t important – they are. An important part of social analysis includes determining which of the 2,500 conversations make sense for individual response.
“It’s still about the fact that individuals are making those comments,” adds Maher. “There might be more to the story, so you need to analyze and potentially respond.”
It’s a massive undertaking, and the truth is the majority of individual mentions that end up warranting response tend towards the negative. While it is a natural defensive mechanism, identifying and reacting to individual negative sentiment shows a proactive attitude and, more importantly, a desire to help customers. By taking the appropriate actions, companies have the potential to quickly turn detractors into advocates. And that’s what social media is really about today – building an advocacy base.
“It’s about customer service and handling the individual right and then measuring reaction on the back end,” says Goffi. “Social media really is about individual management of customer experience.”
This is where technology comes in. While the interactions are human-initiated, much of the analysis and routing work can be automated and integrated into other customer service infrastructures.
Avaya has developed a text processing engine that understands the social language and helps identify what’s happening in the social channel. Tightly integrated into Avaya Aura Contact Center, Social Media Manager integrates relevancy analysis that identifies critical social mentions and turns them into actionable customer service tickets that are routed to the appropriate representative with all relevant information.
That includes contextual detail helping agents respond more quickly and effectively. Context can mean identifying existing customers and their history, people’s social history and followership, and other details that help drive business intelligence.
It’s also integrated with the relevant social media platforms, allowing reps to use the interface with which they are already comfortable, but then respond via the customer’s preferred social outlet. Both remain in their own comfort zone, helping to induce a positive interaction.
The Social Imperative
There are hundreds of millions of social users in the world that are making comments every day, many of which might be relevant to an organization. There are also a wide range of tools available to help manage business social activity. Does that mean every business needs to engage in social media? Not necessarily. But, every business should, at the very least listen to what is being said and evaluate those conversations to determine whether they should implement a social media strategy.
“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Maher. “They may not want to be in social media, but their customers have brought them there. Every business needs to have some position, even if that position is ‘I’m not going to participate,’” says Maher. “They need to have an understanding of what is relevant to them, just as they do when they decide to offer e-mail access or 800 numbers.”
“Every company needs to assess the situation and determine what they want to do,” adds Goffi. “The value may not be as apparent now, but it may be there in the future, so it’s important to have that awareness. That exercise does need to happen.”
Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Editorial Director of TMC, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to 2,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page. Follow Erik on Twitter @elinask.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi