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October 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 5
CRM, BPO & Teleservices

A CRM Insider’s Views on Social Media,Facebook and Web 2.0

By David Sims,
Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

David van Toor, senior vice president and general manager, Sage CRM Solutions North America, recently sat down to share some advice for creating online communities.

You’ve been in your role as Sage CRM Solutions senior vice president and general manager for just over a year now. What have you been focusing on?
DvT: Ensuring our customers have a consistent experience whenever they contact us has been my primary focus. To start with, I’ve been working on relationships with our customers, building them, mending some, advancing others. There is much for me to tend to. A big part of my role is furthering connection with customers. We’re finding, like many organizations, that social media tools, when applied properly, are a powerful way to engage in conversations with our customers.

DS: What specific tools are you using?
DvT: The main tool we’re using is an online community. We introduced one for our ACT! contact and customer management software customers in late January of this year. In the first seven months we had more than six million page views which, we’re told by Lithium, the vendor that enables the community technology for us, is great volume for a community in its infancy. There’s definitely an ongoing dialogue with our customers occurring. I’m involved frequently through my blog, which resides on the community. It provides a way to have one-to-one conversations with all our customers.

DS: Are you fielding how-to questions, complaints, feature requests?
DvT: All of the above, and here’s where you start to see the strength in numbers and benefits of an active community. There is the potential to develop an enormous amount of resident knowledge on an active community. When this is the case, and someone posts a question, they’ll usually get an answer within the hour or at least that day. The quantity and quality of knowledge increases while the time required to assist customers, or for customers to help each other, decreases. This nets mutual productivity for customer and vendor in time and cost savings terms, a language everyone understands. Aim to let customers answer each other’s questions, but when a question is unanswered, a support team should step in and assist.

What best practices do you recommend for building an online customer community?
DvT: What’s most important is the various forms of collaboration, the human factors really, that will comprise how people interact on the community. It is wise to “know thy customer” well, so you can confirm how they want to communicate with you and their peers. This will lead you to a short list of technologies and features that can deliver on these preferences. It all sounds simple enough, but don’t skip important steps. Completing the due diligence of profiling and asking your customers, checking out the potential community activities of competitors, and researching social media trends is worth the time investment. The next criteria for success is simply community activity. A static forum, no matter how graphically slick and interactive it may appear, does nothing to achieve customer connectivity. There is a domino effect that needs to happen, all initiated by educating your team and careful planning. Social media certainly allows for some trial and error, so don’t let a missing piece of the puzzle paralyze your momentum. I’m just encouraging sound decision making. Keep your customers and your business objectives in mind.

What pitfalls should businesses avoid?
DvT: I believe in philosophies similar to those summarized by Forrester (News - Alert) Research analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in their recent book, Groundswell, about social technologies. The biggest failures with online communities — or any social media tool — are the classic cart before the horse or “build it and they will come” syndromes. If you get excited about a particular type of Web technology and try to force fit your customer relationships into that model, you’re likely heading for disaster. You and your customers will be much better served by first agreeing on what kind of conversation to have and where to have it — consider your main objectives, benefits you hope to receive, specific types of information to be shared, considerations like that.

What are your thoughts regarding Facebook as a business engagement model for individuals as well as the masses?
Personally, I feel that is the equivalent of a life insurance salesperson walking into a birthday party and soliciting sales. It’s just bad form. I believe we like separation between our work and social lives. That said, and as just previously mentioned, there is a time, place, and way in which different types of groups like to communicate. Facebook clearly is a successful model for many people and their social groups, it’s just not presently for me or the type of business experience I’m looking to provide.

DS: What other trends are you seeing emerge as a result of the Web 2.0 era?
DvT: From a business perspective, we’re recognizing that many products and services today need to deliver more unique value on top of their core offering. This need is only going to grow. Consider young adults in their twenties as they enter the business world. They’re not buying Microsoft (News - Alert) Office, they’re using Google apps for free. Take the commoditization of formerly disruptive technologies as another example. We used to pay hundreds of dollars to get GPS in our cars, yet again Google (News - Alert) delivers this to your smart phone for free.

The examples go on an on. Think Netflix, iTunes, and almost any Web-originating product or service. We’re now thinking this way and responding to heightened customer expectations too. Our own customers can now subscribe to their preferred product edition and level of support on an annual basis. As new upgrades of their registered product become available, they get them automatically. This is what our entrepreneurial and small business customers have been telling us they want, so we’re giving it a try.

– David Sims is contributing editor, Customer Interaction Solutions magazine.

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