CRM, BPO & Teleservices

The Coming of Social/CRM Convergence

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  July 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

A little over a decade ago e-mail, chat and the Web became viable customer interaction channels and impacted CRM, classified as “eCRM”. They offered an exciting and useful new interaction option to phone calls, faxes, “snail mail”, paper catalogs and in-person retail and meetings. Yet while these text-based “e” means took over some of the customer conversations, most continued on the other channels – the newer and older methods gradually became integrated, and with this eCRM converged with CRM.

A similar process is now underway with the social channel/media i.e. Social CRM.

Vinay Iyer, vice president of SAP (News - Alert) CRM Marketing says that Social CRM offers two advantages to firms. First, it permits following unstructured conversations among customers, or customers and companies. Second, it adds a new touch point to the existing channels.

“Social CRM will not replace the other channels of communications,” Iyer points out. “However, the social CRM category is an important and growing element of the overall CRM approach.”

Once firms have figured out how to successfully fold the social interactions and knowledge with those from the other channels there will be a convergence that incorporates social into CRM akin: to eCRM and CRM. That point has not yet been reached – for most companies.

“Social is a broadened communication channel to connect to the community in new ways, but still within the framework for the business,” explains Ric Pratte, director of Meltwater Buzz. “For the short-term, talking specifically about Social CRM highlights the need to integrate the new reality of social media into the business.”

The Social Drivers

The social channel has enabled customers to discover the social experience in their buying decisions: a practice that had faded over the past 60 years when mass marketing grew and ruled. It has broken down the compartments between customers and companies and between customers. Customers have much more information – though its accuracy can vary – with which to make their choices.

 “Social CRM has brought customers back into the customer equation,” says Fergus Griffin, vice president of Service Cloud product marketing at “Customer interactions have become transparent. The whole world can see how companies are treating their customers. And it is forcing companies to think about their customer first and what their experiences are.”

This openness can be scary to many companies, Mike Merriman, director of Strategic Services at Mzinga points out because they have to give up trying to control the customers’ conversation. Yet firms should not fear it because, if executed properly, it can enhance customer relationships.

“Customers are going to talk whether you are in the room or not,” Merriman points out. “Being in the room, participating in the conversations and not shutting them down provides a level of transparency and an ability to generate and foster trust with customers that they value. It can also make customers raving fans.”

Driving social media and its power is literally the explosive expansion of wireless use that makes it available to anyone, anytime, anywhere and it has accelerated customer commentary – and brand consequences – and presents opportunities. Companies can discover, track and respond to brushfire issues before they become conflagrations or find out what products and services have become hot so they can meet demand. Salespeople can assess – and capitalize on leads in real-time.

“Smart companies use the mobile channel as an additional way to listen and respond to their customers,” says SAP’s Iyer. “The way that companies interact with their customers – demonstrating reliability, trustworthiness and responsiveness – has become a competitive advantage.”

IDing The Social Customer

A key CRM principle is identifying customers to know them and with this, how to most profitably serve them. That is readily done in a call or via e-mail. Yet the social channel is like a store where firms cannot readily identify customers unless the customers announce themselves and/or there is a direct interaction and transaction with them. Customers often, depending on the nature of goods being sold, will build relationships with particular sales staff that then become knowledgeable and attuned to customers’ needs. The challenge is finding out who the customers on social media are to link their social channel and other customer behaviors to get a complete picture of them, their issues and interactions and to establish their value.

Clint Oram co-founder and chief technology officer of SugarCRM sees the social channel performing a vital service in stripping the wall-building-and-maintaining anonymity from customers, prospects – and contact center agents. By connecting identifiable persons who need solutions with experts who have them, both will enjoy a richer quality of online and e-mail interactions historically found only in face-to-face, such as in the retail world.

“You need to know to whom you are talking, to build and maintain a real and valuable relationship,” says Oram.

One key tool that has been developed is social profiles, which is mapping multiple online personas to a single social profile/contact. These are customer profiles that contain their social media handles, comments, conversations, influence ranking and ideally their identifiers that link into their customer records. Contact center agents and others in enterprises such as marketing personnel can then look up this information. They can be alerted to these customer comments, post and/or tweet and this content is then harvested and files automatically updated.“The idea behind social profiles is that if you know someone's Twitter (News - Alert) handle, ultimately you would like to map that social media profile to a single customer contact in your CRM system to provide them with individualized one-on-one service,” explains Griffin. “You can then correlate their products they have and the service you provide to ensure they get what they need.” The Salesforce executive illustrates how the social profile works in a service environment. An anonymous customer tweets about their bank account. A contact center agent responds, saying, “Sorry to hear about this, how I can resolve this?”– an interaction that is typically transitioned into an invitation to a call or e-mail. The customer then interacts with the agent over these channels, the agent solves the issue and then responds to the customer over Twitter, tweeting, “Glad to have that resolved for you, let us know if you have any questions.” 

This tweet is critical as it publicly shows that the issue has been handled, Griffin points out; it is no longer enough in today’s social world just to solve the matter. In the meantime, the contact center has the customer's Twitter handle to contact them, has created and populated the profile with their contact information, and the matter raised and resolved. 

SugarCRM has preinstalled InsideView in its platform, providing its users with immediate access to InsideView’s sales intelligence. The mash up includes customers’ publicly-available financial and contact information. This social profiles captured by InsideView are then mapped to the customer information stored in SugarCRM. 

When these social customers’ identities are unknown Oram reports that tools like Adaptive Intelligence are being developed to automatically unveil anonymous posts that then permit personalized interactions. They will also protect brands he says through spotlighting paid commenters and stopping other guerrilla marketing strategies. 

Yet there are customers who are anonymous for a reason such as employees and journalists and whistleblowers and/or for personal preference. And they may not be happy if their identities are stripped away. Many consumers are already unnerved with having their Web use snooped on and lawmakers are responding. U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), chair of the powerful Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee, has introduced S.913, the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011. If passed it would give consumers the ability to opt out of having their online activities tracked by Internet companies.

Oram believes the deanonymizing drive will create a new class of social media sites that permits users to be anonymous. He points to that specifically allows and encourages such posts in the spirit of whistleblowing.  

“By creating a culture of trust with their users and enforcing it with the corresponding site terms of use, social media sites that cater to the anonymous poster will promote that fact and attract those users,” says Oram.

Yet is deliberate deanonymizing necessary? Jamie Anderson, senior manager of Customer Experience Management, customer marketing at Adobe (News - Alert), points out that firms are looking to target commentators “with influence” and these people tend not to be anonymous. At the same time monitoring both known and unknown commenters have value in providing a pulse of what is happening amongst customers.

“Engaging with those with influence is key to social strategy,” says Anderson. “From the perspective of sentiment analysis, the monitoring of positive and negative sentiment, from a wider pool of posters both anonymous and named, can be useful in determining the effectiveness of service, marketing and product strategies.”

The Social Value

Another key question is how to assess customers' referral values. This is not easy; referral value varies from company. They can be derived by examining through social media monitoring how active customers are on social media, how many followers and what kinds comments are they making and how often.

“Depending on customers' roles and types of participation such as numbers of followers and friends, blog posts companies can then extrapolate from that as to how many new people turn on or off a brand in a given year,” says Griffin.

A related issue set is how to monitor and sift through the massive verbiage on social media to get to the commentary nuggets. Firms must not only be listening but know what to listen for. There are solutions being developed and deployed. For example, SAP BusinessObjects helps companies analyze vast volumes of data very quickly to get business insights.

“The challenges for companies today include where to look for new data and how to spot new places of conversations in the quickly evolving social media landscape,” says SAP CRM’s Iyer. “It remains difficult to obtain a consolidated view of conversations that are happening in multiple communities and multiple languages. However, tools and technologies are evolving quickly and today’s challenges will soon be a non-issue.”

Salesforce's acquisition in March 2011 of Radian6 and incorporating that software into Service Cloud 2 gives it and its customers that capability. Radian6 monitors public and company-sponsored social media sites for comments and companies filter out what matters to them, positive, neutral and negative, including flagging and alerting staff to self-defined critical issues. It also has automatic social business rules that fire certain issues to right agents with right expertise. The Radian6/Service Cloud 2 mash up works with social profiles by reporting social comments back into those on each customer. This way the next time they interact with firms companies have a richer picture not just in CRM database but in their social world, enabling them to analyze customer patterns. “Companies now realize they have to smartly monitor, measure manage the information they are finding on social channels and be able to track trends over time, just like any other CRM data,” says Griffin.

Multichannel Integration

To be effective in meeting customers’ needs, the social channel, and social CRM needs to be integrated with the other channel. Implementing it therefore requires contact centers: with well-trained staff that follow carefully written policies that govern what they say and do on the channel as agents’ words can affect their employers’ brand and image at lightning speed.

Iyer says a company that receives a customer complaint via Twitter about performance issues for one of their products might not be able to resolve the problem by simply tweeting back; 140 characters are not always enough. The solution might be achieved through various conversations with the customers, via phone, chat and appointments.

“The response – using the customers’ preferred channel – is only the first step towards the resolution of the problem,” says Iyer.

Matt Trifiro, senior vice president, marketing at Assistly points out that some social channel discussions are more appropriately handled in private, whether in a semi-private group on a company-hosted site or one on one in e-mails, live chats or by calls with contact center agents. They can place links to support inboxes, in tweets or sending direct messages to customer, offering private live chat.

“The goal of a contact center should be to bridge seamlessly from one medium to another, in order to direct the conversation to the right place,” recommends Trifiro.

[Sidebar] Community Versus Managed

There is a debate between how best to connect to customers via social media. The choices have principally been via corporate-hosted managed sites or reaching out to them on open public community sites such as Facebook (News - Alert), LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

Matt Trifiro, senior vice president of marketing at Assistly points out that, “You can’t put the Twitter genie back in the bottle”. Therefore public interaction and wide open posts are going to be part of future customer exchanges. Even so some discussions are more appropriately handled in a semi-private group on a company-hosted site or via contact center agents.

The choice, appropriately enough, lies where customers go and that varies by industry, Fergus Griffin, vice president of Service Cloud product marketing at points out. He observes that in financial services Facebook and Twitter is popular, consumer electronics users have their own blogs and forums. Meanwhile online gaming firms often hosts their own live community in the context of the game. What he is seeing overall are companies opening Facebook pages as an alternative to company hosted websites, “because social channels are where their customers are.”

Mike Merriman, director of Strategic Services at Mzinga sees benefits in both company-sponsored and open social communities. Of the two company-sponsored offers, the most tangible ROI is archivable, permits ready discussions by both the companies and participants and is looked after and maintained. It can also have persistence, being available for search and knowledge transfer long after the discussion has ended.

“Open sites are not necessarily communications,” says Merriman. “Posting an anonymous comment may have appeal for some, but is only communication if there is closure.  Communication is ‘I’m saying something and the person on the other end acknowledges and understands’, which does not happen as readily on open sites as opposed to company-sponsored sites.  Open forums such as Facebook, Twitter, review and fan driven sites add value due to their non-biased nature and can encourage more lively discussions.”

There is a place for both open social conversations and private communities, says Ric Pratte, director at Meltwater Buzz. With the proliferation of open social media channels many consumers though would prefer to discuss their interests and needs outside the walls of one brand in order to improve objectivity.

Firms must be careful in how they use their sponsored sites though. They will grow as long as the sponsors do not overly monitor or cripple conversations on the site and uses it as a true community environment points Hank Barnes, principal, product marketing, Customer Experience Management solutions at Adobe.

“The minute a company starts to control the conversation, it will stop,” he warns. “If too many companies do it, then the rise of company-hosted sites will also stop.”

Sage, like many businesses, is using both its own communities and open social channels like Facebook and Twitter, reports Larry Ritter, senior vice president and general manager at Sage CRM Solutions. The firm often directs commenters from its open channels to their freely accessible communities to provide a collection point and enable collaboration built upon the wealth of information they can benefit from.

“Admittedly, what people say is not always flattering but having the visibility is better than not,” says Ritter. “Other times an immediate response on an open channel is best. Here monitoring and measuring again comes into play, which will help businesses determine if one format outweighs the other in the future.”

B2B versus B2C Social CRM

The Social CRM trend has largely been B2C. This is changing though as businesses catch up by tapping the intelligence on prospects available via sites like LinkedIn (News - Alert).

CRM suppliers are responding. For example, SugarCRM has now preinstalled InsideView in its platform, providing its users with immediate access to InsideView’s sales intelligence. InsideView’s platform aggregates and draws relevance from the huge quantity of business information available in tens of thousands of worldwide business publications – including social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and blogs.

“Consumers are more fluid than businesses; they require constant attention and response,” says Clint Oram co-founder and chief technology officer at SugarCRM. “However businesses are stickier because of the deeper relationships. I see social media algorithms being developed to measure the frequency and quality of interactions in the B2B world, giving companies deeper insight into customer satisfaction and potential churn within their business customers.”


The following companies assisted in the preparation of this article:








Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi