Improving the Customer Experience with Social Media

According to recent research from the Society for New Communications Research, almost 60% of consumers use social media to vent about a customer experience, and 74% of consumers choose brands based on the customer experiences their peers share online. In addition, recent figures from Nielsen show social networks and blogs have finally surpassed e-mail in popularity, making “member communities” the front-running online communications tool worldwide. Leading the current social growth numbers is Twitter, which alone reported 1,400 percent year-over-year growth from February 2008 to February 2009. Collectively, these numbers all reveal that consumers are increasingly turning to social forums more than ever, which in turn has made these platforms influential forces for change.

Though social media is a collective action, in actuality, it’s the result of millions of individual dialogues. Listening to and engaging in these conversations is the key to customer relations success.

Customer Communication

It’s been well established that maintaining customer happiness and loyalty comes through listening to your clientele. Before the new millennium, companies listened to customers through a variety of mediums. Customer communication was handled either in-person or by mail, through picking up the phone or even by sending a fax. Call centers were developed strictly to handle the large number of customer service calls from around the globe.

The challenge with this old-school approach is inherent: customer contact and problem resolution is completely reactive. A catalyst must first take place to motivate the customer enough to contact the call center and devote time to getting the problem resolved. The brand is already at a disadvantage because the customer is frustrated at the start of the communication process. Luckily for everyone, times have changed.

As evidenced by the overall explosion of social communities, the Web has opened a new medium of customer communication, one in which brands can listen and participate directly and proactively with consumers worldwide. As consumers use social media to discuss their customer experiences, brands are now empowered to reach out before customer service is contacted to mitigate communications crises.

Listen First, Engage Second

As with any form of communication, improving the customer experience begins with listening. Monitoring social media conversations to garner key insight and data into consumer sentiment should be an integral part to any corporation communications strategy. To better understand the millions of conversations happening online daily, brands are increasingly turning to automated monitoring tools to gather, analyze and deliver actionable data. However, tools are simply an enabler; internal processes must also be put in place to make a social media strategy effective.

One of the more prominent  and pioneering brands leading the listening charge online is Comcast, which, via its Twitter profile @comcastcares, actively monitors the micro-blogging site for any signs of customer discontent. Through this practice, and Comcast’s internal processes that has allowed the cable giant to engage in a timely manner, the company Comcast has helped set the standard for online corporate involvement with consumers.

Once brands monitor the social space, they can begin to identify and engage with consumers online proactively, before a negative and public dialogue has the chance to proliferate. 

The true value of monitoring, however, is found in applying the insights garnered from listening into corporate strategies. Social media must permeate across an organization’s traditional silos, from public relations to customer service, from human resources to product development. Thus, a collective, flexible and dynamic strategy to monitoring, learning and engaging in this new media is crucial to competitive success.

Hearing the Voice of the Customer

The ultimate goal, of course, is to make sure companies accurately hear the voice of the customer in all online conversations. Significant progress has been made in the fast-moving marketplace, but with two-thirds of all companies yet to establish a voice of the customer program, it’s clear we have yet to reach the social media “Promised Land.”

Business success in the coming years will require companies to harness the power of online dialogue, as even the youngest and oldest members of society will turn to social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs to connect and collaborate in real time communities. Companies that engage with consumers will find that they have the ability to guide their brand; those that don’t will ultimately find their brand disconnected from the company.

Blake Cahill is senior vice president of marketing for Visible Technologies, headquartered in Seattle, a leading provider of social media analysis and engagement software solutions.