Meeting Customers Where They Are: When Social Media Misses the Mark

September 15, 2009
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Twitter Fail Whale by MikeBlogs via Flickr

Don’t look now, but I’m about to marginalize social media for CRM. For those of you still reading, I’d like to share a recent client experience with social CRM. The V.P. of Customer Service at a Top 20 U.S. insurance company had a vision for using social media tools to help insurance agents, and then call center reps, to interact with their customers.

This client spent entirely too long Examining the Role of Social Media in Customer Relationships. There were off-site meetings with key executives in marketing, customer support, operations, IT, and sales. There were strategy documents. There were alignment and ownership discussions. There were cocktail confabs, private appeals to the CFO, and even a few ad-hoc debates in private Yammer groups …

Twitter Fail Whale by MikeBlogs via Flickr

Don’t look now, but I’m about to marginalize social media for CRM. For those of you still reading, I’d like to share a recent client experience with social CRM. The V.P. of Customer Service at a Top 20 U.S. insurance company had a vision for using social media tools to help insurance agents, and then call center reps, to interact with their customers.

This client spent entirely too long Examining the Role of Social Media in Customer Relationships. There were off-site meetings with key executives in marketing, customer support, operations, IT, and sales. There were strategy documents. There were alignment and ownership discussions. There were cocktail confabs, private appeals to the CFO, and even a few ad-hoc debates in private Yammer groups.

And yes, there were the social media experts. I sympathized with the two guys who came in to lead a discussion of how social media can be a strategic game-changer. They wore t-shirts and alternately spouted clichés about customer loyalty and the importance of transparency. They had the bad manners to tweet as they presented, but the good sense not to use the client’s name. The tone was “let’s get naked and party—online!” One of the consultants proclaimed, “You can’t do CRM without going social.”

Daring? Yes. True? No. You see, the insurance company had already tried enticing agents to use social media. In turn, the agents tried enticing their customers, many of whom they’d known for years. The fact is that social media, bright and shiny though it may be, is still one of many communications channels. In a survey of agents, most admitted that they were available by phone “during 90 percent of the business day, and often thereafter” but they nevertheless tended to use social media “occasionally or when I’m bored.”

The social media dudes advocated enlisting the CEO who, unsurprisingly, was busy doing things like communicating with Wall Street. (And I’m pretty sure that most of those conversations weren’t done using Twitter.) When he was finally asked to publicly advocate instant messaging accounts for all agents and a corporate Facebook page, he e-mailed his direct reports a missive that said something along the lines of the following (although shorter, and a bit more colorful):

Who are we kidding? Our agents are our channel. We’ll give them every tool they want to engage our customers, but we’re not going to force them to use new tools for the sake of it. They know our customers—it’s their choice.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m all over social media. But when you come right down to it, a company’s effective adoption of social media has everything to do with its knowledge of its customers. As CRM Magazine managing editor Josh Weinberger pointed out in a recent blog post, “that doesn’t mean you’re absolved of the responsibility to maintain the relationship.”

The fact is your customers should dictate the forum via which that relationship is maintained. And who your customers are, their behaviors, their preferences, and their history with you, has everything to do with that. Factors like tenure, demographics, product offerings, branding and other factors tells us that customers of the Auto Club are far less likely to engage the company via social media, and customers of JetBlue—who don’t interact with JetBlue as much as they stay tuned to JetBlue—are more likely to use social media.

And that’s just how the insurer decided to move forward. Our strategy, in essence, was simple:  “In Touch. Inform. Engage. Inquire.” 

We would establish a social media presence and start “pushing” interesting, relevant, and timely communications to an opt-in community of tuned-in customers. We would then gauge who was listening and use that data to refine messages to the customer segments most likely to use social media. Once there was some history and those segments’ habits and preferences were better understood, new segments could be determined where additional social media strategies could be deployed, and see how they were interested in keeping the conversation going.

Call it an experiment. Call it a community prototype. You can even call it “bottom up social media.” But unless you’re meeting customers where they’re at, don’t call it Social CRM.

Photo via MikeBlogs via Flickr

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