Customer Service, the New Marketing in the Era of the Social Customer

November 30, 2011
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Okay, I’m not the first person to write about this idea, but it has been on my mind lately, so I wanted to share my perspective on what I think is a very important change that is starting to occur for businesses and customers.
The social customer is a term that is used quite a lot these days and represents an attitude shift that has spread quickly.

Okay, I’m not the first person to write about this idea, but it has been on my mind lately, so I wanted to share my perspective on what I think is a very important change that is starting to occur for businesses and customers.
The social customer is a term that is used quite a lot these days and represents an attitude shift that has spread quickly. Businesses are acknowledging that they must change customer service to meet the expectation that service be offered “when, where and how” the customer wants it and not just in ways that are defined and controlled by the business. Dealing with the social customer by providing them with choice of channels / methods and by having presence online where the customers are, is an imperative that cannot be ignored. The social web has returned power to the customer.

There’s more to it than just changing expectations and even the shifts in power though. Connectivity has enabled personalization that rivals the days of main street and the “mom and pop” business model where everybody knew everybody, only now at scale. Online sharing and the subsequent data collection, analysis and use has created an new type of personal experience that customers now expect. There is also a fundamental change in how customers get information and do research on brands / products / services.

The social web created a sense of community that facilitates trust relationships that serve as ready sources of information about all sorts of things. No longer do customers go first to sources you control, instead they turn to facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. And it’s not just a Business to Consumer (BtoC) proposition either. Business to Business (BtoB) is still, in the end, person to person and falls prey to the same issues. Face it, you don’t control the message anymore.  

The other big change is that the recession and continuing economic uncertainty is making people and businesses hyper-aware of how and where they are spending scarce resources. Value is even more important that usual in this environment and because of that, a poor customer experience will turn customers away even faster than before. Higher expectations, loss of control of the message, new technology that enables online connectivity in real time / all the time, growing influence of peer to peer networks and a hyper-focus on value…all of these things add up to customers with extremely low tolerance for mistakes. This new customer looks for conversations and by that, I really mean 2-way communication not broadcast messaging. Screw this up and guess what, often they won’t tell you, but they will tell the rest of the world online (and often look for a new source of whatever they used to get from you). 

Good customer experiences are your best marketing today in the world of the social customer. Word of mouth was always an effective marketing strategy but with the social web it takes on new meaning and new power. In this new world, brand advocates can be easier to create but they are also much easier to lose, and have a global megaphone at their disposal.

So what can you do?

1. First, kill the internal silos (yes, I know, easy for me to say. Changing culture is hard, but a very important part of being ready to engage more effectively with your customers)! Collaboration, or getting and keeping all of your employees on a consistent message and  view as well as involving your whole organization in the new customer experience focus is the best recipe for success.

2. Remember (or learn) that conversation is 2-way and not about broadcasting louder across new channels. Put that as the foundation for all of your service efforts (and product design, marketing, sales…). Marketing should become less push and more dialog, in fact the strategy for services, marketing, sales, product development, etc., is really about ask – listen – respond – repeat.

3. Listen and focus on what matters to customers. Don’t try to be everything to everybody, it’s not possible anyway.

4. Create advocates, which comes from providing positive experiences and using the ask – listen – respond formula. 

5. Leverage the power of community through public social networks and through dedicated brand communities.

On the public social web you have to be where your customers are and you have to listen and respond. You can also create your own communities and create an even richer customer experience. Building and focusing on customer experience creates the best marketing, word of mouth / influence marketing, and that comes, in no small way, from exceptional customer service delivered “when, where and how” the customers chooses.