More than twenty years ago, United Airlines came out with a powerful TV commercial that is very relevant today to all of us in the business of building social enterprise solutions -- especially at a time when customer experience should be at or near the top of all of our priority lists for the New Year and beyond.


In the United ad, which some of us may remember airing (and which others of us may be too young to remember -- so kudos to YouTube!), a corporate manager soberly addresses his team about improving customer relationships and briskly starts passing out airline tickets to each of his charges. While doing so, he explains that the first step to doing a better job for customers lies in actually meeting with them face-to-face (not over the phone), to truly understand their day-to-day work lives and needs.

Fast forward to early 2012, and the simple message behind this 1989 ad is worth serious consideration by all of us in the social enterprise space: to develop solutions that provide great customer experiences, there really is no replacement for actually getting to know our customers -- and to do so in person!

Productivity & Customer Intimacy Go Hand in Hand

Taking a small step back, the greater mission of social enterprise solutions is almost always some version of making employees (the "customers" in context of this article) more productive. To do this, organizations need to truly commit to getting in front of their "customers," to see what they’re really doing and/or needing on a day-to-day basis. In today’s era of fast-changing technologies and demands for quick turnarounds, taking the time to get to know "customers" seems almost quaint, but is critical.

Obvious as it may sound, to help improve productivity, those of us who build social enterprise solutions need to observe the day-to-day work lives of our customers and build solutions that cater to specific employee needs and areas of emphasis, no matter if we’re in-house or consulting externally. For example, in the world of retail the most successful merchants are those who not only monitor how many customers come through the door, but also what the customer traffic patterns are within a given store. Based on this level of customer intimacy, the retailers then allocate product placement and shelving appropriately. Similarly, we who develop social enterprise solutions should do so not just based on the fact that employees/customers are "there" (and make assumptions about what we THINK they need), but to tailor whatever we do to address specific activities, whether basic communication, more complex collaboration and information/document sharing and so forth.

Face-to-Face Means Everything

Otherwise, you're missing the human touch. Conference calls, virtual conferences, electronic meetings and so forth are all great and have a place in the scheme of things, but sometimes there’s nothing that can replace or replicate face-to-face interaction. Take the time and effort to really see what your employees are doing, learn patterns and apply your development resources to address what you observe in person, not something you assume or think your technology can simply solve because it’s great technology.

One Size Fits All Just Doesn’t Fit

Now, more than ever, companies and consultants fall into the common trap of thinking that a one size fits all approach is a great and efficient way to economically address any number of challenges. This is not the case in the world of developing truly effective social enterprise solutions. We all need to take this seriously in order to champion solutions that really do make our customers’ workplace lives more efficient.

Each Business is Unique as are the Ultimate Customers

In terms of being unique, each company has a distinct culture, processes and other internal systems. While technology obviously creates efficiencies that are tempting to deploy in as many ways as possible, the social enterprise requires true and deep customization. Again, a critical first step is to put as many people as possible in front of customers, play close attention to their unique needs and develop your sites accordingly.

Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Within the enterprise, IT organizations are historically behind the eight-ball with regard to meeting user needs -- so, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In these organizations, users require solutions to fit their needs and then IT is stuck reactively implementing them or a version of them into their overall ecosystem. To their credit, a Fortune 500 hospitality brand recently expressed to us a genuine desire to get ahead of this curve. First and foremost, they needed to fully address the immediate needs of their employees and users by truly getting to know them and their day-to-day requirements. Secondly, they wanted to work to stay ahead of the curve by regularly assessing employee needs and providing functionality behind the corporate firewall for specific things like document collaboration, task management and co-authoring.

Needs Change

Making an up-front priority to get in front of customers/employees is great, but it’s important to remember that in-person investments aren’t a one time happening. Enterprises and their employees have complex and evolving needs and we all need to stay on top of this: make an annual (or even more frequent) commitment to assess customer needs through in-person visits and observation. Yes, it will cost time and money, but it ultimately supports a better and more productive customer experience.

I’ll explore this further in future articles, but it’s important to remember that switching contexts is not worth it for employees/customers. Reactively deploying 15 apps for 15 different employee needs doesn’t make sense, creates a jumbled customer experience and is disruptive for all involved. Instead, develop a unified experience in a framework that supports customization along the way -- and base this on what you see from your in-person investments in your customer relationships!

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to look ahead and back -- and to make a commitment to in-person investments in the social enterprise. The corporate manager in the United Airlines ad was really onto something back in 1989!

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