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Meg Bear, group vice president of Oracle Social Cloud, uses an interesting term when she discusses the role of listening in the customer relationship: humility. That doesn't come up often when discussing enterprise software, but Bear stands behind it as being a catalyst for a customer-centric business.

“Customers are trying to tell you what they want -- they’re giving you breadcrumbs. With humility and listening, you’ll be on to the right thing,” said Bear during a presentation at last month's Pivotcon.

Humility wasn't the only quality Bear mentioned. Respect also made an appearance. As did authenticity. What Bear is looking at is a change in mindset, that requires businesses to open up to hearing what may not be the message they want to promote, to listening to the themes and topics that arise in their customer's (and would be customers) conversations in social forums, and then being open and ready to make changes based on this listening. 

It Comes Down to Preparation

Of course it takes more than using these "soft" skills to make a social strategy work. For Phil Colley, social media strategist at General Motors, it comes down to three factors: structure, organization and tools.

Having the structure in place means that Colley and his colleagues are prepared in times of crisis. GM has been no stranger to crisis. When it issued a recall almost nine months ago due to faulty ignition switches, GM's social channels played a large part in handling customer concerns, questions and complaints. The existence of a three pronged process meant the difference between ramping up and acting versus scrambling to put new processes in place. The process listed clear priorities: informing customers, connecting customers to the right division and keeping GM dealers up to date through digital toolkits.    

Colley gives credit to social's support and integration throughout the company: "everybody touches social." The company witnessed early on the power of social to connect with its audience, with the publication of its FastLane blog in 2005. With the success of the blog, every brand created its own social channel, its own blog. Social grew organically throughout the company, but it also grew out of control. A governance plan was set in place to aid in alignment.

Alignment was also needed in the technology realm. Before General Motors became an Oracle Social Cloud client, it had "125 different tools, none of them talking to each other, none of them talking to the CRM," said Colley. The move to the Social Cloud allowed Colley "to focus on what he needed to be focusing on" and opened up an internal social channel for employees to discuss solutions for customers.  

Differentiate Yourself 

Colley's assessment of the automobile landscape would probably be unheard of 15 years ago. "The vehicles from every auto maker are very good across the industry." And yet this sentiment comes up more and more often, no matter what the industry. Businesses are no longer competing on the basis of their products -- the differentiating factor comes down to the relationships with the customer.

Bear shares an example of how social listening -- combined with the openness to use that input to provoke change -- can deliver for customers and companies. A community manager at children's toy maker LeapFrog started noticing customer comments on a discontinued line of alphabet refrigerator magnets. People missed them, discussed past experiences buying them for a niece or nephew and in general asked "why did you ditch this product?" The community manager brought these conversations from the social channels to product. The company reissued the toy.

For those still struggling for the hard return on social efforts, Bear made it clear that social should not be seen as a standalone item, "Social is an enablement tool for your broader customer goals. They're tied to KPIs, they're tied to broader strategic goals." What businesses need to do when trying to assess the ROI question is ask, "What is our investment in the customer experience and how is that impacting the bigger strategic picture?"  

About That Technology and Stuff

Last week Rikk Wilde, regional zone manager for General Motors in the Kansas City area, was tapped to present San Francisco Giants pitched Madison Bumgarner, MVP of the World Series, with a new Chevy truck. When it came time to hand over the keys to the truck, Wilde froze. Index cards in hand, Wilde ad libbed to describe the truck's capabilities as "technology and stuff."

PR gaffe? It looked at first like it might be.

But after a few hours, the tide turned. GM noticed the hashtag #technologyandstuff and #chevyguy taking off on social channels as people came out in support of Wilde. We've all been nervous before a presentation, but not many of us have those nerves caught before a televised audience estimated at 23.5 million people. The company ran with it, overdubbing commercials with "technology and stuff," and adding it to the Chevrolet.com homepage.

Sometimes humility means being able to have a little fun, even at your own expense.

Title image by Tim Pierce  (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license.