The customer has always been king, but social media -- Facebook, Twitter, texts, chat, forums and email -- have profoundly affected customer expectations, giving them more power and influence and changing customer relationship management in ways we could never have imagined even a decade ago.

Companies of all stripes need to change their thinking, reassess their strategies and adopt new tools, or risk alienating customers, and as a consequence, lose market share. How have the ground rules changed and what should companies be doing to manage relationships and retain customers in the social world? 

Don't Put Lipstick on a Pig


Social is a game changer in myriad ways, so don't make the mistake of thinking your company can simply learn to navigate Facebook or regularly update its website and call it a day. Managing customer relationships in a social media environment requires companies to understand and respond to a new customer dynamic as well as new technology.

Ten years ago, it wasn't unusual for a customer to wait a day for a returned phone call and an answer to a question. Now, customers are accustomed to instantaneous communication through social mediums, and expect nothing less from a company's interaction with them. So, companies have to up the ante -- they need to be active on a whole host of social tools like chat, Twitter and SMS, and respond to inquiries promptly.

Every Customer is Social

The trappings of a social interaction -- it's very public nature, immediacy and ability to spread virally -- can prompt companies to treat social customers differently than those that communicate via more conventional mediums (e.g. the telephone). In their quest to avoid negative online reviews and comments (and experience all the attending fallout associated with them) companies often respond to social inquiries more quickly and effectively than conventional ones.

That may be one of the biggest customer relationship mistakes a company can make. The customers that choose to communicate using conventional mediums still live in a social world, and very likely have the same expectations that customers using social mediums do.

Regardless of the channel that customers choose for communications, companies need to view them holistically, and address and treat them all equally. While the social "blow up" or online rant may be more publicly painful than the wrath of a customer on the phone, the impact of either is equally damaging to a company's bottom line.

Knowledge is the Currency of Retention

Since social media raises the responsiveness bar dramatically, it is essential to respond to customer inquiries promptly -- but speed alone is not enough. If companies want customers to keep coming back, they must have mechanisms in place to respond to inquiries both promptly and knowledgeably. Fortunately, the resources you need for knowledgeable responses exist within your organization, it just takes some doing to find, verify and share them.

The larger or more dispersed a company, the more challenging it becomes to determine where information resides, to verify its accuracy and to do so in a timely manner. That's where social within your organization comes into play. Information silos and departmental walls aren't suited to the immediacy of the social culture. Instead, companies need to develop and employ more open and diverse platforms that employees can use to develop, refine and share answers to customer inquiries. These platforms might include:

  • Blogs and Micro-blogs -- Colleagues can blog to share knowledge and updates, and actively collaborate around problems and solutions.
  • Wikis -- Wikis are a great tool for employees to collaborate and create knowledge banks. Teams of people can easily create, enhance and publish content making it available for others to use.
  • Internal Discussion Forums -- Internal forums are ideal for online discussions across the enterprise. People can discuss topics of shared interest or ask questions to find a solution.

Other tools such as expertise locators, information ratings and reputation mechanisms can help in identifying, developing and vetting content. Once content has been created, its verification and certification can be managed by workflow and approval tools. Great ideas become answers when they go through an approval process and are endorsed and shared by the organization.

Customers May Be Some of your Best Employees

As more customers turn to social mediums for research and support, community forums become an increasingly important part of their experience. In fact, companies that fail to provide a community do both themselves and their customers a disservice. Companies should listen to and participate in customer conversations -- then use and act on the feedback. Customer insights, when paired with that of employees, provide a valuable, full circle view of knowledge.

The full range of knowledge gleaned from social, both within and outside of a company, needs to harnessed, optimized and redistributed to be truly valuable. By combining data from external communities and internal collaboration with a robust knowledge base, companies can meaningfully use social data to attract and retain customers and improve operational performance.

Good Social Provides Valuable Knowledge

Companies need to recognize the new dynamic that comes with social, and remember that all customers -- regardless of their level of social involvement -- need to be treated equally. Active engagement in the full range of social mediums, both internally and among customers, can provide companies with valuable knowledge.

Those that handle social as a central part of their internal and external communications can effectively leverage it to create, use and maintain knowledge that will improve their customer relationships, retention rates and, ultimately, revenue.

Image courtesy of karen roach (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in reading other thoughts on Social CRM? Try Mitch Lieberman's Customer Value: It's About a Bigger Pie