Social CRM and programs that deal with the “social customer” are the new “black” this year. And why not, every business wants to get closer to its customers, right? The question is, is your organization ready to be social?

Enter the Social Customer

There are some great success stories about everything from using consumer based social communications channels like Facebook and Twitter for marketing, support and sales to building community based support through peer-to-peer networks. Social is gaining traction all across customer facing functions in many organizations and companies are starting to realize that the social customer expects companies to interact with them “when, where and how” the customer chooses.

Making a business social is more of a cultural change than a technology decision. The technology helps of course, but underneath, a successful social approach to customers is about realizing that the customer owns the relationship with the company, not the other way around, and that they look for an experience and relationship with the company, not just a transaction.

It seems that in the age where anyone can have an online voice the level of tolerance for company policies and procedures that in the past were common place has gone way down. And by the way, that voice can be extremely loud and have a very wide reach. Maybe we’ve just learned that we have more choices and that the transparency and openness that we’re adopting needs to apply to companies as well.

Whatever the reason, it’s much easier to lose a customer today and much easier for that ex-customer to influence others to defect as well. The good news is that the same tools and attitudes that are making customers expect more can help companies deliver more.

Is Your Organization Ready For the Social Customer?

There’s a hidden risk to all of this focus on social customer engagement though. I’m going to make a very broad generalization here, and if your company is the exception to this then good for you. As I look at businesses today I see organization structures and processes that are hold over’s from a different era of business, the industrial age.

The highly hierarchical structure that was the norm for industrial age companies leads to highly silo’ed organizations and in general silos prevent collaboration rather than encourage it. Companies have tried for the last twenty years to force fit “collaboration” tools into the enterprise and for the most part these tools have not been successful.

A collaborative culture must be matched with the right organizational structure, incentives, goals and executive support. So I ask, how can you engage your customers effectively and build a strong experience for them if you can’t communicate and collaborate with your colleagues inside your business? How many silo’ed conversations do you think that a customer will tolerate?

Connecting the Inside to the Outside

When a social customer reaches out for resolution of some problem can your company put the right team together in real time, with all of the customer and company context of the issue at the point of customer interaction? Customers, more and more, will not tolerate the department shuffle nor are they willing to repeat their issue in its entirety at every interaction…and should they?

When it comes to being a social company and engaging customers more effectively, social CRM is not enough, you have to fix the internal collaboration issues for the program to work. We have to connect the inside to the outside in a seamless way that connects the nodes of a new business network that is people centric and extends beyond organizational silos and firewalls.

People are the platform for the new social business and the primary nodes of your business network that includes content, data and other technology / applications. In effect what we’ve called Enterprise 2.0 plus Social CRM makes up the new social business, or the business network.

Successful Customer Engagement Starts From Within

There are plenty of E2.0 tools that can help connect this business network based on people centric collaboration instead of the old file centric approach. Technology isn’t enough of course, you also have to change the underlying culture and remove organizational baggage.

Creating an organizational environment where a collaborative and social culture can thrive and is the norm, while difficult, is essential to the long-term success of your social customer initiatives. Cultural change happens over time, is incremental and builds on success.

I’m not suggesting that you forgo your social CRM initiatives, by the way. I believe that you must address how your company will deal with the social customer; the risks are too great to ignore. But along with those initiatives you need to build a company strategy and plan that puts social in action, starts to address the corporate silos and focuses on the people centric nature of the information economy.

Connecting the nodes in the business network, outside to inside, employees, customers, partners, suppliers… that’s the key to successful customer engagement.

Editor's Note: Other articles on Social CRM include: