Another year has passed and we are still trying to define the Return on Investment (ROI) for social tools in the enterprise. We are bombarded with stories of successful implementations but finding hard numbers that can be quickly applied to our own organization remains a challenge. The existence of failed efforts provides the holders of the money reasons to doubt the few numbers that can be pulled together.

The core of the problem is that there are no hard numbers universal enough to make social tools an easy sell. The reaction by defenders is to ask, “What is the ROI of email?” That question reveals the harsh reality of our situation. We will not be able to define the ROI for social business until it is no longer necessary. 

Culture Debate

Many success stories begin with an organization looking for a solution for a known problem. Perhaps they needed to share information, communicate better between offices or interact more directly with their customers. In situations such as this, the pain and costs of not implementing a solution were understood. ROI was not a critical factor as long as the cost of the solution was not overwhelming.

Failed implementations tend to occur in organizations that decided they needed to be more social. This led them to buy one of the shiny new social platforms. While some organizations succeeded with this approach, many failed. The same technology, the same business “problem” and yet different results.

The difference? Culture.

This is both the truth and a lazy explanation. The deeper issue was that a new technology was introduced to the organization without understanding if there was a real need or not. Culture feeds into that need as organizations without a history of collaboration are likely to view a social tool as unnecessary to their job. Email is viewed as good enough.

Customer First

What is needed is a change of attitude in organizations, one that make social a part of how business is done, if not part of the culture. This is best exemplified by a Customer First approach. When people focus on a single transaction, collaboration is not required. When they start looking at the broader needs of their partners and customers, collaborating together is essential.

Let’s step into the role of the customer.

A couple of years ago, I had an issue with my cable. A package I had ordered was not appearing and the program for which I had justified the purchase -- that week’s Auburn football game -- was about to begin. Who do I call in that situation? The cable company didn’t know the answer either. They transferred me three times and each stop placed me on hold at least once.

Kick-off was fast approaching.

Learning Opportunities

This was a case of one hand not knowing what the other was doing. They had no idea who I should talk to in order to resolve this problem. They appeared to have no ready means to find out. I am not paranoid enough to believe that I was the only person with this problem.

If that company placed a greater focus on their customer’s experience instead of their technology arms race with other cable companies, they would determine that while no employee can have all the answers, all employees should be able to find needed answers quickly. Simply asking the question of their colleagues across the various call centers, “Customer is having a problem X. Can anyone help them or advise me as to the best course of action?” would have been a big benefit for them and for me.

Not being able to find the answer, much less ask that question, is a problem in search of a solution. A customer service solution with an embedded social component is the answer. Social becomes the answer without a need for a traditional ROI.

Last Step, Profit!

More success stories will emerge over time. The examples will proliferate and executives will slowly become used to seeing the stories and accept that they can improve their business. If they are smart, they will take both the culture and problem in need of a solution into account first.

The industry will hit a tipping point. Social business will become the way that successful companies do business. Like email before, ROI will not be needed, but it will be plentiful.

By then, we’ll be looking to find the ROI on the next phase of collaboration.