Communication: We know that in order to build trust with another person there must be good, two-way communication. It’s central to our existence as human beings, yet we struggle with it every day. Multiply that struggle by the number of people in your organization, and you can begin to see just how essential communication is in building trust with your employees, vendors, partners and customers.
I’ve long been a proponent of what I call “Return on Relationship,” or ROR, hashtag #RonR, which is the value that’s accrued by a person or a brand due to nurturing a relationship. That’s no secret. We develop and grow human relationships every day of our lives. Establishing communication is essential to this process because it helps build trust—a vital component of ROR. Seth Godin says that “In the connection economy, trust and relationships are the new currency.”
He’s absolutely right. However, even in this digital age many of us are still struggling with relationships. Smart phones, tablets, social channels, live-streaming—there are a zillion ways to connect with each other, and it overwhelms us. So it’s no surprise that businesses are often find themselves behind the eight-ball when it comes to adapting new ways of communicating to business practices. We’re used to doing things a certain way. Boundaries have been established and systems put in place. The bigger the business, the harder it is to adapt and change.
Communication via social channels must be mastered if we’re to stay competitive, so this post is dedicated to helping you shift your thinking in terms of social communication in building and maintaining relationships. Whether you’re a corporate executive, an entrepreneur or an employee, developing a “social mindset” is necessary to build trust, advocacy and better customer experience in the digital age.
Making the Emotional Connection: Listen First
We’ve all heard that talking with other people (and not just talking to them) on social channels is the way to build meaningful engagement. As brands and individuals we want to build an emotional connection with our audience, so what’s the best path for success?
I read an article in Entrepreneur by Aaron Keller, founder of the Minneapolis brand design agency Capsule that sparked some ideas in that direction.
The article was entitled: “Don’t Just Have Social-Media Conversations, Design Them,” and in it Keller says that in order to rise above the noise on social channels, we need to plan our conversations so that they arrive at the right time and make the emotional connection we desire with recipients. He’s absolutely right. And in order to achieve that kind of connection, we need to be “in tune” with our audience.
I’m always talking about developing a listening strategy before you develop any content, but who are we listening to? Keller states that instead of focusing on a particular demographic or psychographic profile, perhaps we need to look at it from an emotional standpoint. Which audiences are most passionate about a particular topic, and what is their emotional state? Are they happy and excited or frustrated and angry? How are they expressing that emotion in their social conversations?
Listening helps you define the best audience pools for your business—people that are socially active and emotionally engaged in topics you care about. And this can help you plan empathetic conversations designed specifically for each audience.
Ask questions! Dig a little and find out the reasons why people feel the way they do. Let them know that you understand them. Developing an emotional connection starts there, with just being nice—being a listening ear and letting them know that they’re being heard.
When I was young my Dad often talked to me about ways to build relationships, especially doing your homework by getting to know your prospect before you meet him or her, so you could break the ice with conversation around something that’s relevant to them. If I was heading to a business meeting, he counseled me to get there early and check out the neighborhood and office building, and to look for commonalities in a person’s office. What diplomas were on the wall? Were there pictures of family or vacations on the desk? Were there clues as to hobbies the person enjoyed? When I was growing up we were taught early on to look people in the eye and shake their hand.
Today we have many digital tools to help us do that type of homework in developing relationships. So I like to practice looking people in the eye digitally, which starts with social listening and observation. When you’re doing that digging to find out why people in your audience feel the way they do, start with looking at their individual social profiles and bios. Take a peek at their feeds to see what they like to share. Do a Twitter search on a particular hashtag term to find current conversations surrounding it, and drill down through the contributors’ pages. Look for them on LinkedIn and peruse their bios and social updates. Get to know their digital footprint.
Once you have a thorough understanding of the feelings that each audience segment has around a topic, you’ll have a better idea of how to design messages that will trigger the emotional response you want them to have toward you. How do you want them to feel about you? What action(s) do you want them to take?
Developing emotional connection with intentional conversations is the best way to establish rapport. Without it, you’re just throwing content out there and hoping something sticks—not the best way to establish relationships.
Listen to your advocates as well—and incorporate what you learn
The concept of listening also applies to working with your social advocates—those people who love your brand and love to share their experiences with you. Incorporate what you learn from them in your product and/or service development phase. My friend Niklas Myhr, the “Social Media Professor,” penned a blog article entitled “Social Media and Quality Management.” In this post he discusses tapping your social advocates early on in your development phase, listening to what they have to say and learning more about what they want and how you can deliver it to them.
I think there’s room for much more of this type of thinking. The old concept of keeping things close to the vest until they’re launched is not only short-sighted, it puts brands at a severe disadvantage in today’s hyper-competitive world. However, brand advocates don’t just exist outside your company. An often overlooked way to approach it is from the inside out—with your employees.
Employee Advocacy and Customer Experience
Do your employees know and love your company, its products and services? They can be great brand ambassadors if they have the right tools. Most employees have their own personal social media accounts and are connected to hundreds and thousands of people. What if they could use their own social media presence to help promote the company brand? Think of the reach you could achieve if your employees were empowered to spread the word to all of their connections.
What’s holding many brands back in this regard is fear. Fear their employees will say something wrong. Fear of losing control of the conversation. Fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of criticism.
Yes, giving up control is scary—especially in the marketing of your company. But not leveraging the power of your employees in the social space is like nailing one of your shoes to the floor. Your competition will soon overtake you. However, there are more tools coming online to help brands identify and empower employees to be social advocates without the fear factor. One such tool is Dynamic Signal’s platform, called VoiceStorm, which enables, empowers, monitors and measures the social media activity associated with your company so that you can reward positive activity and respond to trouble. You simply must embrace new ways of engaging with customers online, and your employees can help if you’ll let them. Look your employees in the eye digitally, too, and get to know them outside the context of the office. What are they passionate about? What makes them tick? What does their audience look like? If you’re not looking for ways to involve your employees (and build trust with them online and offline), then you missing a huge opportunity to generate more Return on Relationship.
Another way to start thinking about advocacy is from a community building standpoint. It’s easy to adopt a campaign mentality in thinking about how advocates can help us disseminate information, but there’s much more to be gained from listening and learning.
Adopt a “Learn-Learn” philosophy
Advocacy programs are great tools, but we need to be careful to listen and learn from our communities. Too often we think of things in terms of “win-win,” which denotes an ending, not a continuation, when instead, we need to adopt a “learn-learn” philosophy in our social habits when building communities. It can (and should) be done on the individual level, because companies aren’t faceless business machines—they’re made up of individuals—and in any community, people like to interact with other people.
I think it comes down to changing your brand’s social goals and habits from the top down. Everyone from C-suite execs to customer service employees can practice listening and reaching out to individuals to expand conversation and deepen relationships. There’s no substitute for this. While there are enterprise advocacy platforms out there (just Google the term and you’ll get around 1,500,000 results), anyone can invest a few minutes a day practicing focused listening on any social platform. We’re just not making it a priority. Why? It comes down to the old ROI argument, and that’s where I think many brands are falling short. They’re still trying to silo social listening within marketing and sales departments (and measure effectiveness in terms of sales, versus relationships), when it should be a company-wide practice that encompasses all business functions.
While listening is an important first step, action should rapidly follow suit. However, time and again we see brands try to make sure every duck is in a row before moving forward—or hanging onto old practices of keeping people in different departments segregated from each other on social channels. If enhancing customer experience is the goal, old barriers need to come down and everyone needs to get moving. To truly offer an Omni-channel experience externally to the consumer, we have to enable and empower an Omni-channel culture internally.
Stop Dithering and Begin Social Dialogue!
There are several reasons why I think businesses hamstring their social efforts, and not just from an advocacy standpoint. First, there’s an overriding, if misguided, pressure to get things “perfect” on social, which is sometimes used as an excuse to avoid getting involved at all. The permanent nature of anything that’s posted on the web tends to freak out the “control the message” crowd who has their fingers poised over the delete button to instantly erase ill-advised comments or content. We’re never far removed from the latest social snafu by a public figure, or the next one to come, and that fear can be paralyzing. Not good from a customer experience standpoint (or any standpoint for that matter).
Second, there’s a certain amount of mistrust of employees by corporations on social channels. What if they say something stupid? What if they take a photo of their posterior at the company Christmas party and post it on Facebook? What if our perfect reputation is trashed by one Tweet? What if, what if, what if?
On top of all that (or in some instances because of it) marketing departments are more concerned than ever with putting out the perfect message rather than concentrating on responding and engaging effectively. When the onus is on perfection, a single tweet or status update can take weeks to craft—and being human takes a back seat to “branding.”
Social mirrors real life. It’s not as if we suddenly lose our concept of human interaction when we sit down to a keyboard or turn on a tablet! Too often, though, all of the worrying and red tape built into social strategies leads to a message that’s been dehumanized. If people want a sterilized vision of your products, services, or brand, there are plenty of places they can find that information online. When it comes to social, though, people want to interact with real people, not bots.
And when they interact with your brand, they expect the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. That’s why open communication across departments is crucial, from planning your overall social strategy to actually handing a customer from one person to the next along their particular journey with your brand.
Remember that your brand is what you do, but your reputation is what people remember and share. Building a good social reputation is dependent on allowing people to connect, both internally and externally. Having everyone on your teams participate in social interaction and conversation is the best way to help them give your customers the best experience possible.
Stop worrying so much about getting everything perfect, and start getting everyone more socially involved.
Why C-Suite Social Engagement is Crucial
By getting everyone in your company involved on social channels, I do mean everyone—from the C-suite on down. If you haven’t picked up Charlene Li’s new book, The Engaged Leader: a Strategy for Your Digital Transformation, I highly recommend you do so. Charlene is a well-regarded author and researcher on leadership issues, and if you’re an executive, it’s a must-read.
In a Forbes article recently, Li told a priceless story that I think epitomizes the attitude of many 60-something execs these days:
“A CEO once told me, ‘I don’t believe in this digital stuff. I believe in leading people by going around, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye, and connecting with them.’ I said, ‘That is absolutely fantastic. I love that you have that personal approach. But you have 10,000 employees…”
With her last sentence there she hits the nail on the head. You can’t possibly shake 10,000 hands without digital tools—yet there is still resistance from the C-suite on using digital channels to “be social” either with their employees or their customers. In my opinion this is a huge mistake, and one that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later. The executive who continues to remove him or herself from digital engagement will eventually have that decision bite them (and their company) where it really hurts—the pocketbook.
In her book Li also answers some of the common complaints that I hear from executives on this issue, such as “I don’t have time,” “It doesn’t replace face-to-face,” “It’s marketing’s job,” and my all-time favorite, “Who cares what I had for lunch?”
These excuses don’t carry water anymore because today’s executive has to know what’s going on in and around his or her company and/or industry at all times. And the only way to do a good job of that is to learn to navigate the digital landscape and use those tools to listen, learn and engage with people at every level.
Gone are the days when a CEO could navigate his ship from the sanctity of his office, seldom speaking to employees or customers (except via a podium or a newsletter). Effective leadership requires a new, more personal level of engagement. People expect more from company leadership than a photo and a blurb in the annual report or a quote in a press release. They want to see and hear executives talking about issues that concern them. They want to know that the company they’re doing business with (or that they work for) is led by real people with real values that align with their own principles and ethics.
But does that mean we’ll have to spend half our day on social channels making meaningless small talk? Of course not—but we can no longer delegate engagement to marketing and sales. We need to get our hands dirty and use social channels to first listen, then engage by adding value.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many people will engage with you vicariously by watching how you engage with others. The CEO who steps out from behind the brand logo to take part in social conversation accomplishes two things: humanizing the brand and lending social credibility to their companies as thought leaders. And his or her influence is scaled by the “silent” engagement of others who watch but don’t immediately jump into the conversation.
According to the 2014 Social CEO Report sponsored by Domo and CEO.com, 68% of CEOs have NO social presence on the top five social networks, and only 69% who have Twitter accounts are actually tweeting.
These are abysmal figures—but there are some executives who are pioneering leadership in the social space, and Hootsuite™ names some shining examples that I think every executive would do well to emulate, especially these two:
Richard Branson: Founder and Chairman of Virgin, Richard is very vocal on LinkedIn and Twitter. Plus, he not only has millions of followers on those channels, but he actively follows and engages with thousands of people. His personal brand has lent a human face and touch to Virgin and also sets him apart as a business leader whose first priority is giving value.
Richard’s LinkedIn Influencer blog is chock-full of insights for CEOs, and I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment from one of his posts, Behind the Scenes: How I Write Blogs:
“Every CEO should make a big effort to get online. It is a superb platform for seeing what people really think about your company, and gives you a voice to engage with them. Those businesspersons who embrace the rapid changes of the Web are those who will be in the best position to benefit from them. But more than that, they will have a blast along the way.”
Doug Conant: Chairman of Avon’s board of directors, and founder and CEO of ConantLeadership, Doug is very active on Twitter. What I really like about Doug’s approach is that he’s not afraid to use new channels (he posts Instagram photos too), and he’s genuine. He thanks people who retweet him and isn’t shy about being personable. Plus, he’s actively involved in promoting social media use in business, and helping leadership understand the value of relationships through integrity. From his blog post: Leadership Words to Live By:
“Begin every interaction from a place of ‘how can I help?’ When you start this way, your earnest desire to be supportive shines brightly. And, when you follow through by listening and being unmistakably present, people know you are truly there for them, not just paying them lip service.”
More executives need to embrace digital channels as a way to lead by example because there’s no turning back the clock to stay in our comfort zones. Social media is deeply embedded in the lives of most people you do business with every day. In order for companies to ensure better customer experiences and to stay competitive, social engagement must become a top-down strategy.
Wanted: Human-to-Human Sensitivity Training
So we’ve taken a good hard look at our internal structures. We’ve have figured out the bottlenecks to providing great customer experiences, and now everyone’s fired up and committed to more and better social listening and dialogue to make it happen. Even our C-suite is getting their toes wet. What’s next? Learning and teaching your teams how to be human online.
We’ve all seen cringe-worthy moments on social, when someone says the exact wrong thing and doesn’t even realize what they’ve done. It happens in debates over hot-button issues, comment threads on funny cat pictures and everywhere in between. Even well-meaning comments can be hurtful when context is ignored.
The problem is magnified on social because it’s so far removed from face-to-face conversation. However, that’s too often used as a catchall excuse for allegedly accidental insensitivity. Text-messaging is a great example. Texting removes the human voice from a face-to-face equation and suddenly it becomes more difficult to identify the tone of a comment. Is it a joke? Are they mad at me? If I ask, will that just make it worse?
Now, think about if your text-message conversations were available for anyone to read, in an archive that stretches back years. Those are the stakes on social – even if you delete your profile, insensitive comments have a way of sticking around. That doesn’t mean you have to live in fear of saying (or having your employees say) the wrong thing, but you do need to ensure that everyone has a little refresher in sensitivity training, AND follow-up/paying attention, so that everyone knows how to #JustBeNice, speak with respect, and consider the broader context of the conversation before clicking the “post” button.
Remaining Human in an Automated World
Just as with texting, social removes important clues and cues we’d normally use to interpret the nature of a comment. No body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions to be found. You may get an emoji or two, at best. Some marketers counter this uncertainty with emotionless buzzword soup, perhaps based on the notion that they won’t risk offending if nobody can understand what they’re talking about in the first place.
No matter which medium is used, humans relate best to other humans, imperfections and all. Bryan Kramer lays the case out beautifully in his book, Human to Human: #H2H, reminding us that “businesses do not have emotion. Products do not have emotion. Humans do.” Or try reading my books, Return on Relationship and How to Look People in the Eye Digitally to help you understand the need and huge benefit of personal communication.
Simple? Sure, but the best advice usually is. Whether you’re marketing to businesses or consumers, you’re marketing to humans, above all. Take the time to be courteous, consider the situation of the human with whom you’re interacting, and the other humans following the conversation. You can’t go wrong being considerate of others.
People will remember their interactions with you for better and worse, so do your part to make those memories positive, and you’ll build trust. Another thing that either builds or breaks trust is how you treat their personal information.
Why Customer Data Transparency is Key
Big Data. Big Brother. The NSA debacle. People in the United States are feeling vulnerable. And with all the publicity surrounding online security hacks and stolen account numbers (not to mention all-out identity theft), is it any wonder that consumers are leery of giving brands their personal information?
Today’s customers are very protective of their privacy and defensive about how much data companies collect on them. The last thing they want is to have the feeling of either being sold to, or being spied upon. So why should a customer hand over his personal information to your brand? What’s in it for him?
As brands we need to measure the need for insight against the privilege of customer trust. Today’s customer is very much aware of what their data is worth to brands. They want to receive a direct benefit for giving their information to you, and they also need to be reassured that their information won’t be sold to the highest bidder. If they feel for one moment that you’re not keeping your end of the bargain, you’ll not only alienate them—they’ll also share that anger with their friends.
Believe me—the backlash isn’t worth it.
In today’s world brands that violate the trust of their customers (even by mistake) have a tough time getting it back, and it’s often an expensive fix (if it can be fixed at all). If you treasure healthy relationships with your customers, then be clear with them on how you intend to use the information you collect. Whether you’re conducting an online survey, asking people to download a report, conducting a contest—whatever you do that requires some form of information exchange—be transparent about your motives and intent. This is important at every touch-point where personal information might be required, and especially financial transactions. Let them know on your forms, sales pages and contact pages that you will take good care of their information.
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. How easy is it for you to give away your own personal information? What have you come across lately that makes you begin to feel a little uncomfortable?
Now more than ever, brands need to go out of their way to take care of their customers. If we want to keep their trust, we need to think about them more as neighbors and friends than as faceless groups.
For instance, a friend of mine gets regular updates from her banking representative at weekly networking meetings about how to watch out for telephone bank fraud—especially for senior citizens. The bank rep lets the group know what scammers are up to now, and what information the bank never asks for by phone. Helping customers and non-customers protect their elderly loved ones is a win-win for them, because when people start feeling like a number, they gravitate to the brand that they feel understands their pain. Don’t you?
So know your markets’ concerns and address them. Use your platforms to show them in detail that you’re just as worried as they are about identity theft, fraud, and just-plain-sneaky behavior. More importantly, share ways they can protect themselves. As technology advances, people can’t help but worry about intrusion. Be mindful—and helpful—and you’ll avoid the inevitable back-lash from Big Data misuse.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of using social channels to listen, build trust, communicate better and bring a human touch to building and nurturing online communities. However, I think the secret sauce is the ability to take a larger view and incorporate all of this into current business practices. Humanizing your social presence and ensuring that everyone practices #JustBeNice is one piece of the customer’s experience with you. It’s multi-layered and complex—which means we need to ensure that all of our processes (from our customer’s standpoint) are consistent.
Going Beyond #JustBeNice: Essentials in Delivering Value
Let’s look at an example through the eyes of a customer. Let’s pretend that about a year ago, you bought a new grill at a national chain. The sales reps were friendly and convinced you to buy the store brand. The model you wanted was in stock, and it was delivered to your home right on time. The grill works great for its first summer in use.
When you take the grill out of storage for its second season, problems start popping up. The igniter stops working, so you have to light it manually. Then, before the first big barbecue of the summer, the gas stops flowing altogether. You’re frustrated, but you figure a call to customer service should rectify the problem. Only it doesn’t.
The call seems to go well. It doesn’t take long to reach an actual person, and everyone you deal with is extremely pleasant. However, all you want is a working grill, and as soon as possible. They let you know that they are concerned about the problem, and that the matter will be resolved quickly.
However, instead of replacing the grill, they offer to pay for repairs ($900 in parts for a $400 grill), but you’ll wait a month for parts to arrive. Not ideal, but better than nothing, even if it doesn’t make sense. Then a month passes, and the parts haven’t arrived. You complain. They offer you $500 in store credit, which is $100 more than you paid for the grill originally.
Frustrated, you purchase a replacement grill (not the store brand this time), and make a mental note to shop elsewhere next time you make a big purchase. The customer service reps never stopped being nice, but you lost a month of grilling season waiting for them to make the decision they should have made in the first place.
What Went Wrong?
The solution that would have made you happy, saved the company money, and likely kept you on as a future customer was simple – replace your defective grill with a new, working grill of the same model. So, why didn’t it happen? The problem is in the process. Somewhere in the company’s customer service mandate, red tape overtook common sense, and your customer journey fell off the cliff because there wasn’t a unified approach across departments in helping you.
We see this kind of thing play out every day because so much of this is now public on social channels. Many customers think they might get better/faster response if they attempt to reach out for help on a brand’s social platforms. Sometimes they do—but more often they don’t. And that’s because when a brand’s customer service mentality is broken at its core, no amount of responsiveness and being nice on social channels, or any other customer service venue, will change that. This is a huge failing that is only compounded by the social conversations swirling around the brand.
At its heart, customer service is about reaching fast, fair resolutions to customer problems. That can’t be accomplished with kind words alone. In the case of the defective grill, maybe offering repair before replacement was a matter of policy, even in cases where it doesn’t make financial sense. The service reps hands are tied if they have no discretion to modify that policy where applicable.
Wherever the problem originated, its consequences are clear. The customer loses, because they don’t get a timely, appropriate resolution. The service rep loses, because they aren’t equipped with the tools and discretion to handle issues appropriately. In the end, the company loses a customer’s trust, and therefore his business. Plus, since every customer has social access to an ever-widening circle of friends, that loss of trust is made public, and brand reputation suffers.
Being nice and following up is important, but it’s got to be backed by appropriate action. And this is true whether the transactions are B2B or B2C. Quality customer service requires a strong plan and a system built to resolve issues efficiently. It’s about looking at challenges constructively and teaching customer service reps (as well as other customer-facing persons in the organization) to do the same, creating a true customer service mindset across the organization. Success requires empowering employees to make correct decisions and cutting out the red tape that leads to damaged relationships.
Customers want to be treated with respect, know that their issues are being taken seriously, and see results within a reasonable time-frame. Being nice is a great first step, but it doesn’t cover up for a lack of results. In customer service, combining efficient results with common courtesy is essential for developing good relationships, but the real magic comes when you can find ways to consistently deliver value at every step along the customer’s journey—not just customer service.
Hopefully, you’ve been able to draw some conclusions from what I’ve outlined here that will help you. Fine tuning your organization’s ability to consistently deliver exemplary customer experiences boils down to building trust (with employees and partners as well as prospects and customers). When building trust is your primary goal, adopting a social mindset becomes more about breaking down communication barriers than just using social tools to deliver one-way branding messages and a sales pitch. Nurturing relationships using social technologies enhances what you’re already doing face to face, and allows you to deliver more and better experiences across the board. It’s that simple.