The power of social listening as a catalyst for change
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The power of social listening as a catalyst for change

October 2012
Organizations must know what customers are saying online and use this to drive change, says Frank Eliason, SVP of consumer social media at Citi.

When social media first emerged, marketers were excited about this new channel. “This is great,” they said. “Everybody’s going to share. Our customers are going to sell for us.” But then something happened they did not expect. Customers using social media started to say: “I hate this company. Look what they just did to me.” So when marketers saw these discussions, they believed that customers wanted social customer service — that customers actually preferred social service. But, in my own experience, I have yet to find that to be true.

In my view, customers like social because, if they shout loud, it fixes what is wrong. They end up happy because, by using social, they have finally got the help that they wanted, having lost faith in other channels. “They love us,” say the marketers when this happens. But what’s really happened is that the customer thinks: “I need help so I’ll just complain as loudly as I can.” But having people complain to the whole world about your organization, in order to get the help they need, is not a great long-term plan.

In fact, I would argue that social customer service is, more often than not, a sign of failure. While most companies are helping the person who is shouting the loudest, they’re not taking the information and fixing the core problem.

So, if a business wants to succeed using social media, it first has to create the right experience through its other customer touchpoints. It has to have the right product, great service experience, and something that people will want to talk about before it can be successful through social media channels.

The best place to start is to find out what is already being said. What are the stories you find about your company’s products or services on social media? In my experience, really listening and then telling these stories internally at a senior level drives change.

I had personal experience of this a few years ago, when I managed the complaint department at the US cable company, Comcast (which, at the time, had a questionable reputation for customer service). I set up the Twitter handle @ComcastCares. Through this, we helped people in social media in the way we felt they should have been helped in the first place. What’s more, we took the stories that came from social media and shared them in a daily newsletter for employees. This really helped to drive change within the organization, because if a business is genuinely listening to social media, its people will know that it truly shows their company culture for what it is and amplifies it.
It’s not only Facebook

My favorite change at Citi came two years ago, as a result of us ramping up our social listening. I listened online to a lot of people who were struggling to make their mortgage payments. Although there are many talking heads who say you should do social media on Facebook or Twitter, I found that people struggling in this way rarely talk about it on Facebook or Twitter — they don’t want their friends to know they cannot afford their mortgage. They are not talking on the most popular platforms, they are talking in anonymous places, places that often give them bad advice.

I also noticed that, at US banks, a person who handles those struggling with their mortgage is called a loss mitigator. What the hell is that? That doesn’t say, “I’ll help you.” That says, “I’ll do everything to make sure our business gets what it deserves.” So
 our loss mitigators are now called “homeowner support specialists.” It doesn’t mean we’ll help everyone stay in their home, but it does mean we are using everything in our power to support them, and our culture and service are now geared towards this.

We also asked, “How do we connect with individuals going through this? How do we do that in a different way?” And that’s how we launched homeownersupport.com, which offers advice and forums where customers can share personal experiences.
Empowering service departments

So, social media listening must no longer be done merely from a marketing or PR perspective; it must be ingrained as part of the business. When it is, service departments will improve. They will become more empowered and more willing to drive change. And if the company doesn’t do it voluntarily, its customers will force it to do so.

There are challenges to address, however, such as privacy — especially in the EU. I would advise companies to say: “Here’s what we stand for. Here are the things and the information we value. Here’s how we use it. Here are the things we won’t do with it.” Because, if people mistrust the way an organization uses their personal information, it’s going to take away a lot of the good that effective use of social media can bring.

I also predict that social media will move away from being about the brand and become more about influence. Customers and employees now control a company’s brand — and there is power in allowing employees to communicate with customers on social media.

Trust is a big component in the social world and is very difficult for brands to earn, because people tend to trust people, not logos. But this human element comes out in the best customer experiences, and also on the social web. This is where the value of “scalable intimacy” — the ability of a company’s employees to create a personal connection with their customers — comes in.

Social media has given companies the ability to get to know a customer for what he or she wants the world to know. Imagine, then, the next time you communicate with a company, you are connected to someone who likes the same things as you. Or imagine being sent marketing material that is geared to what you are interested in and not what a brand wants to market to you.

We have, right in front of us, all the information we need to make this happen. Imagine the power of that.

Prior to Citi, Frank Eliason held the post of director of digital care at cable company Comcast, where he led a turnaround in the organization’s customer service. He has been described by Bloomberg as “the most famous customer service manager in the United States, and possibly the world.” His book, @YourService: How to attract new customers, increase sales, and grow your business using simple customer service technologies, is out now.
First published October 2012
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