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Customer Conversations Unplugged

Posted on July 31, 2003 and read 8,930 times

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Customer Relationship Management can sometimes seem like a mirage. It promises much while remaining just beyond the grasp of most. With the overall tech washout of the past few years, it’s getting increasingly difficult to pinpoint just what it is about CRM that can be most valuable to your organization, and, who can truly deliver it.

Within all this confusion I can’t help but think that, in their rush to create spiffy acronyms and “revolutionary disruptive technologies,” CRM solutions providers lost sight of the purer essence of Customer Relationship Management. The focus seems to be misplaced – on the word “management” instead of “relationship.”

The reasons for this are fairly obvious, I think. As marketers and technologists we can systematize and automate “management” tools, but, how the heck do we do the same for “relationships?” One is inherently quantitative while the latter is qualitative.

But of late it CAN and IS being done. Which is why I argue that some of the more exciting CRM advances are destined to come from evolution not revolution, and, methodology not technology. More specifically, we are starting to see movement away from a CRM transactional measurement mindset towards the promise of enriched online conversations with customers.

Seems simple enough. If companies want to deepen relationships with customers, why not just talk and listen more effectively? After all, customers already contact companies every day: whether calling tollfree numbers or filling out surveys or Contact Us email forms. But what’s becoming increasingly apparent … and exciting from a marketer’s perspective… is that customers seem to be prepared to interact online with companies even more, and in new ways, IF they are encouraged and invited to do so.

How do we know? Look at the phenomena of the “sucks site” for proof of people’s willingness to talk to companies in different ways since the advent of the Internet. This is as grassroots as customer movements get. If a person’s attempt to “be heard” by a company is rebuffed, it is not unusual for a ‘thiscompanysucks’ web site to spring up overnight and for hundreds or thousands of other disgruntled customers to join discussions that centre around poor customer service, crappy advertising, bad products or anything else.

The popularity of these rant sites is steady, as is the number of “sucks” portals that let people speak out publicly about any company they choose. Why? Because from the individual’s perspective they offer a safe haven to say their piece if they feel they’ve been ignored or pushed aside by a company. And let’s face it, banging out a complaint on your keyboard on your own time and own terms is a helluva lot easier and therapeutic than having to press 1, then 5, then 7 and then wait on hold for 20 minutes.

Assuming you’re wrestling with how to respond to this new type of consumer activism (you’d better be!) what should you do? Well, you can choose to ignore it, or, deploy internal resources to monitor online discussions surreptitiously. Or, you can think a little longer and strategically and consider this: IF people truly want to have a more active voice in business today and IF online bulletin boards are ringing with chatter and IF your happy customers outnumber unhappy ones…then maybe YOU should take advantage of this energy and invest in new ways to engage YOUR customers online as a function of your own web site.

Sounds scary, I know. “You’re saying you want me to host a place on my own web site where customers might complain? And maybe even see each other’s comments? And you want me to actually encourage this type of interaction?” Yes, yes and yes.

The Internet has changed forever the ways customers will interact with companies. There is nothing YOU (or your lawyers) can really do about it… except maybe embrace the energy and encourage all sorts of customer feedback through your web site to populate the brain cells of your executives and brand and marketing folks.

After all, Business Week noted not long ago that, “… companies are creating online communities that bring feedback 24-hours a day. They hope to tap into lifestyles for ideas. Whether it’s inventing new products or reviving old ones, companies are counting on consumers to help, and they’re willing to…if it’s as easy as clicking a web site.” And we’ve all read the quote about P&G wanting to be this century’s “best listeners.”

Hell, if they are not afraid (well, maybe just a smidge) why are you?

People have been talking on the Internet since its conception. The earliest derivations were newsgroups filled with technical gurus discussing coding innovations. Today the concept of newsgroups and message boards has morphed into the creation of extremely popular places for ordinary customers to talk to companies and each other about what they like and dislike about brands. Likely YOUR brands.

At present, many of these are hosted away from company web sites, either by private citizens or as add-ons to association web sites or magazines, TV programs or other media. Some online dialogue solutions are starting to appear from a new breed of vendor, while some companies are tackling the challenge in-house. But the important point is that the rules of the game are changing and prudent marketers are taking notice.

When customers are free to exchange thoughts, ideas, complaints and kudos online — in their own words, on their own time — magical things can happen. Gradually a sense of community forms, where like-minded people come together for the sole purpose of communicating with a company whose products or services they buy and know…likely better than the company itself. Over time this new form of online dialogue attracts more and more and more people. Customer “evangelists,” they have been called.

If your company can harness this energy correctly, before long you can have a whole contingent of customers feeding your company with non-stop nuances about your products… insights you have tried for eons to collect in the offline world.

Back to customer-centric business models for just a moment. Yes, companies need to encourage and join in new online conversations with customers. But talk for talk’s sake is not recommended. There are a number of powerful discussion boards in-a-box out there that can run on any site fairly cheaply… but without any true databasing capability. As you jump into new customer conversations, you need a way to capture and interpret what is being said… turn the insight into knowledge that can then be actioned. There needs be a strong methodology around gathering your customer commentary so you can understand it and consider it in a marketing context. Otherwise you’ll be frustrated in any attempt to make sense of it all down the road.

So what are you going to do?

Used to its full potential the Internet can be a place for customer innovation, creativity and a sounding board on which new ideas are born. The book The Cluetrain Manifesto says it best; “There are new conversations going on today… mediated by the Internet but having little to do with technology. Unfortunately, metaphorical firewalls separate these conversations – fearful corporations. What is to be done? Burn down business as usual.”

Why not turn up the volume on your own web site so you can benefit from the ideas and energy being offered FREE to you by your customers? As Cluetrain Manifesto would have you do, “Loosen up. Lighten up. And shut up. Listen for a change.”

Patrick Folliott is Founder and CEO of RealityClick inc., a company that architects new tools to help companies talk to their customers and employees more powerfully online, including its Dialogue Zone™ all-in-one feedback system.




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