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Brands That Listen

  |  February 9, 2011   |  Comments

What can you learn if you listen to your customers? Consider these examples.

One of my colleagues, Beth Harte posted a question on Facebook the other day about some of the brands that she follows having a reputation for paying relatively less attention to what their customers want (preferring instead to design their products as they deem appropriate) than others. That prompted a second set of questions for the people that joined into this conversation, and specifically the question "Are there brands that (you) are personally passionate about that you consider to be especially good at listening to customers and using what they learn to improve their product or service experiences?"

Here are some of the brands that I'm passionate about, and, some of the examples of the ways in which they have asked for and then incorporated my ideas. Mind you, by "my ideas" what I really mean is "me + 1,000 others who have the same idea or request," but then again, that's what the social Web is all about: as a crowdsourced innovation engine, it's exactly this type of thing that the social Web does best.

Help on the Go: Boingo

Boingo is one of the first that comes to mind. I travel frequently, so being able to connect to the Internet without paying high daily fees in hotels or other single-use locations is both logistically and economically important. Hotel access fees, for example, for what is generally a mediocre broadband experience work out to over $500 per month. I don't know of anyone paying anywhere near this for broadband service. Boingo handles this for me, at under $20 per month, and is available in many hotels, most airports, and in similar settings. This means that by subscribing to one reasonably priced, high-quality service, I've met one of my important business requirements: being connected and available to my clients regardless of where I am.

What does this have to do with listening? This: from time to time, Boingo's connections don't appear to perform as expected. I've pinged Boingo using Twitter while experiencing slow response in Newark's Liberty Airport, for example, or called the company from hotels when advertised hot spots don't seem to be active. Boingo clearly listens: within five or 10 minutes of posting, I've usually got a response. This time frame is really important in an airport: most of us are only there for an hour or less, so near-real-time response from Boingo customer care is key to prompt resolution satisfaction. If you had to guess, would you say I'm more or less likely to remain an evangelist for Boingo given its timely responses like this one on those rare occasions where I need its help?

Strengthening Family Ties: Gold's Gym

Next up: Gold's Gym. My wife and I have been members for years. A few years ago, my then 7-year-old son was with me. He liked to help me set up before heading off to the Kid's Club at Gold's while I exercised. On this particular day, we were stopped by three managers who said - looking at me but talking in a loud voice about my son - "he needs to go to the Kid's Club now - he cannot be anywhere else in the gym." Ironically, Gold's had just rolled out a new line of kid's (age 4-6) t-shirts that said "I worked out with my Mom at Gold's Gym."

I wrote to Gold's CMO and suggested that the shirts say instead "I watched TV in Kid's Club while my Mom worked out at Gold's" since that was the actual experience that day. More thoughtfully (after all, being just snarky never pays), I also pointed out that Gold's Gym is almost uniquely positioned to encourage healthy activity in kids, and to encourage parents to be an active role model for healthy living. My guess is that more than a few members made the same suggestion.

Last year, Gold's rolled out GGX for Kids (5-10): GGX for Kids offered a more active Kid's Club experience. But it went a step further: Gold's now offers a full membership for kids age 10 and over, where prior it had been 16. Upon turning 10 this past January, our son joined Gold's full time and now participates in the cardio and similar classes offered at Gold's. He is completely energized by this (since he's seen his parents and other adults participating for years) and absolutely loves going to the gym. As a family, we have a stronger connection to Gold's as a direct result of this new policy.

Missed Connections: Sea World Texas

Compare the above with our experience at Sea World Texas, which I posted about last July. I described a "less than Sea World" experience and actually got a comment back from Sea World's Brian Carter letting me know he had read the post, and that if I had questions on the resolution to write to him. However, my attempt to connect with Brian to understand exactly what to expect as a result of my note regarding Sea World's Adventure Camps program never quite happened. Despite two e-mails to Brian, I've yet to hear from him. This (lack of closure) matters: I'm not sure if Brian was smartly responding to a "negative yet constructive" post to signal to any other readers that my comment had been "addressed by management," or to really reach out to me and ensure that I knew that Sea World had listened and thought about what I had said.

To be clear, I don't expect companies to do what I want. I'm simply one voice of many, and have no real right to expect anything beyond "Thank you for your comments." But as a customer, I do expect a different experience the next time, or, I'll simply choose to engage in some alternate family activity. The impression I'm left with is that Sea World isn't the amazing, customer-oriented operation it used to be. We'll probably spend more time wakeboarding at Texas Ski Ranch (which we drive right past on the way to Sea World) this summer as a result. In this economy (or any economy), encouraging your customers to check out your competitors is unlikely to get you where you want to go.

Why Does This Matter?

What does this have to do with social media? Social media is a two-way street: it's a participative, collaborative process through which engaged customers become advocates, and through which brands can accelerate their innovation processes. Listening to Dell's Adam Brown last week at Blogwell in Austin, I was struck by Adam's comment that "IdeaStorm was a game-changer for Dell." On a related note, I got an announcement from Starbucks a month back that it had implemented its 100th idea taken from "My Starbucks Idea." If the relative rise in SBUX is any indication, these customer ideas aren't just great PR: they are a source of real business value.

So, as you build your social media programs, remember that social media begins with listening and responding. Put into practice the internal processes and systems that enable collaboration between your business and your customers. Get that part right, and almost like magic the rest of your business will take care of itself.


Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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