Social Business and Customer Relationship Management

Last time, I discussed social business strategy and the practice of building a business around a set of experiences rather than a set of messages. More than ever, actual experiences now drive the conversations you want.

Building a business that drives positive conversations, that works with the flow of social content rather than against it, requires an organizational model and business intelligence process that connects “inside” with “outside.” Outside the organization are touch points, places where customers (both business-to-business and business-to-consumer) come in contact with the brand, product, or service. This may be a direct product experience, a message on a billboard, an online rating or review, or an interaction with a customer service representative. Web strategist Jeremiah Owyang stressed the shift toward recognizing the new role of actual experiences in his continuing work supporting social CRM (define) when he said, “Marketing has spread beyond awareness and lead generation — support IS marketing.”

Consider the role of the customer service rep. This employee, who is part of the reception committee (versus nightclub bouncer), must follow basic best practices of tracking current and past customers; studying their conversations, purchase histories, warranty claims, and rebate redemptions; and then should make this knowledge available and actionable across all points of customer/business intersection. Yes, support is marketing.

On the social Web, support starts with actively listening to what customers are saying outside of the formal CRM channels. The trick isn’t so much gathering the data: Nathan Gilliatt reviews 30-plus tools, all of which do a respectable job of bringing back snippets of conversations in an embedded business context.

The newest listening tools and applications go beyond basic listening and step into what’s now called social CRM. In early 2008, Brent Leary wrote a short post about social CRM: “[It] means creating a customer profile that helps us identify key pieces of information, helping to determine good customers from bad ones.” My 2005 white paper, “The Art of Consideration,” connects influence and the measurement of profitability to basic business objectives, laying in place another brick of what has evolved as social business strategy. Focus on CRM and the affordable tools that can inform your business. With a bit of hard work you can actually get the insight you need. Hey, no one said being a pioneer was easy!

Salesforce.com customers will find there’s work underway to improve integration of the customer service relationship management software with other applications, such as Radian6, a social media monitoring tool Lithium, an enterprise social CRM solutions provider, has a similar integration. Expect to see more of these solutions as snap-together knowledge modules proliferate. Have you found a result that contains an interesting conversational element? With the newest tools, you can push the available contact information about the person who said it into your Salesforce contacts database.

Then there’s Techrigy‘s SM2 platform. With its CSV (define) export capability, Techrigy is one of the relatively few companies offering both a robust API (define) and the ability to easily take results out of the core listening tool for extended analysis. For example, you can use the result set to create a list of influencers specific to the topic you are interested in. Use this to build a more effective, organically grown blogger outreach program. This roll-your-own option is perfect if you’ve got an in-house CRM system that you want to upgrade.

Take a look at BuzzStream, too. BuzzStream is to social CRM what Posterous is to blogging: simple, fast, and low cost (starting at free). And it works. Running on the Amazon cloud services platform, it has smartly integrated listening with a contacts database. When you spot interesting results, you can quickly find all the places that are likely related to the source of that result, traversing the social graph and going beyond the basic social data and search rankings, crawling an extended set of pages. Given a blog post, BuzzStream will find all of the Twitter mentions, for example, for that post along with the relevant contact information for the person who posted it. That contact information can be pushed right into the BuzzStream database. It’s a great starting point for your exploration of social CRM.

Regardless of the tool you choose, once the contact information is in your database, your next step is to do something with it. You’ll have some manual work to do, but the result is worth it, especially for smaller businesses that are often overlooked by the larger enterprise platforms.

Here’s a suggestion: Using these tools, you can easily track all fall future conversations from this same source as they relate to your specific interest. You can add information that you have about specific contacts that you find. This means that if you know your customers are talking about you, create a database of those social Web conversations. Now you’ve got your influencers in one place, by topic, and the ability to keep track of your ongoing relationship development program.

This matters now more than ever because journalists and domain experts are no longer the only influencer voices expressing themselves through a broad-reaching medium. Customers, especially evangelists and enthusiasts, are now very influential within your customer base. This is forcing a convergence between PR (external influencers) and CRM (customers) that makes tracking who is saying what and developing an ability to respond directly a must-have skill. By efficiently organizing and strategizing your responses, you can use this information to guide your social Web programs and the evolution of your business itself. That’s powerful.

Of course, this goes beyond marketing. Seeing results depends heavily on how you organize your business and equip the people who are part of it. Susan Scrupski spends a lot time in this area and shares her thinking. It’s spot on, especially the part about measuring all of this in dollars. As you enable the conversation between you and your customers, you enter into collaborative design. Picking up information and passing it into an organization that knows what to do with it is the inflection point between social business strategy and actual business success. Taking the time to measure it in the fundamental currency of business — which as Susan says is “currency” — is the final step in putting all pieces in place to win in the marketplace.

Social CRM is on the horizon. Start looking at it and build your skills. The business benefit is rooted in a better way to bring products and services to market and, more important, to encourage the conversations that will drive sales. Social CRM is a practice that will fit well into any business, including yours.

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