By Caroline Fawcett, Managing Director, Customer Experience First

Listening to your customers, not just talking at them

Many businesses are now using social media as an important marketing and communications channel. Perhaps your business is regularly tweeting its special offers or running competitions on its Facebook page?

I heard a great story this week about a small traditional bakery in the city of London creatively using Twitter to increase its sales by tenfold. Instead of baking its famous pies in the morning then selling them to hungry office workers for a short period around lunchtime it has started tweeting when it lifts the latest batch of pies from the ovens, each hour throughout the day. The customers get the tweet and rush over to “get them while they’re hot”! The bakery has created an event that its customers look forward to, and they have responded by buying more and of course telling their colleagues.

Some businesses have recognised that social media can also be an integral tool in improving their customers’ total experience of their brand. Social media is now an increasingly important part of how you can, and should, deliver a better customer experience. This is based on the simple acknowledgement of something we all know, but can often forget, and that’s that communication is a two-way process. It’s about listening to your customers as well as telling them the things you want them to hear.

Social media is an increasingly important element of our customers’ lives, both personal and business, and we need to recognise that we have to interact and engage with them through this media to ensure that our businesses continue to thrive in the future. Because if we don’t, our competitors surely will.

Evolving your use of social media

Business Link is one organisation that has demonstrated how you can evolve your use of social media, from being simply a communication tool to one that is actually integrated into your customers’ whole end to end experience. Business Link is the government’s online resource for businesses, provided through its website, businesslink.gov.uk. It is run by Serco on behalf of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and contains information and services from all government departments.

Business Link wanted to increase its reach, to provide information, compliance help and support to more businesses across the UK. It started using social media as a low cost marketing channel in 2010. It set up a Twitter account, managed by its PR team, and began by sending out at least one tweet a day about new or existing services on businesslink.gov.uk. The tweets encouraged followers to click on links to take them to the website to get relevant help and support. Business Link now has over 25,000 followers, one of the largest Twitter followings across government.

The Business Link team also created a Facebook page which carried similar stories, but obviously in more depth and making greater use of rich media such as videos. They have used the Facebook Insight function to monitor activity and reach. The team have found that as this function has been constantly improved by Facebook, they have been able to learn more and more about how their customers engage with them.

In comparing social media channels, the team saw that although their Facebook page had less “likes” than Twitter followers (currently 2,400), it drives more site visits proportionally than Twitter. So although Facebook is not traditionally considered a B2B channel it does seem to perform well for Business Link in terms of engaging customers. Business Link has carried out extensive research into its customers and potential customers, and it is clear that different customer segments use social media in different ways. For example, Business Link’s “pre-start” business customers and early entrepreneurs appear to use Facebook more than other segments. As a result the team has recognised it can’t apply a blanket approach when using social media channels. Business Link has now started to experiment with LinkedIn to see if this will help to reach people in more established businesses.

Integrating social media into the whole customer experience

The communications team at Business Link monitored what people were saying about it across the web using sproutsocial.com as a low cost tool, as well as the free services measuring social media engagement on klout.com and socialmention.com. What they discovered encouraged Business Link to rapidly evolve social media from being just a broadcast tool to being an integrated element of the total customer experience for visitors to the website.

They identified that there were two very important, but distinct ways, in which they could use social media to improve their customers’ experience of interacting with them. The first was to proactively develop it as a customer service channel and the other was to adopt it as a new source of customer understanding to build into the continuous improvement of businesslink.gov.uk. The first was tactical and about individual customers whereas the second was strategic and designed to enhance the experience of all future visitors to the site.

Improving individual customer service

Individual requests for help have always been received through emails generated by the onsite help service. These are responded to by the customer help team, often in conjunction with teams from one or more government departments. With the growth of its use of social media Business Link now receives frequent Twitter requests for help. The help team responds with Tweets, providing general advice and information. This means that other followers with similar questions can see the responses, and it also demonstrates that the organisation is proactively listening and responding to its customers. Where the requests are specific to the individual the help team asks the customer to contact them by email so they can provide a secure reply if necessary, and they can also give a more than 140 character answer.

A new way of providing customer service support through social media was Business Link’s use of a scheduled Twitter Q&A during Global Enterprise Week in November 2011. This was also a good demonstration of how social media can be used for marketing communication and customer service at the same time. Two new online services, one for people starting-up a business and one for existing businesses to help them grow, were launched in November 2011. The communications and customer services teams at Business Link worked together to promote the new services to customers through the site itself and through its social media channels. This included inviting people to raise questions about the new services, or more generally about any business issues, by tweeting Business Link and by taking part in live Twitter Q&A sessions with well known business people.

The result was that customers and potential customers were able to get their customer service questions answered, and they learnt about the new services. Business Link was also able to proactively demonstrate that it really wanted to engage and listen to its customers.

Improving future customer experience

Business Link recognises that in order to encourage more people in UK businesses to use its digital services it has to continuously improve them. It needs to give people as good a customer experience as possible, so they will want to explore the whole range of services on the site, and crucially, want to recommend them to others. The team had already integrated their traditional customer research data with feedback provided by customers directly through the online help service. The comments from customers through the owned Twitter and Facebook channels, and from Business Link’s monitoring of comments elsewhere on the social media networks, have now been incorporated into this customer insight. The integrated customer feedback and research is provided to businesslink.gov.uk’s web editors, who use it with over 70 government departments and agencies to enhance existing services and develop new ones.

A recent example of Business Link using social media to improve the future customer experience was a customer’s comments on a small business blog about the government’s national insurance waiver for small businesses not being available through Business Link. The web editor responsible for tax and payroll information was alerted and found that although the relevant information was on the website, the way in which both the onsite search tool and the navigation pointed to the content was unhelpful. Both were corrected so that future customers visiting the site could find what they needed to know, and a note to this effect was posted on the blog. This meant that both the original blogger and subsequent readers would know that Business Link had listened to the comment and responded positively.

Customers will talk

This story demonstrates that even if you are not encouraging customers to tell you what they think of your product or service through your owned social media channels, they will still be talking about you elsewhere. It is generally agreed that social media is moving brand control from businesses to their customers. And the social media rule of 1:9:90 — that for every one customer who posts a comment, nine will respond and 90 will read it — means that the new digital word of mouth is a powerful amplifier of brand messages, positive and negative. This is one very important reason why is it so important to embrace social media into your whole customer experience management, not just your marketing activities. And of course, as Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”

Contact Caroline via email. And you can follow Caroline on Twitter @customexpfirst

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