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Customer Service is the New, New Marketing

The topic of empowering your customers so that they become an extension of your marketing isn’t new. Transforming people into a surrogate sales force is the dream of any service organization.  The difference today is that the landscape has shifted to the point where good customer service is no longer the minimum ante to play the game.

Over the next decade, customer service will fuse with marketing to become a holistic inbound, outbound campaign of listening to and engaging with customers that will rewrite the rules of the game.  And, most importantly, the lessons learned in the field will be fed into the marketing department to create and run more intelligent, experienced, and real world initiatives across all forms of marketing, PR, sales, and advertising.

Over the last year, Social Media has intrigued and even inspired companies to engage in the communities where their brands and products, as well those of competitors, are actively discussed by the very people they want to reach, aka the new influencers. Participation is no longer an option as Social Media isn’t a spectator sport.

Whether you believe it or not, these conversations are taking place with or without you, so ignoring them only eliminates you from the conversation and also removes your company from the radar screens of your customers.

Marketing-savvy corporate executives are working with PR, Advertising, and Marcom teams to explore options and strategies on how to participate in relevant online conversations. This represents a shift in outbound marketing as it creates a direct channel between companies and customers, and ultimately people. It starts to look a lot less like marketing and a lot more like customer service.

Last year, I introduced customer service into the Social Media equation, as for every company, PR is truly is the responsibility of the entire organization. But it’s much bigger than boxing it in a PR paradigm. I truly believe customer service is the new marketing and communities are at the very least, opportunities to engage customer service.

Social Media is rooted in conversations between people and peers, regardless of the technology that facilitates them, and everyday they take place across blogs, networks, forums, micromedia, and online groups. And, each day, with every new community and social tool that is introduced, brands, products and services are actively discussed, supported, and disassembled. Some companies are listening, while many aren’t even paying attention.

Services such as GetSatisfaction, ThisNext, and even DIY communities such as Ning, Yahoo and Google Groups, and Facebook are playing host to conversations between customers regarding products and services, and while they don’t invite marketing, they do seek helpful information, advice, and direction.

Social Media represents an entirely new way to reach customers and connect with them directly. It adds an outbound channel that complements inbound customer service and traditional PR, direct marketing and advertising, placing companies and their customers on a level playing field to discuss things as peers. Most importantly, it transcends the process of simply answering questions to creating a community of enthusiasts and evangelists.

For the most part, the only way companies know that customers have questions, comments, or concerns, is if they contact customer service, make the news, form a public group, or if buying patterns, stock value, and sales trends suddenly shift.

You can bet that for every inbound customer inquiry, that there is a significant percentage of existing and potential customers actively discussing the same topic out in the open, simply looking for guidance, feedback, acknowledgment, and/or information. And usually, these discussions transpire without company participation, leaving people to resolve issues and questions on their own.

Why leave the door open for your competition to jump into the conversation and steer customers in their direction?

Companies must engage or they place themselves on the long road to inevitable obsolescence.

It’s like the old adage, out of sight, out of mind. Or, quite simply, engage or die.

Nowadays participation is marketing.

Conversations are marketing.

Experiences are marketing.

However, marketing needs to be clarified as I am not referring to the traditional marketing that typically “speaks” at people through “messages.” In Social Media, this is about dialog, two way discussions that bring people together in order to discover and share information…and adapting businesses along with our learning. Joining the conversation isn’t as simple as jumping in however.

Companies first need to listen in order to accurately analyze how, where, and when to participate.

Social Media forces companies to look outward to proactively find the conversations that are important to business and relationships. And it’s not just the responsibility of PR, it requires the participation by multiple disciplines across the organization in order to genuinely provide meaningful support and information. Again, we’re not talking about messaging or sales propositions. If you stop to think about it, we’re talking about fusing marketing, PR, community relations, and customer service in an entirely new socially-aware role.

This is about formalizing outbound communications and community participation, creating a dedicated team to ensure that customers and influencers are not overlooked, but engaged.

We’re already seeing companies that are either dividing outbound responsibilities among existing teams or dedicating roles to full time listening, participating, responding, and commenting across all forms of Social Media. But, this isn’t limited to a select few businesses. This is a role that will become standard in companies around the globe, from SMBs to enterprise organizations, and will likely scale from one person to teams.

This is more than prioritizing enhanced customer service to bloggers. We shouldn’t aim our fire hoses at only fires that have public attention. We need to focus on customers that take the time to contribute to and participate in social networks that simply seek information – even if it is delivered in the form of a rant. Furthermore, we can not simply rely on inbound service. We have to analyze inbound activity in order to seek out related conversations among those that decide to take the conversation outside of the traditional service process.

>In addition to advertising, PR and marcom, these new roles are combining a variety of marketing disciplines including, communications, customer support, and product management and go by several titles:

– Community Advocate
– Community Manager (although, I also hear push back on this title, as communities can’t really be managed.)
– Community Ambassador
– Social Media or Community Specialist
– Community Relations
– Community Builders

Many of us have been involved in online community relations since Web 1.0 through topic-driven discussion groups, user forums and other online communities such as DejaNews, Yahoo, and Google.

We did so as experts and didn’t try to BS the people who were seeking advice and answers. This is an important note because, in order for any of this to work, you actually have to know not only about your products, services, reputation, strengths, weaknesses, and benefits, but also how you compete in the market and where you stand against the competition.

The social media landscape is vast and growing, and may require several internal people to listen and participate every day across blog posts, blog comments, forums, groups, social networks, micromedia, etc.

Please note, that contrary to the Social Media love fest that’s taking place across the blogosphere, not anyone can jump in and solve problems. Companies need to create an internal game plan that officially assigns specific people who will go in and help customers.

Listening to active communities will dictate your participation. But let me point out something very important here. It’s not just about reactive community relations. Companies can and should learn from listening to and talking with customers to create specific content that addresses the wants and needs of customers and distribute it within their communities. This allows you to translate the lessons learned from one on one conversations for the greater good of the masses.

Outbound customer and community relations is among the most important campaigns any company can integrate in its immediate and future initiatives. It not only helps PR and customer service, it builds relationships, creates enthusiasts, and ultimately instills customer loyalty.

If you’re looking for a way to FIND answers in social media, consider Engage!: It will help

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