The New (Social) Customer Advocate

Over the past few months, the #scrm Accidental Community has had several conversations about who should “own” social media and Social CRM within an organization. Though we’ve had a lot of productive conversation, I believe we’ve collectively come to the conclusion that there is no definitive answer other than “it depends”. You can find some links to some of these conversations at the end of this blog post.

But don’t fear, dear readers. The dialogue has not been in vain. There have been a number of insightful takeaways, and the journey of those conversations has arguably been more valuable than the originally mapped destination.

In the end, some corporate Social Media initiatives will be unmistakeably intertwined with corporate DNA, being touted and driven throughout the organization from the top. Zappos is the first company to come to mind.

In other organizations, a groundswell will rise from within, starting slowly with one or two internal advocates who see real opportunity, and then spreading as small “wins” are accomplished and shared. The most likely areas from which this groundswell will emerge today are marketing and/or customer service.

At Comcast, just a few people have ultimately changed the corporate culture of a company 100,000+ strong. Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, one of Social Media for Business’s poster children recalls Comcast’s journey with Twitter. From Frank Reed’s Story over on Marketing Pilgrim:

β€œIt has changed the culture of our company,” Roberts said.

Comcast has for a while now been using Twitter to scan for complaints and engage with customers. The idea was not his, but rather rose organically when someone in the company realized that a lot of public complaints were being sent over Twitter.

Well, since we are talking about Twitter, let me share a little slice of my life from yesterday. Mitch Lieberman, John Moore, Josh Weinberger, Kathy Herrmann, Mike Muhney, Valeria Montoni , Russ Hatfield, Glenn Ross and I had the privilege of participating in another “accidental” conversation that was a slightly different iteration of this “Who should now own Social Media?” question. Wim Rampen showed up a little late, so he’ll just have to weigh in below (along with all the others where they’re not limited by 140 characters.) πŸ™‚

The topic being discussed by was essentially “Who should carry the front line conversation?” At first blush, this seems like a very similar question. However, I view it as significantly different. It’s different because it changes the conversation from “Who decides what the organization will do with Social Media?” to “Who actually does it?”. The conversation is moving from ideation to implementation, and that, my dear friends, is exciting.

(Speaking of implementation, after you are done reading this post, head over to Esteban Kolsky’s blog to read an excellent ongoing blogpost series titled “The Roadmap to SCRM”)

Valeria Montoni wrote a great article titled Twitter, Customer Service, and good Brand Management which speaks to the value of monitoring Twitter to hear what people are saying about your brand. Valeria shares both explicitly and implicitly that the traditional worlds of customer service, brand management, and marketing as a whole must be intertwined in the context of the Social dialogue.

If Social CRM is “…designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted & transparent business environment…the company’s response to the customer’s ownership of the conversation.”, then I submit that it makes perfect sense that the team or individual responsible for interacting with customers and prospects be FULLY EQUIPPED AND EMPOWERED to engage with the customer in whichever direction they’d like to take the conversation.

*** Let me restate that ***

The team or individual responsible for interacting with customers and prospects must be FULLY EQUIPPED AND EMPOWERED to engage with the customer in whichever direction they’d like to take the conversation.

Take a step back and consider the implications of that statement for a moment.

– How many different reasons are there for your organization have a conversation with your prospects and customers today? and subsequently…

– How many people within your organization can effectively lead or participate in each of those conversations in a manner which aligns with your organizational goals, vision, and strategy?

I am assuming your mind didn’t jump to a picture of your latest intern, or an entry level customer service rep. Most likely, your mind jumped to Director level and above type personnel. Every company has a couple of them – someone who just “gets it”. Someone who carries “juice” across departments, teams, org structure, and one of the few that is the living lifeblood of the organization.

Meet your new “Social Customer Advocate”; a big picture thinker, enthusiastic about the company’s vision and mission, in tune with marketing/branding strategy, with a genuinely caring and transparent attitude, a leader and manager, who is, oh by the way, savvy enough to look for opportunities to sell your company’s new product and service offerings.

They are customer service, marketing, and sales. They are the face of the organization, and their face and their written word are going to be well known across the interactive landscape of your customer and prospect base(s).

Here’s the Understatement of the Day: This type of thinking is a MAJOR SHIFT for many organizations.

For smaller companies, this actually may not be that difficult to imagine. Entrepreneurs across the country have lived in this multi-faceted role for decades. But for the Fortune 1000, is this possible? Can this scale?

I know what your thinking…

Companies have just spent the last couple of decades trying to minimize customer service costs. IVRs, offshoring, outsourcing, and entry level workers have become the first line of defense for corporations across the globe, and important/critical issues get escalated up the chain to the high paid knowledge workers only when necessary.

Yes. However, unfortunately for companies for who have spent gazillions building a corporate culture and infrastructure around minimizing the cost of each customer interaction, the customer now can not only yell about how unhappy they are with their poor experience to the gals at the salon, or the fellas at the local watering hole, but their disdain can be spread and amplified across the globe in days, if not hours.

I submit that as culture and society becomes more technologically social, organizations will need to change the way they interact.

Enter the Social Customer Advocate.
They will act as the funnel for corporate interactions through social channels. They will choose to engage directly, or distribute the customer or prospect requests to an appropriate resource within the organization. They are the brand’s representative to the world for anything that a prospect or customer may desire to dialogue about.

Today, they may be Directors, VPs, or even C-Level Execs. Ultimately, they will lead and quarterback the team to success, and the makeup of these folks will be darn hard to find, and even harder to duplicate.

Someday down the road, this role may be automated and replaced by technology like so many other key roles from yesteryear. But we are just journeying into this new frontier, and we are a long way from being able to successfully automate genuine conversations with customers..

So then, my questions for you:

1. Is it feasible for mid sized or large organizations to find and leverage the Social Customer Advocate?
2. What are the keys to finding, duplicating, and leveraging Social Customer Advocates?
3. What primary cultural challenges await this shift in customer engagement?
4. Who do you know that have already used a Social Customer Advocate or Advocate(s) in their organization?
5. What are your top arguments against using a Social Customer Advocate?

More Social CRM Reading:

Who Owns Social Media? by Brian Solis
Q: Who Should Own Social CRM – A: Not who you think by Graham Hill
Unleashing the Value of Social CRM: Where to find the biggest return
Social CRM: Overhyped Fad or Transformational Solution

27 Responses to The New (Social) Customer Advocate

  1. marktamis says:

    Interesting post, the only comment I’d like to add is that even if you find that rare bird that has the aptitudes to be your social customer advocate, you are introducing a new single point of failure which can be detrimental to the company if ever the person decides to move on.

    IMO such a person should be employed to nurture and push for organisational culture change so that every resource becomes a social customer advocate. If not the even greater risk is that everyone will just pay lip-service and go back to doing the tasks they are paid to do.

    Don’t let your social customer advocate become the Don Quijote fighting the windmills of corporate culture

    • marktamis says:

      just to elaborate on my Don Quijote comparison: as it is evloving now corporate culture will change to reflect societal changes in values and attitudes (=progress). To me the inspirational leader (=Don Quijote) will have a less predominant role in the future as they will be recognized as being fallible (or more simply said human like the rest of us).

      • Mark,

        I absolutely agree with you. One challenge of every organization is to find their greatest contributors and multiply them. One person cannot possibly be the face of the organization indefinitely, or perhaps even initially.

        The idea is to mitigate failure risk. While we spend a lot of time talking about the benefits/potential/opportunities within the world of Social Technologies, the concurrent challenge/benefit is that anything that is said on behalf of the brand can be amplified/archived/analyzed by the world.

        Many organizations are getting the hint that they have to start getting involved, but executives are (rightfully) concerned about the loss of control.

        The Customer Advocate will engage with customers, experimenting along the way, and defining models of Social communication for their organization as they journey. Over time, new strategies/opportunities, best practices for their specific organization will emerge, and give the Customer Advocate the opportunity to lead, teach, and multiply their role internally.

        Several years from now, everyone in the organization will be using social technologies, and this dialogue will seem as interesting as “How to use email to increase efficiency”. However, as we enter this new frontier, the Customer Advocate will lead the charge for brands for external Social communications.

  2. 1. Is it feasible for mid sized or large organizations to find and leverage the Social Customer Advocate?
    — it is feasible to seek out those that are already engaged in the social realm
    — “assigning” the role, well I have seen it only fail with the assignees pushing out messaging, not illiciting trust, not driving conversation…just hoping they are doing what corp comm asked them to and it’s off their checklist

    2. What are the keys to finding, duplicating, and leveraging Social Customer Advocates?
    –again seek out those already engaged internally or have some presence and “essence” – not necessarily needing full blown clout on a social platform. But they are passionate and engaged and can drive the conversation.
    –I wonder if you should try to duplicate. Again if you are developing deeper, unique relationships you cannot expect to automate the transaction unless you can guarantee and I mean 100% the right resolution, which I don’t think is possible if again, you are creating a relationship vs. transaction. Duplication is for transactions. I am no longer a transaction.

    3. What primary cultural challenges await this shift in customer engagement?
    –first, admitting that not everyone has the skillset. Just like with many other roles in an organization not everyone drinks from the social troth (my new favorite word)
    –learning to listen and apply the feedback you gain from the market into all aspects of the organization. Companies should be banging their heads against the wall of possibilities using tools like Zoomerang, Jive,, GetSatisfaction, etc. Organizations should always be striving to innovate and give the customer that which they may not even have thought of but at the same time customers are the users, who know the product and the requirements from a unique angle that can only strengthen the innovation process — collaboration is the key. Feedback is the start.

    4. Who do you know that have already used a Social Customer Advocate or Advocate(s) in their organization?
    –if they are I want in on the org. Can’t wait to hear who is. I am up for it if anyone wishes to step up!

    5. What are your top arguments against using a Social Customer Advocate?
    –not putting the right people in place period – if not right it will “introduce a single point of failure” BUT I will argue that that point already exists in organizations, be it in misaligned/unprepared teleprospecting, untargeted campaigns, wrong or no nurturing programs, sales misaligned thru compensation discrepancies etc.
    –biggest argument is that it will make organizations hear that which they mostly ignore, “why open Pandora’s box” BUT again I think it offers the opportunity to open Pandora’s other box, the one that strings but allows you to grow stronger by addressing.
    –as I look above I am laughing right now b/c I am realizing there are no arguments against that I have…

    Thanks for the post, it’s fun to think about!

    • Janet,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughtful reply. You bring up some interesting points:

      1. Find those who already understand the social realm – absolutely. In terms of assigning the role, this is exactly why it can’t be delegated to a “doer”, otherwise the outcome you describe is inevitable. The Social Customer Advocate must have ownership and understand the immediate and long term implications of the interaction. Not only am I interacting with this customer on a 1:1 basis, but the whole world (or a subset of it in a closed community) is watching.

      2. Duplication is of the skillsets are role. The biggest challenge I have with my idea is getting it to scale. How many people can I find, hire, and develop that can actually carry the mantle placed upon them?

      5. You are right about the single point of failure that already exists. There are dozens of them. I’d rather allow someone who lives and breathes my brand to potentially make a mistake, than a low level employee who is just collecting a paycheck and wants to “clock out” as soon as possible.

  3. Wim Rampen says:

    Thx for the invite Brian πŸ˜‰

    Reading your terrific post and questions a few thoughts come to mind with regard to scaling of conversations. I think this challenge is at the bases of your questions and your possible solution of Social Customer Advocates.

    Of course conversations on an individual level between Customers and employees on the widest variety of topics, like you describe, cannot scale without taking a completely different approach. Automating these conversations, IMHO, is a no-go area. One can automate transactions, decision tree problem solving etc, but real conversations, in a social world, are about people connecting with people. Authenticity and Transparency are two key elements to those conversations. Automation does not fit in this world and is just another way of trying to reduce costs of things you think you have too many of.

    We can go on and on about how, much like Best Buy’s Twelpforce, we need to involve all employees of the organization to have meaningful conversations, and what would be needed to make that possible. I think one-on-one conversations will not scale in the end, at least not without a completely different approach.

    The real problem is that there is just too much to talk about. Call Centers, Twitter, Facebook and many other channels are filled with people talking about experiences with brands/products/services etc, some good, most not.

    Hence, our reals question should be: 1. How can we scale the conversations to fit with the organization? 2. And how can we change the conversation from being about so many topics that we need these sheep with 5 legs to be able to have such conversations with Customers?

    Obviously I don’t have the answer, or I would not be here, right now πŸ˜‰ But maybe taking on the following challenge will help companies to come up with an answer:

    The Challenge:

    Take your combined budgets for Marketing & Customer Services and ask yourself the following:

    If I had this amount of money to spend, and I did not have any Marketing & Customer Services departments to spend it on (but you do still have the problems they solve), what would I do with it, to ensure that I can have meaningful, authentic conversations with my Customers that create value for both of us?

    Are you up for the challenge?

    • Wim,

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the number one problem I see with my idea. The scaling of not only conversations, but of skillsets.

      You mention authenticity and transparency. And Janet above asks if it is even possible or desirable to “duplicate”.

      As I write, the apparent solution is providing a loosely defined framework of core brand values and then allowing each customer advocate to be themselves within that context.

      Shel Israel, author of Twitterville wrote a great article the other day Personal Brands Impact on Corporate Brand which speaks to the importance of this concept.

      I agree that in the end 1:1 conversations will not scale. Analytics on customer conversations will ultimately allow brands, Customer Advocates to filter how and when they choose to engage. x% of customer and prospect inquiries will ultimately have to be directed to some level of automation.

      And you also bring up another great point, that some customer/prospect dialogue is simply a waste of time or counterproductive.

      Just as organizations must “fire” some customers, they also will need to “fire” some conversations as well. But now they must do both in front of a watching world. This is why the role of a customer advocate is so important. Make no mistake – this is a high risk proposition.

      And in regard to your challenge: I love it. It will be interesting to look back, but there is an argument for startups right now being better positioned to leverage the new technology.

      To start with the approach that you mention is WAY EASIER than to completely retool marketing and customer service departments in a traditional company.

      Good stuff Wim. I anxiously await the evolution of that idea.

  4. marktamis says:

    Hi Wim,

    Are you argueing for a merger between these services? Do away and start anew?

    Marketing is about creating prospects, generating leads – Customer Service (in the end) is about trying to ensure return business (although this is slowly turning into creating positive word-of-mouth marketing). So you’re looking to create the ‘Conversation Enterprise’? (- ‘department’ would create just another silo)

    fun πŸ™‚

    • Wim Rampen says:

      Hi Mark,

      I’m open to any new solution. My main line of thought is that companies should first seek to get rid of the conversations that no-one wants to have. Of course not 100 % possible, but thinking about it (and by that I do not mean giving it a thought and then move on the “old” way) can be healthy. If you think about the enormous amounts companies spend on having conversations with Customers that are not desired by either party, one could see this amount as means to create new conversations and get rid of the “old” ones.

      So, in our thoughts, we now have this enormous pot of gold, and nothing but (Customer) problems and desires. How do we spend the money wisely so that we can get rid of the problems and fulfill our desires, and as a result of this “investment” truly co-create value with our Customers.

      I think this is a fun exercise indeed. What do we need (to understand) to make this happen?

  5. marktamis says:

    So let’s see what these outcomes may be:

    – create experiences that customers will want to buy (I prefer experiences to talking about product/services)
    – have the whole ecosystem help define what experiences best meet the customer jobs
    – minimise the risk of failure and when failure does occur, deal with it efficiently and satisfactorily using all avaible ecosystem resources
    – draw others into the conversation for even richer experiences for all (and thus increase the customer base)

    simple starting points right?

    Also note that I do not emphasize ‘customer experience’, but that I am leaning towards ‘ecosystem experience’ – I think it is not enough to only work towards empassioned customers, but rather that all those involved (customers, employees, partners, suppliers) should benefit from the co-creation of the experience in order to get the most out of it for the greater benefit of all!

  6. Pingback: Are you up for The (Social) Challenge? « Wim Rampen's Blog

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  8. Russ says:

    Hi Brian,

    I’m joining in here late so am not quite in the flow of the dicussion, so the following are just a few loosely-joined comments.

    First, I especially appreciate the questions you left us with. The post itself is great food for discussion, but the questions just make it moreso — as the subsequent comments prove. Hallmark of a great post, IMO.

    I must admit that when you asked us to imagine our Social Customer Advocate that my mind did NOT immediately jump to a Director-ish level individual(nor did it quite go to an intern). It went, instead, to the guys on the front-lines. I’m big on those Moments of Truth where the rubber meets the road and all those processes and best-practices and vision statements and new-fangled tools and high-priced consulting deliverables play out in make-or-break instants of real life customer interaction. After reading further, though, I understood better why this advocate, as defined in your context, is best suited to be a bit farther from the front-lines. I suppose positioning this person just high/low enough in the org is key.

    Mark emphasized the cultural change(ok, everyone did). This is HUGE to me. Again, if we’re talking about implementation, sustained execution and ongoing optimization it absolutely comes down to organizational change. It is inescapable. At the heart of any of this we’re talking about human beings — and I’m talking about the organization, not the customers — with needs, desires, fears, shared and conflicting motives, competing priorities, limited resources, all mixed-together with rapidly changing external markets that give us a bunch of ambiguity while demanding that we still do something pretty darn quickly! It’s tough out there being a change agent πŸ˜‰ The word ‘inculcate’ keeps coming to mind. I don’t care if so-and-so is the world’s leading authority on social media, sCRM, whatever — if they don’t “get” the organizational change(ie people) piece then we’re just asking for trouble. So, your Customer Advocates must be not only subject-matter experts(social media, CEM, branding, etc.) but also Org Change and Continual Process Improvement advocates. You can’t have one without the other…well not for very long, at least.

    On the issue of Control. I actually can sympathize with the CEO(to start at the top) who might seem slow to embrace social media. Now, this isn’t to say that I condone or agree with each and every instance of this sort of behavior, but it’s an important dynamic to understand. You describe top-down, fully-permeated cultures(eg Zappos) and groundswell, grassroots ones(eg Comcast). Whichever direction change moves from and to you’ve got to see the CEO as a customer, too. That is, sooner or later this whole notion will have to be sold to him. Maybe this is easy, quick and painless…maybe it’s not. It’ll vary for a number of reasons. But the CEO is in a unique position. As no-brainer as social media, customer experience, engagement, etc. might seem to us(as practitioners) the CEO also has on his plate a whole slew of similarly positioned must-haves, critical-to-success, competitive advantage enhancing alternatives: The Human Capital Advocate(HR) is talking about the need to address the retiring workforce and loss of tacit knowledge, the latest retention strategies, and the newest workforce management trend. The Competitive Intelligence Advocate(IT) is talking about Green IT, virtualization, ITIL, and HIPAA/SOX/PCI. And so on. And then you have marketing/service/sales talking about social media and its brethern. And here’s the thing: it’s all good! But we have limited resources(people, know-how, money, time) and so decisions have to be made that, by necessity, will mean the exclusion of any number of options. This is strategy. Anyway, I think you get my point. To think that a CEO might want to wait a bit to take this all in is understandable. It can certainly lead to paralysis or plain ignorance but it IS a dynamic that anybody trying to nurture Customer Advocacy in some new and relatively un-proven form is going to have to appreciate and address.

    On the “duplication” front, all I’ll add is that, in general, if you think about what makes a good “Customer Advocate”(whether the Chief CA or the Indian CAs) you’re probably talking about what traits and skillsets that would make a good employee of your company, period. Besides the subject-matter expertise, everybody should be customer-centric and brand-aware — from HR, to Finance, to IT, etc. So, make these qualities requirements(ala Zappos) for your company — not just for the CA department or function. You’re better off for it, IMO, and you’re on your way to better scalability(up to a point).

    Another thing: if something is really a priority you’ll find a way to make it happen. If you’re growing and need more Customer Advocates that meet, for example, a particularly defined job description in order to scale — you can find them! But it has to be truly important to you. That is, you’ll have to make the effort, recruit effectively, allow for the time required AND pay for it. It’s supply and demand. Trust me: if Social Advocates(however defined) were suddenly valued more highly(paid more and other things) you’d see an associated increase in supply in the labor market. People would move to your location(eg people move to Las Vegas for Zappos), people would go to school/get training to meet the requirements, etc. Again, this assumes you truly demonstrate the value of this role in your org.

    You and Wim bring up great points with regards to the fact that not all conversations and customers are equally valuable. That they are both fire-able. It’s a plain fact. Econ 101 says there are opportunity costs and that we live in a world of limited resources and this demands selectivity. Automation has some place, analytics does, too — they’re Force Multipliers, maybe. But at the end of the day a whole bunch of customers are going to go relatively ignored. Sacrosacnt to say, I know, but it means we better do right by the ones we do select(or a forced to) engage.

    Half-jokingly, if you CAN actually maintain a 1:1 relationship with your customers you’re probably not looking to grow OR have too few customers πŸ˜‰ Numbers of Customers will almost always exceed number of Customer Advocates so it’s about, again, selectivity and making the most of those active and passive experiences you do share with some set of your entire customer base.

    And I love Mark’s idea of a ecosystem experience. I hope that’s a blog post soon πŸ˜‰

    Boy…I ramble sometimes πŸ˜›

    Seattle, WA

    • Russ,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      And thanks for stopping by and taking the time to respond; A truly great response by the way. I’ve now read it 3 times.

      To your point, the organizational change is certainly a big one, and whether we’re talking scrm, e20, erp, or any other technology supported initiative, the technology is usually the easiest part. The process definition always takes time and thought and effort, but is manageable, and typically measurable if done right.

      It IS the organizational change that always seems to be the stickler, and the hardest to overcome. Your verbiage does a great job of illustrating the reality that competes on the battlefield of success with the vision of bright minds. πŸ™‚

      As it relates to the Customer Advocate, specifically, you’re right. If they are the face and voice of the organization to its prospect and customer base(s), they MUST also be a change agent and well respected internally (or have a tightly coupled counterpart to translate this external dialogue into actionable intelligence).

      They must be able to navigate internal politics to align the organization’s value chain with ever changing customer needs. Filtering obviously also plays in huge here.The issue of scale still weighs heavily in my mind. “When and how” to respond – and “when and how” not to respond. This further underscores my reasoning that the (Social) Customer Advocate must be senior, with clout. If organizations are willing to venture this direction (and they’ll ultimately be forced to), there is a lot riding on the role. Until organizations figure it out, their venture into the social realm could end up rather messy if not managed appropriately.

      Much of what we are talking about isn’t new. The fundamentals of business, customer centricity, and successful leadership and change management principles haven’t changed.

      The only difference that we’re trying to adjust to is that social media amplifies these activities – for better or worse. Social technologies have turned up the volume on the speed and reach of our activities, personal and corporate.

      High volume and high reach of successful customer experience will provide exponential returns. High volume and high reach of poor customer experience(s) may ultimately lead to company failure.

  9. marktamis says:

    look at this artcile from 1998 – Cisco had someone that wanted others to call him “Senior Vice President of Customer Advocacy” – not sure the role corresponds to what you describe above, but the term is is same πŸ™‚

  10. Russ says:

    10+ years ago. Well, I guess when you think about it buzzwords were at their peak around that time, too πŸ™‚

    Ran a Linked-In search and appears there are a number of Director level and above with that title. Me thinks some follow-up, interview, etc. with one or more is in order πŸ™‚


  11. Mike Boysen says:

    I can’t be expected to read all these comments! πŸ™‚

    Here are two things I would add (if they haven’t been added).

    1. You’re right, it’s going to be easier to find someone in a mid-sized company that can wear this hat. However, I am still struggling with my perception that mid-sized companies will be slow to adopt “social media” because “United Broke My Guitar” has far more impact than “ABC Pipe and Supply Distributors Broke My Pipe”. I see this as more probably in the highly visible consumer brand world.

    2. I would give this responsbility to the Chief Customer Experience Office (CCEO). This position shouldn’t be inolved in any day to day line management. They should be leaders, communicators, convincers, facilitators and have the ability to set goals, measure and communicate needed change across all facets of the business. In a mid-sized business, maybe this is the Pres/CEO but in a larger company, this should be a specific C-level exec dedicated to the task.

  12. Hi Brian,

    I saw your tweet asking for opinions from the B2B marketing world on this post. However, my comments couldn’t fit into a 140 character DM.

    This is a great post and brings up a very important issue. For every company embracing social media there is another company locking their employees out of social media sites – probably because they think employees waste too much time during business hours. This may be true. However, I know a franchise owner who is not allowed to blog about her business. She feels she is missing out on marketing opportunities because she can’t reach customers through social media.

    Executives need to realize transparency is a huge part of successful marketing today. They should allow employees blog and tweet about their companies.

    Just as companies lose some control of their brand due to customer complaints via social media, they will lose even more control by not allowing employees to talk about them online. Employees should be encouraged to interact with customers and prospects online. Once word gets out that employees are not allowed on social media sites, many customers will wonder if the company is trying to hide something.

    Companies that shy away from social media are only limiting their growth opportunities.

    While many companies leverage social media, it will take time – and lots of education – to get the β€œold boys” on board. One Social Customer Advocate may start this new journey, but it will take a shift in corporate culture to get the most out of social media.

    If you would like an example of a company embracing social media, check out FreshBooks. Due to their innovative social networking and customer service efforts, the company has established a very vocal group of advocates.

    Rachel Foster

    • Rachel,

      Thanks for much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. In general, I agree with the overall focus of your sentiment, but there are some caveats.

      Yes, you are right – 54% of companies have banned social media according to a study by Robert Half International. The numbers seem high to me, quite frankly, but it will change over time. Mobile will have a big impact on that, in addition to your point about the message it sends to customers and prospects. I knew several companies in the late 90s that banned internet usage, only to realize they were losing opportunities by that policy. The concept of banning the internet today is ludicrous, save for a few situations.

      Transparency is good when you have a well run organization and great employees. The social technology shift in the long run will likely have positive impact on organizations cleaning up their act as they WILL BE FORCED to more closely align their organization with their customers and prospects, or suffer because of it.

      The counterpoint to these ideas is that to just invite the world into your back office, your virtual water cooler, or even your board room with no qualification and no governing ground rules is even more ludicrous. Championing transparency, blogging, and social tools isn’t enough. By themselves, they won’t change a thing. as you point out, the shift in corporate culture is the thing.

      Here is a great memo written by Chris Selland that I believe represents a large majority of executive’s viewpoints on the subject currently.

      I believe that over the next year, we’ll see more and more companies “open up” and “tighten up” at the same time by allowing their employees to participate while establishing corporate social media policies. Click here is a growing list of already established social media policies. My bet is by this time next year, this list will have grown exponentially.

      Best regards,

  13. Barry Dalton says:

    Great, thorough assessment of the topic. Forgive me for chiming in late here and potentially repeating some comments. I would add a slightly different perspective to a couple of your key elements.

    One being that I think the argument flows back and forth a bit much between strategy development and strategy execution (strategy mgmt a whole other rabbit hole for another time). While I agree that this Social Customer Advocate, as defined, is a valuable role in mid-cap to larger companies, analogous to a CCO, I think the role is better served in a strategy development capacity.

    As for structure of how that strategy is filtered throughout the organization, a hub and spoke model as proposed by Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group several months back is more efficient that a funnel. As a start, it pushes decision making at the engagement level out to the various stakeholders rather than controlling centrally. Even if just visually, funnels imply a potential bottle neck to a process.

    This leads to the next point of empowerment. While the SCA has a key role in setting the social strategy, i think it is contradictory to your empowerment position to assert that only senior level executives ‘get it’ and have the capacity to engage with customers in the social space.

    Zappos, a model I admire and that you reference, actually sees it very differently. Yes, Tony Hsiieh blogs and tweets on behalf of the brand, but check out this unscripted interaction between a customer and a lowly CSR (albeit on a web chat). this could never happen in an environment where only Directors, VPs or C’s are empowered to have unscripted conversations with customers.

    “How many people within your organization can effectively lead or participate in each of those conversations in a manner which aligns with your organizational goals, vision, and strategy?”

    I sure as heck hope the answer to that today, regardless of channel, is your entry level CSR, sales rep, AR rep and anyone else that touches the customer.

    thanks again!

    • Barry,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Ultimately I think the hub and spoke model makes a lot of sense, but for most organizations I think that the jump in culture is too significant. In my experience, that concept works well on a white board, and is likely where we’re heading in the future, but businesses in general will likely take years to evolve to get there. Startups may be the exception – as is Zappos. Their culture was built around engagement and service from the start, and as I mention in my post, there is a lot to admire about the organization and their culture. There are innovative companies starting today that are likely building their organization with this model at the forefront of their business model and design.

      My post was mostly targeted to those businesses who are established, have conducted business through traditional channels for quite some time, and more closely represent a command and control environment than a collaborative one. (That’s a discussion for another day).

      In regard to your empowerment point, I honestly don’t think that many people really get it at this point. That includes executives, and even those of us who dedicate a lot of our time and energy in this space. We are in a persistent test, measure, and improve type of mode. Though there are some level of “best practices” beginning to emerge, there is no “one way” to engage via social channels. I don’t think core policies and guidelines for engagement in a traditional call center directly scale to Social Media interactions if really done right. There are no filters or routing in place – it’s just someone out there engaging directly with the company, and in the world of Twitter, LinkedIn, and Blogs, those are largely senior level folks today. Engagement will likely look different for each company and their customers. Companies have to figure out where their customers, prospects, and advocates are, engage in the channels and methods that most closely align with them, and provide the most valuable level of engagement possible. Most companies don’t have tried and true policies on how to engage via Social Media, because they haven’t done it. It’s a real time exploration endeavor.

      Therein lies the place where most companies are today —> They have to simply START!

      The next logical questions are how and who. Remove the words social media and the context of customer facing roles and let’s describe what we’re talking about in a broader sense: Your company is venturing into a highly visible, high risk/high reward endeavor – who should be your leader, spokesman and representative? In my mind, I’m not really thinking about merely answering what would commonly be described as customer service questions. I’m thinking more about the virtual equivalent of customer site visits, traditional media appearances (think CNBC or Radio), strategic PR and Marketing campaigns (through outbound Twitter and Facebook posts), real time Social Media Monitoring that might be related to the brand conversations, but also other key words that might include things like competitors, core capabilities, complimentary products and services, any of which could potentially fork into real time conversations about development roadmaps, co-creation, vision, strategy, or even be a conversation like the one you posted. (Side Note: These more strategic interactions will most likely transfer to different channels if there is any meat behind them, but again, that is another post)

      Over time, analytics will be available to determine the skillsets necessary to interact on each channel, but I submit that no one will know until that company gets involved, listens to the conversations that their customers are having and engages appropriately, and I do still think this requires a unique skillset to blaze the trail initially.

      CSRs on the phone can be measured and coached about a call that wasn’t handled properly, same with a chat. With 1:1 engagement, the risk is limited to that one person plus their immediate sphere of influence. If a conversation over Twitter, Facebook, Corporate Blog, or corporate or public community platform goes extremely bad, or the company brand is misrepresented, the repercussions could be much more significant.

      And finally, one last point: We need to all remember that we’re talking in generalities. B2B and B2C will be different. SME and Large Enterprise will be different. Interactions in different industries will be different. Hopefully this dialog provides a starting point – a base to get started from as organizations determine their strategy of engaging through social channels.

      Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      – Brian

  14. Tatyana says:

    Hi Brian,

    nice post.

    Decided to add my 2 cents to this discussion. I have done my share of customer contact centers engagements, sat on many phone calls with the agents to fully grasp all the challenges.

    Now going back to your questions.

    What has changed – new channels has been added – social media ones. I recall the same or similar debates when email kicked in as a customer support channel:) We can’t do one-to-one conversations – way too expensive… etc.. So we came up with the tools and processes that allowed organizations to provide reasonably good customer service at some manageable costs.

    How to deal with these new service/support channels – the social media ones? Maybe to follow the methodology that worked before – get back to your customer right away with the link to the relevant knowledge base article and option to escalate? Have equivalent of 1-800 call agents – to route requests to the second level of support?
    The key here will be to utilize all the existing back end processes to support new social media/networking requests – this will be the most immediate cost effective solution.

    Glad you joined SCRM think tank group – I am getting key SCRM executives from the industry to participate.
    Look forward to continuation of these discussions in person!

    Best regards,

    • Tatyana,

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment. Good points related to the call center and I don’t necessarily disagree. Check out my response to Barry Dalton in the comments above as he mentioned similar thoughts. The Social Customer Advocate is much more than just a replacement for a call center.

      Thanks for getting the meetup group started, and I definitely look forward to continuing the dialogue face to face.

      Best regards,

  15. Pingback: 12 of the Best Articles on Social CRM | CloudAve

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