Get your customers to do your marketing with Web 2.0

Today, with consumers shopping less but demanding more value from every dollar spent, the buzz around brand is understandable.

Brand loyalty is crucial to improving sales – and customer satisfaction is the best and fastest way to build such loyalty.

Few things build customer satisfaction as much as quickly addressing their questions and concerns, as Seattle-based Decho Corp. (an EMC company) discovered.

Decho offers online backup products for businesses, its flagship offering being MozyPro for remote data backup.

Rather than just wait for customers to call them – with complaints or queries – Decho says it has adopted a more proactive approach.

The company uses social media tools to actively search for customer queries, and then addresses them.

Decho executives say users are starting to provide comments and feedback about products they buy online in very different ways.

“Increasingly, they are choosing to reach out to the online community and ask questions about our products, rather than contact us directly,” said Dave Robinson, vice-president of marketing at Decho.

He said if people are asking questions about Decho products on the Web, it’s the company’s “responsibility to answer them.”

And these answers are often provided in non-conventional ways.

A generally “young” company – with most employees in their 20s and early 30s – Decho has grown up in the world of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Robinson said very early on the firm began realizing the benefits social media could bring to their business.

Through actively engaging on Web 2.0 sites, he said, employees began to see a lot of chatter around their online backup offering, Mozy.

Many customers were initially asking questions about the basics of the product, as well as seeking help with set up or maintenance.

Slowly, and without too much thought, Decho employees began to respond to customers directly via online queries and comments, tweets and other messages as they saw them pop up on blog posts, Twitter or on Facebook.

The results of such informal interaction between employees and customers went beyond what anyone anticipated.

So Decho decided to formalize this interaction, creating the position of “social media evangelist” inside the organization. This person’s job is to continuously monitor Web 2.0 sites for queries, criticisms or comments.

“It’s amazing how you can transform a bad situation into a positive one by showing you care,” Robinson said. “People really appreciate hearing from the company and the worst thing you can do is ignore their questions or comments.”

The Decho executive says all businesses – from large firms to startups – should be using the Web to open up two-way communication with customers.

He says social media sites should not just be used as one-way broadcast tools for promos and sales, but also as channels to foster customer-vendor interaction.

Swifter feedback is one positive outcome from proactive use of social media to reach out to customers – rather than waiting on their queries, according to Robinson.

No sooner is there mention of the company’s name on a Web 2.0 site, he says, than the Decho evangelist receives that information via RSS feed.

The question may be quick and easy to respond to and capable of being resolved in minutes, rather than a day. What’s more, the company is able to monitor the Web outside regular business hours.

Customers also feel social media responses are more personal than e-mail, Robinson said.

And a whack of free publicity is one by-product of such interaction.

Happy with the way they were treated by Decho staff, many users blog about the Decho brand providing free advertising and generating word-of-mouth marketing about the company’s products.

Apart from enhancing customer interaction, participation in social media can have a tangible impact on a company’s ROI, according to a Canadian analyst.

Firms that don’t use social media in this way miss out on being part of an important conversation, noted Cindy Gordon, CEO of Helix Commerce International, a business innovation consulting firm in Toronto.

She said these sites are a great research tool for customers, and companies should pay close attention to them as a negative review or comment about customer service could adversely affect sales.

Gordon cited the example of Comcast, the U.S. telecom company that in the past received a ton of damaging publicity for bad customer service on its phone help desk.

In 2006, a company technician was unable to get through on the phone line to install a customer’s cable modem. The technician fell asleep on the customer’s couch waiting on hold – an event that was video taped by the customer and distributed on YouTube.

It was and picked up by the New York Times, Forbes and MSNBC.

“Poor customer service stories travel just as fast as good ones, especially on the Web,” Gordon said. “Stories on Twitter get spread very quickly and when a negative comment is posted, companies have to step in and respond.”

Comcast has since embraced the same social media tools that decimated its customer service reputation two years ago, with the launch of Comcast Cares.

The program monitors Web 2.0 tools and responds to queries or complaints immediately, sometimes in less than 15 minutes.

“Twitter is a very effective way to find out what the public thinks about your company,” Gordon said. She said it’s silly to stay away from such sites, out of fear of encountering negative comments.

And yet, this fear may be a real obstacle to many senior executives.

A study by Avanade Consulting found 60 per cent CEOs in Canada are hesitant to adopt social media.

Gordon says lack of knowledge is a major barrier to adoption – these tools are still in their infancy stage and awareness and education about them is still growing.

In North America, premiere financial institutions – such as JP Morgan, the Royal Bank of Canada, and Bank of America – are starting to use these tools, but others, such as CIBC, are still lagging behind, she said.

Cisco has been simplifying the experience of purchasing their telecom products by creating a wiki on their home page, Gordon says.

The wiki explains telecom industry jargon in a way customers can understand.

She said IBM has also been very active in using social media and other tools to reach out to stakeholders. The media centre on its site features millions of podcasts and uploads on a wide variety of business topics.

While social media tools have proven business benefits, one observer warns firms against falling into the trap of “gate jumping.”

If you’re going to use these tools for customer service, the entire company should be involved in the process, said Laura Fitton, principal at Pistachio, a New York-based micro-blogging consulting group.

A trend still exists in many corporations where only one or two individuals are allowed to represent the brand, for fear employees would say too much.

That’s certainly not been something Zappos has been afraid of.

The online retail site has more than 400 employees on Twitter, who are authorized to represent the brand and encouraged to reach out to customers, said Fitton.

The model works better because the entire company is immersed in a customer service culture, and uses powerful tools to advertise its brand, she said.

Their advantage is they also target a unique niche of tech-savvy computer users who are likely to shop online, she said.

Use of social media to build brand and win customers makes a lot of sense in Canada where folk spend plenty of time online doing research before buying, especially an IT purchase.

Positive reports of customer service or quick responses and feedback to Tweets or blog posts can go a long way, said Stephane Gagnon, CRM group manager at Avanade, an enterprise resource consulting firm.

As many more companies invest heavily in search engine marketing, Gagnon said they should also be monitoring Twitter sites for comments about their company’s reputation because Twitter ranks very high in Google results.

The nature of links, back links, and frequent updates scores well with Google’s search requirements, so any negative comments could get passed through Twitter quickly as well as the general Web.

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