I began writing research about collaboration and social networking with a piece about Mercury Interactive’s use of social networking to drive down support costs and improve brand and reputation. That was seven years ago, and I had a single call from a business about the concept. Underwhelming response. They say timing is everything, but it isn’t everything: the rest is hype. Right now the concepts of community, and Social CRM, and the Twitter-bug are high on the hype meter. On the one hand that makes me happy, because businesses are finally getting back to the reality that eventually their customers will control a lot of the processes that impact their lives. But there is a flip side about this sudden desire to listen: we really don’t want to listen.
Listening is a skill. Good sales people listen extremely well. They are like wolves that analyze prey for the slightest weakness and then exploit it. I say this in the most positive of ways. If the rest of an organization could be as focused on uncovering what motivates a customer to act with the same degree of success that sales people do, more businesses would thrive. But what have we all done over the past 20 years? We’ve done our best to stop listening to the customer. We did it gradually and incessantly. First we reduced or eliminated physical locations where customers could see us and interact. But we gave them phone-based agents who were from somewhere in their own geography. Then we switched the local agents for agents from far away, with whom our customers had a harder time relating. And we layered on voice response systems so that they would not reach any human anywhere. Then this self service layer was extended to the internet. Our customers now find their own forms, search for their own answers and products, configure their own custom versions of their insurance or flight plans. And have few genuine opportunities to be heard.
Basically, we have stripped away as many opportunities to listen directly to the customer as possible – pushed them away from identifying with our businesses and value propositions. When customers want advice and want answers and want to vent – where do they go? To their peers. They Tweet. They post. They blog. They SMS. They post YouTube content about your horrendous service.
And then we wake up and say: ‘We should be listening to all of this chatter. We should participate, or analyze, or manage, or enable dialogue.’ It is a lit bit ironic that we focused intense effort on lowering costs through extreme self service, draining away our ability to listen, and now that we achieved what we set out to achieve we want to go back to the beginning and learn to listen. This is a great goal in two meanings: complex and positive.
Ah, but wait: are you going to go back and recalculate the true saving of outsourcing and all forms of self service to factor in the added costs of analytics, personnel to manage the listening, social software, and committees? The original cost-saving scenario will be tarnished, so my bet is you won’t do it. It is a fool’s errand.
If your new efforts at listening and gaining insight fail to cause you to rethink the effectiveness of your many interaction channels (not their efficiencies), it is unlikely you will find your listening skills, or bottom line, much improved. Social CRM is crucial – cross channels and across your business.