The Customer Revolution: Viewpoint from Justin Hunt

Justin Hunt thumb

About Justin Hunt

Founder, Social Media Leadership Forum.

Justin is founder of the Social Media Leadership Forum, which helps organisations collaborate together; to share ideas and agree best practice strategies for successfully engaging with social media. He has written for The Guardian and The Financial Times about the ongoing revolution in digital media and its impact on businesses, their employees and their customers.

On Twitter: @SocialMediaLF      On LinkedIn:

Many people talk about a ‘customer revolution’, but what does that mean to you? How would you define it?

There has been a real shift in customers’ expectations which is creating a radical and long term change in the relationship between customers and companies. The web and social technologies mean that the customer now has a much greater influence over the flow of information about companies and their products and services. It’s much easier to get information from non-official sources, which are also much more difficult for companies to control. In this environment, where customer dialogue defines the trust placed in a business, customers no longer expect or want a standard corporate response or a snappy tagline and a smooth voice. They want to have genuine connection with real people working for the brand and businesses they choose. More than anything, they want brands to be respectful, to help them, to amuse and inform them, and to contribute to the wider community.

So the customer revolution is really about the rise of the social customer, and how trust and loyalty is built through dialogue.

What can you tell us about the expectations of the social customer?

Our research from The Social Media Leadership Forum suggests the following expectations are the hallmarks of the social customer:

(a) A desire to be heard
The social customer increasingly expects an immediate reply when they interact with social media

(b) The ability to obtain support via any channel
The social customer expects a company to offer a variety of service options, including self service web sites and knowledge bases, email, live web chat, telephone contact numbers, in addition to mobile and social media applications. In each channel, the social customer increasingly expects communications that are clear, authentic and reliable.

(c) A customer-centric approach to interface design
The social customer has grown accustomed to intuitive applications that simplify access to information; now they demand the same from companies. The latest social media applications have raised the quality threshold in terms of user interfaces - customers expect companies to meet or exceed that threshold in every aspect of their customer service.

(d) Opportunities to collaborate with the company
The social customer has the capacity to connect, create and share in ways that can benefit the profile and profitability of companies. By listening and engaging with social customers, companies have the opportunity to incorporate new ideas into their operating practices - in areas ranging from product development to sales and even customer service.

In summary the social customer is naturally attracted to companies that are willing to participate in a two way dialogue. We believe the rise of the social customer heralds a transformation in the design, function, and philosophy of customer service. To meet the expectations of the social customer, companies increasingly need to think, operate and communicate as a socially connected enterprise.

And from your perspective, what are the main aspects of a socially connected enterprise?

One of the key factors is improving the speed at which a company is able to react and engage with its customers. There’s an expectation and demand for immediate response today, a direct impact of web and social technologies which has come from the ‘improve or die’ culture in Silicon Valley where many of the social platforms we all use were developed. They set the pace for consumer expectations in how quickly companies should be responding. And when customers can find out so much themselves online, they expect businesses to be able to do the same. Companies need to enable their employees to meet those expectations.

The challenge for many companies is how to make that transition to real-time communication across multiple platforms. It goes against the model on which companies have traditionally been built, where information of value is locked in silos and behind firewalls to protect it. Many companies still have a stake in the status quo too. Huge amounts of money have gone into communication methods and CRM platforms which weren’t built for social, and have proved very difficult to adapt to the needs of customers today.

Becoming a socially cconnected enterprise means providing customers with relevant, rapid responses while maintaining consistency of experience for the customer.

And that’s an area of focus for you at the Social Media Leadership Forum, how businesses respond in real-time while maintaining consistency of brand messages?

Yes, it’s an area we looked at in our most recent research, ‘Maintaining Your Voice in the Social Era’, which we conducted with First Direct.

Today, posting a message in response to an enquiry is not the end of an issue, it’s often just the start of a conversation. It means businesses need to adapt to continual dialogue, facilitating conversation where possible. Brand management once often relied on tightly defined rules and procedures that outlined exactly what the brand could and couldn’t represent. Its tone of voice, colour, flavour and personality were all wrapped up into documents that guided the brand’s every move. Knowing your ‘Brand Essence’ remains important, but today it’s arguably more useful to know how the brand should react in any given situation. And that’s not something you can easily document because it’s impossible to anticipate all the situations the brand might encounter. This ‘knowing how to react’ skill allows great managers to respond appropriately and speedily no matter what the social web throws their way.

So, the consistency that every branded company craves can now be best delivered by acting appropriately, not solely by looking or sounding the same all the time. O2 demonstrated this brilliantly during a major network outage in 2012. When their customers understandably took to Twitter to complain about the issue, O2’s customer service agents responded with tweets that mirrored the style of the initial contact. If a customer used humour, O2 joined in with the joke. Where they were aggressive or rude, O2 sought to placate the anger through light-hearted replies. The ways the O2 dealt with this unforeseen situation could never have stemmed from a rigidly enforced brand mantra. Instead, it relied on smart employees who truly understood the brand and were empowered to inject their own personalities alongside it.

And from what you’ve seen in your work with the SMLF with a wide range of brands, how do companies achieve that consistency?

A holistic approach which considers how you network both external customers and internal employees is crucial. When considering an approach for customer communications, starting to listen to what’s being said by customers online really is essential. It’s not new, but it’s where you can really get a handle on how a business is perceived. To use another O2 example, Ronan Dunne, CEO of O2 said recently that checking Twitter is the modern equivalent of walking the shop floor. It’s where you get a real feel for what customers experience of a brand, and how they feel about that experience.

From having that understanding, you can develop an approach to engage in conversation, and to enable customers to hold conversations between themselves about your business. It means no longer thinking of customers as passive recipients of products and services, but potentially creative partners who can be involved in shaping a business. The payoff is that more often than not they will reward a business with increased loyalty.

From an internal point of view, companies need to reflect the world of both the customer and many of their employees. The IT infrastructure at work was once much more powerful than that you had at home. Today, it’s often perceived as slow and clunky, and people are turned off by it. Again, their expectations are being set by the consumer experience. Why can’t the tools I use at work be as easy to use as an iPhone?

Deploying social technologies internally can help remove part of that barrier, and increase the speed with which employees can find, share and deliver information to each other and to customers. If companies are going to remain relevant, to remain an attractive place to work, they need to operate in ways which are familiar outside work.

In the end, consistency is a key ingredient for winning customer trust. And by acting and behaving appropriately for the situation, no matter what challenges our fast-moving social world creates, there are new ways for brands to be seen as credible and trustworthy.

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