Opinion

How SMEs can use social networking to get their message across

In today's business environment, the ability to be available online for your users 24/7 is increasingly seen as a given. As a result, companies of all sizes need to work harder than ever not just to deliver high-quality user service but to do so in an efficient and timely manner, writes Steve Garnett, EMEA chairman at salesforce.com.

For SMEs these pressures are particularly intense. It is not easy for them to maintain and develop user loyalty in the face of fierce competition from larger rivals that have both the manpower and financial resources to be continuously "on call". This makes the delivery of fast and effective user service particularly crucial. In this context, the advent of social networking sites as a route to effective communication and interaction with users should be seen as an opportunity.

SMEs need to adjust to the idea that many of their users are not only online and in the cloud but are talking about their products and services while they are there. If they have a problem, they are likely to post a comment on Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter. So businesses are now having to engage with their users wherever they are and find a solution in real-time before potential problems escalate. This is a level of service that many users have grown to expect. In essence, SMEs who are not engaged in social networking risk being left behind and losing business to competitors who respond to issues more quickly.

The increasing usage of online sites such as Twitter and Facebook by businesses as applications for the delivery of user services is a case in point. The smartest SMEs and the executives who work for them recognise the value of tapping into "the wisdom of the crowd" to capture the best answers and the most innovative ideas.

Often, instead of calling the supplier directly, users will simply access Facebook, comment on the problem they are having and ask for input, or alternatively they will tweet about it on Twitter in order to draw on the expertise available in the online community.

SMEs need to be aware of discussions on sites such as Twitter and Facebook and to monitor and track them. Where appropriate, they also have an opportunity to intervene, initiate insightful debate, and capture relevant knowledge that makes them look smarter and allows them to harness the innovative potential of the community.

They can search by keywords that allow them to identify relevant discussions. They can then develop suitable answers that can be posted on Facebook and sent to whole communities via Twitter.

These answers can subsequently be used to help in the development of knowledge bases - essentially repositories of key information about a particular issue. These can then be used to proactively address any future issues arising and can even be posted as part of specially developed "answers" or "ideas" forms, which can be published on the company website to support user self-service.

However, to be successful in this area, companies need to be able to respond quickly. If users have a problem with a product or service, any delay in responding may result in lost business. It is important too that organisations are able to obtain direct feedback on the quality of the content they create or approach they develop. They need to ensure that they have a mechanism in place to allow their user community to provide relevant feedback and comments, and vote to promote or demote files, web links, documents or ideas. The result will be a more active and involved community and, for the SME, clearer insight into what their users and prospects are thinking.

Working in the cloud

In the past, the ability to deliver the kind of approach outlined above would have been well beyond the reach of most service organisations, particularly SMEs. Indeed, many such businesses would have seen this kind of activity as a potential threat to their reputation and brand.

Today, however, by using applications such as the Service Cloud from salesforce.com to manage all user interactions, the situation has been reversed. Social networking activity is now rightly perceived as a potential opportunity by most businesses, including many SMEs.

Measuring ROI

Positive perceptions need to be turned into hard metrics if a compelling business case is to be made for the use of social networking as part of a company's overall strategy. Using social media brings many soft benefits but can also help to deliver measurable return on investment (ROI).

In particular, SMEs can make use of the "support ROI model" to assess how many page views a particular answers or ideas form is receiving. They could make an estimate of the proportion of those views -- in percentage terms - that lead to self-service resolution and put a monetary value on that percentage.

Practical benefits

A broad range of SME organisations are reaping the rewards of the salesforce.com approach to delivering user service in the cloud.

Historically, digital signage company Remote Media's sales environment was concentrated around a hardware-based, on-premise client/server infrastructure, based on spreadsheets, an Act system, and other disconnected sales systems.

This fragmented approach to sales management made it difficult for Remote Media to obtain a 360-degree view of each user relationship; it jeopardized data quality and undermined sales, marketing, and service effectiveness. Remote Media required a cost-effective, scalable and flexible system for managing the end-to-end user relationship.

Remote Media has deployed the Sales Cloud and the Service Cloud from salesforce.com to provide the entire organisation, together with a global network of channel partners, with a shared, real-time view of each digital signage user and prospect. It uses the Service Cloud, in particular, to enable staff to not only join cloud conversations with users and prospects, but also to provide them with support.

UK-based social enterprise JustGiving has helped more than 6,000 member charities raise £450m, mostly through online fundraising pages. Prior to engaging with salesforce.com, JustGiving was using an outmoded enterprise customer relationship management (CRM) system that was difficult to customise, hard to install, and which required intensive technical support. Today, JustGiving uses The Service Cloud to monitor its relationships with 6,000 charity clients. JustGiving has customized The Service Cloud to provide rich information around charity client accounts. It provides a 360-degree, unified view on each user, allowing Justgiving to provide a tailored, responsive, and personalised service.

Joining the conversation

These are just two examples of the practical benefits available to SMEs that are prepared to join the online conversation and get their message across. Driven by new technologies such as cloud computing, the business model for user engagement is changing fast. If they wish to achieve competitive edge, SMEs need to be aware of this and to take appropriate action. If they fail to do so, they risk being left behind by their rivals in this increasingly dynamic new world of online engagement.

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This was first published in March 2010

 

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