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Don't use social media tools just to be sociable, experts caution

Implementing social media tools can be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, business decision.

Anyone can start a Facebook page or follow Twitter’s tweets, but not every company can easily engage customers using social media. To succeed, a business needs to integrate social media tools into its existing CRM program and not treat it as a standalone effort.

Those words of advice come from analysts with expertise in social media and customer experience management. They urge companies to not overdo social CRM, but rather have it complement phone calls and email, the other tools of CRM.

“CRM is an extension of your customer, and social CRM is a technological extension of your CRM strategy,” according to Zach Hofer-Shall, an analyst at Forrester Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “Companies have spent the better part of a decade with CRM. They’d be hard-pressed to replace it with social media. They’d have a lot more success with social media fitting into their CRM technologies.”

From the technology to the working practices of social CRM, companies now recognize they can no longer take an impromptu approach to making the most of this immensely popular medium, said Bruce Temkin, a managing partner at Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm in Newton, Mass.

“It’s possible to do things ad hoc, which a lot of companies have done, but the problem there is it doesn’t scale and you can have problems,” Temkin said.

One of the issues an ad hoc approach may lead to is a lack of communication between departments. For example, marketing employees and contact center employees may end up reaching out to the same customers on Facebook.

Companies are now asking how they can expand social CRM efforts while coordinating throughout departments, he said.

Defining a social CRM strategy

To start, Hofer-Shall offered, a company needs to define its social CRM strategy. Here he recommends not abandoning proven CRM practices and technologies but instead fitting social CRM into them.

“The first piece is that mind-set,” Hofer-Shall said. “If we get to the point that social isn’t a new thing -- it’s a complement -- that mentality will lead the technical tactics of this. We don’t need an entire social media team. It’s a business function.”

How a company invests and plans for social CRM depends on its size, Hofer-Shall said. Some companies, particularly larger ones, have IT departments and customer support staff that operate independently. They will need to shatter those silos to succeed, not just with social media but with CRM, he said. Companies need a culture that encourages cross-departmental strategies, he said.

Temkin, like Hofer-Shall, discourages the creation of a separate social media team.

“Whether it’s a part of integrated marketing or service recovery, all those efforts need to be coordinated across the company,” Temkin said. “You need critical mass, where almost everyone in the company understands it. When you have companies that have standalone social media, they’ll think of it as a standalone lab. But at some point, it needs to be propelled and immersed in the organization.”

If a company decides on implementing social media tools themselves, and not outsource it, finding the right technology will take considerable time, Hofer-Shall said. Social CRM technology involves an inbound side and an outbound side, but there isn’t one system that yet handles both perfectly, Hofer-Shall said.

It’s similar to employees using one email system to receive all incoming messages and then having to flip to another system to respond, he said. “That doesn't make sense, but that’s what’s going on.”

Various social CRM platforms handle the inbound side, which consists of monitoring, or listening, to customer social interactions. “It’s what customers are saying, thinking, what they’re responding to. It’s what companies want to take action with,” Hofer-Shall said.

But all those tweets, Facebook postings and Pinterest images can become a mountain of social media data without analytical tools that make sense of trends. Here there are also several analytical systems from which to choose.

On the outbound side, publishing social CRM tools will push out content to LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media sites consistently or on a timed basis.

Having the right social media tools

Although no product from either the inbound or outbound side “does the other side well,” Hofer-Shall said, that could change as some large vendors perfect the integration of their technologies with ones they have acquired from startup vendors.

In June, for instance, Salesforce.com purchased Buddy Media, a social marketing platform. The deal gave Salesforce.com a recognizable combination in the social arena with last year’s acquisition of social listening platform Radian6. Oracle quickly countered that same month, buying social intelligence company Collective Intellect for an undisclosed sum, just two weeks after purchasing the social marketing and engagement platform Vitrue.

“You need to start having some technology to analyze unstructured data, because social is full of unstructured data,” Temkin said. “You need to analyze email and calls as well as what people are saying in social media. Companies will need to make sense of all of it.”

Temkin added: “You have to reconcile the directions. In the past, companies, the way they understood things, was a survey. ‘Rate this on a scale of one to seven.’ But now people want that rating to be a social media conversation in a rating on Yelp or OpenTable. That’s a big change in technology.”

New technology requires training. And just as social CRM technology should integrate with a company’s existing CRM software platform, social media training should follow that same track, meshing with CRM expectations and goals, Hofer-Shall said. “Don’t create new goals with social, but complement the existing goals,” he said.

Also, executives need to understand almost any employee can connect with customers at any time through social media, he said. To avoid public relations gaffes, employees should understand their social responses stand as a reflection for the whole company. “There are so many stories out there about the delivery guy tweeting stupid things,” he said.

Using social CRM technology isn't simple, Temkin said. Implementing social media tools and practices requires deep change within an organization. The ideal way to manage social CRM is to have well-trained people and empower them to act in a way that's consistent with company voice and policies, he said.

“That’s easy to say when you have a handful of people, but when you have thousands and thousands of employees, you need guidelines. Give them guidelines but enough room to act on their own.”

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