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Social CRM tools ready for prime time

Social CRM tools have hit the mainstream. Companies that don't monitor what customers and competition are saying about them could get left behind.

Companies take note: Customers are talking about you -- or at least about your products and services.

Even as recently as 10 years ago, most of these conversations would have taken place among only friends and family, but with the explosion of social media, when customers laud a company or rant, the comments can go viral.

Just ask United Airlines, which endured a public relations nightmare after musician Dave Carroll created the YouTube video "United Breaks Guitars," which chronicled his yearlong quest to have the airline compensate him for damage sustained by his Taylor guitar during a flight. The video garnered 3 million views in the first week, making the incident a case study in how not to handle customer relations.

With a post, tweet, video or photo on social media, the whole world can know a customer's reaction to you within minutes.

Businesses that use traditional customer relations management (CRM) technology may have grown comfortable communicating with customers one on one, but now, with a post, tweet, video or photo on social media, the whole world can know a customer's reaction to a corporation  within minutes. And let's face it: Like Carroll, customers are more likely to express frustration and anger than praise. Although you may not be able to prevent every instance of customer dissatisfaction, businesses are learning that their next line of defense is managing the social media fallout.

Social CRM systems are an extension of CRM technology that incorporates social sites, keeping you in touch with your customers. One popular aspect of social CRMs is social listening – using tools that allow a company to immediately be alerted when someone mentions it online, good or bad.

In addition to damage control, the companies also want to have conversations with their customers to build relationships and community. Kevin Espinosa, Caterpillar's social media manager, said improving the customer experience led the implementation of social support in his company's customer interaction center. "We wanted to give [customers] immediate answers to their questions. The social element gave us real-time response to social media inquiries. It also gave us visibility into what people were saying about us, our products, what our customers are doing, and who are the key influencers."

Customers are increasingly using social media technologies in conjunction with CRMs, agreed Real Story Group analyst Apoorv Durga. "Many consumer-facing companies [telecommunications, e-commerce sites] monitor the social Web and nurture 'social media influencers.' These influencers, in turn, help them get more leads, which are then managed in a CRM. So that's an example of how social and CRM are coming together," Durga said.

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As companies seek increased customer relations via social media, it can be difficult to find comprehensive technologies that meet their needs. Several digital marketing tools (including those that do marketing automation and social media marketing) integrate with customer relationship management  offerings, such as those from Salesforce and Oracle, Durga said, adding, "to be honest, not many of these vendors have so far been able to do a good job of integrating social and CRM, but the trend is certainly there."

Blake Landau, social media program manager at Intel customer support, said the semiconductor chip maker corporation increased its emphasis on social CRM, but uses a combination of technologies to enhance its CRM, including Jive as a collaborative tool and Sysomos as a social listening tool.

"I don't think any one company is using one social tool," Landau said. One reason for that, Landau said, is that smarter tools are needed to meet complex needs. For example, Landau said, she needs a listening tool that can tell the difference between "Intel" the company and "intel" as intelligence. The social aspect also needs to tie into a CRM intuitively, she added.

But Espinosa said their strategy of using application programming interfaces to integrate Twitter and Facebook with their current Salesforce tool works for them, allowing them greater efficiency, customer satisfaction and insight.

Although companies may not have found a streamlined way of managing social CRM, one thing is for sure: The social aspect is growing, and it's here to stay.

"It's not a matter of choice anymore," Durga said. "I think every type of company should at least consider this and start incrementally -- meaning start with simple scenarios and graduate to more complex use cases as they mature."

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