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Sentiment analysis tools amp up customer-centric strategy

Companies are turning to sentiment analysis to learn what customers think. But customer sentiment is complex and can fall prey to misinterpretation.

Understanding how customers think is an area of laser focus for companies; listening to the voice of the customer...

is the key to better sales and customer retention. In response, organizations are turning their processes and technology infrastructure upside down to gain better insight into customers.

While technology alone does not make a company customer-focused, it can certainly help. And one way is by using sentiment analysis tools.

Sentiment analysis gauges a customer's attitude and preferences in relation to a company's products, services, brand and more. Companies use surveys, polls and social listening -- which may not always represent their true attitudes. Attitudes are ever-shifting, as well, so gauging emotions can be difficult.

"A sudden spike in negative mentions could be an indication of a developing crisis or a problem. Real-time sentiment analysis allows the practitioner to find the cause and establish a plan," Joe Rider, head of insight and analytics at global communications firm Text100 Integrated Communications, said.

Sentiment analysis brings new insight

Sentiment analysis tools can be used in several ways:

  • Proactive customer service and sales: Instead of waiting for a customer to bring a problem to customer service, you can contact that person in the moment and respond immediately. Your public response may even change others' perceptions, enabling you to sell to people who have issues with competitor products as well as those who love your products. "With a complete customer 360-degree view, contact center agents can not only understand customer emotions but also the history behind it," Ajay Khanna, vice president of marketing at data-driven application vendor Reltio Inc., said. This offers opportunities for customer service agents to not only provide service, but also to possibly upsell.
  • Marketing and product: You can use sentiment analysis tools to obtain product feedback, develop new campaigns based on what's being said in the market, track sentiment improvements based on campaigns and more. The tools can help your organization correlate marketing campaigns to changes in audience perception and actions (e.g., Did they buy more?), as well as connect to influencers.
  • Corporate reputation and brand health: Sentiment analysis products can help you monitor what's being said about your company or brand to stay on top of issues before they spiral out of control.
  • Competitive research: Track what is being said about competitors in order to develop new opportunities.
While technology alone does not make a company customer-focused, sentiment analysis tools can certainly help.

Although this technology has been around for a while, what should you consider?

Consider that companies often start in the wrong place when gauging customer sentiment. John Gillooly, vice president of strategic planning, analytics and research at Voce Communications Inc., said he always advises clients to start with the business goal. He suggests that they next consider the data needed to support that goal, followed by the manner in which the data will be obtained, what they will do with it and -- only then -- look at which tools to use. That may include any combination of online surveys, social listening tools, even in-person interviews and focus groups, depending on the goals, data and usage.

Which sentiment analysis tool should you choose?

A variety of proven products are on the market today, each with particular strengths. These include enterprise listening platforms, media tracking tools, marketing and service suites, and more traditional survey products. You should decide which features you need based on the problems you're trying to solve and your use cases. At the highest level, each tool or suite takes in massive volumes of data, analyzes it and boils it down to a seemingly simple, easy-to-understand answer that you can drill deeper into. Let's consider some key features:

  • Data sources: Tools and platforms use prebuilt APIs to gather sentiment signals from all across the Internet, including social networks like Twitter and Facebook, blogs and websites, review sites like Yelp, and millions of other locations. In theory, the more prebuilt APIs and signals the tool can find, the better. On the other hand, more is not always better since some data sources may be less important than others.
  • Listen and ingest: Tools listen to social networks and ingest data into big data platforms.
  • Analyze: Next, the tools will use a combination of natural language processing; manually created rules; machine learning, automated learning based on manual categorization; and proprietary algorithms to parse what is being said including the topic; relationship to an organization; product; market; and positive, neutral, negative or more granularly scored sentiment.
  • Scoring: Often, tools will use simple positive, neutral, negative scoring in part because this is simple to understand at a glance. Still, other applications may be more granular in degrees, say, on a 10-point scale between positive and negative. Some, but not all experts argue that simple scores work best because they're easily understood and because semantic nuances cannot easily convey a more gradated score.
  • Influencers: Identify who is in the conversation so they can be reached to resolve an issue or positively influence in the future.
  • Analytics dashboards: Provide at-a-glance status on performance and issues. These dashboards may include drilldown capabilities to understand what's driving, say, an increase in negative sentiment.
  • Workflow and alerts: Workflow may enable responses to be routed and queued to the right people -- for example, when resolving a customer service issue.
  • Direct response: Offers the ability to respond directly to what's happening -- say, on Twitter or Yelp. Direct-response features vary widely, according to Forrester Research.
  • Integration: Tools and platforms offer differing levels of integration into the enterprise's customer service, sales and marketing systems, which can help coordinate customer service and sales responses and enable sentiment data to help drive campaigns. For example, Salesforce offers prebuilt integration between Radian6, the application that offers social marketing features, and the rest of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
  • Sensing facial responses in person: New sentiment analysis methods are emerging that continue to blur the line between online and offline. Brands can track consumer sentiment based on not only what they type, but also on their expressions. For example, The Boston Globe noted that a facial recognition technology was installed in sensors under TV sets to track how participants responded to TV commercials during the 2016 Super Bowl.

Are sentiment analysis tools right for your company?

Now that we've outlined the capabilities of this technology, should you deploy it at your company? As always, the answer is "it depends." The more you understand it, the more effectively you can use it. The following are some limitations to consider:

  • Prediction only: Market research is always just a prediction. It may be more or less accurate, but it's always a prediction. While we may know more, we will never know everything. That's important to remember as you look at these technologies.
    "Market research is by definition an estimate, a sample, and it cannot capture exactly what the market thinks,” Luca Scagliarini, CMO at semantic intelligence provider Expert System SPA, said. "Both traditional market research and social media analysis provide indications, support to the decision making. They are not perfect, but they help."
    Listening is becoming more difficult. As social networks like Facebook recognize the tremendous value of the data they collect, they are limiting data that social listening vendors can collect, lessening some access through APIs, Gillooly said. And European Union privacy rules require websites to be explicit about what they share, and prevent data from leaving the EU.
  • Understanding sentiment is complicated: Language is complex, so tools need to accurately understand different contexts and countless nuances -- which is especially important in abbreviated and often sarcastic social interactions. These tools are powerful, but they are not flawless.
  • Bias: Even as a person maintains the same sentiment, that same person will respond differently in different situations, so it's not always clear what they are thinking, Gillooly said. They might say very different things to a friend in person than they would say to the same friend on Facebook. And they might offer different responses in a focus group than in an online survey. So you need to know how to interpret what they are saying.
  • You can't automate everything: "To really understand the sentiment, you need to drill down and find the real stories that matter," Rider said. "The problem is that the more you break down the data, the less likely it is that automated analysis will get it right."

Delivering value from sentiment analysis

Still, these tools and platforms are paying off for many large and midsize companies. The vast scale and packaged features are also bringing new capabilities to many companies that might not have considered them in the past, for example:

  • Immediate response. "A sudden spike in negative mentions could indicate a developing crisis or a problem in usability. Real-time sentiment analysis allows a practitioner to dive into the mentions to find the cause and establish a plan for handling the rise in negativity or responding to and resolving the individual case," Rider said.
  • Feature testing in the field. "By tracking our NPS [Net Promoter Score], we can see the relevancy and usefulness of the new features we are constantly adding to our users," Baruch Kogan, of multichannel communications startup Bontact, said.
  • Proactive service. One customer said he uses Mention, a social monitoring tool, to "stay on top of important industry news and partnership opportunities, as well as lead online conversations."

How are you using these tools today? What kind of value are they providing to your organization?

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