Listen to your customers on Twitter

If you lived on Mars for the last 6 years then I probably need to tell you what Twitter is: a social network where you can publish short messages of up 140 characters (this was designed to be compatible with the short messaging system: SMS messages you send from your mobile phone, which are also restricted in length). It empowers users to share content, mostly about how they feel, but also share content, links, feedback on companies, films, blogs, other content, ratings, etc.

Now if you started a small business on Earth, then you’re probably thinking how can you take advantage of Twitter to grow your business, connect with customers, find out what customers need etc. The first temptation is to try to pitch on Twitter, or send updates relating to new products. Let’s face it: twitter users don’t want to be talked at, they hate the usual corporate messaging, they want to connect with people and they want content they’re interested in, they want to connect with companies and individuals working for those companies in their own terms. Forget the traditional way of doing business.

So here’s a list of 3 dos and 3 donts that will help you take the most advantage out of Twitter, as a small business owner:

1. Personalize your content – don’t sound like a corporate advertising campaign. The user 2.0 has very good filtering abilities and your message will fall onto deaf ears if it sounds like the usual corporate message. Instead be personal. Use your real name, sound and behave like a person, rather than a corporate identify. Users like to connect with people, not companies. If you do that, you’ll find your message is listened to more often than not.

2. Listen – don’t just blast your message, instead use Twitter to listen to what your customers are talking about, what their problems are, what they’re looking for, what they need. You can do that by searching Twitter for various keywords related to your business and see what the users are saying, complaining, thinking about. There are also various tools that will allow you to monitor the user generated content. Try to respond to users if you have solutions to their problems. Again, sound like a person (see number 1), rather than a corporate automaton.

3. Share interesting content – a lot of companies think that talking about features, releases, things you normally write in boring PR releases will make users follow you and get excited about your products. Think again! Users want to read content relevant to them. Instead, talk about common problems, offer tips & tricks related to your business area, free advice and industry insight. When 140 characters are not enough, add links to more extensive content on your blog, wiki, website. To know what content users are interested in, revisit number 2: Listen.

And here are the 3 donts (DO NOT), some of them extracted from the list of dos above:

1. Do NOT sound like a broken corporate record (see number 1 and 2 above)

2. Do NOT share boring content – it’ll be a waste of your time and money as no one will read it. As much as you’d like to think your business is special, no one necessarily sees it that way. If you produce boring content, no one will follow you on Twitter.

3. Do NOT get dragged into heated exchanges, insults, etc. There’s nothing that put a user off better than seeing a small business owner getting down and dirty, exchanging online punches and insults with potential customers or competitors. You will be judged by your words and actions. It’s always better to admit there are problems or that errors have been made, rather than try to fight it. You cannot silence the social media, so don’t even try.

Customers, maps and postcards from Google

If you have a local small business, you must consider Google Places. This will show your business on google maps when your customers type a related search in google maps. A lot of customers search local businesses this way and you don’t want to miss out on that.
It will also help with your SEO (search engine optimization).
It is a free service and Google will even send you a postcard … to verify your address. No wonder, they want to keep it spam free.

Tip of the Day: CRM systems are what you make of them

A lot of companies invest in a CRM system or maybe just a contact manager – be it an online, cloud stored, or a desktop/server in-house solution – and they hope their customer relationships will automatically improve. This is generally the case, as using any CRM system will introduce some structure in the way you talk to your customers and in the way you manage the relationships with them.

However, CRM systems on their own will not work on their own – your sales, marketing, support employees, partners, associates, etc. need to fill them with quality data. A contact manager will only be as good as the quality of the data in it – it gives you the structure and the analytics, you provide the data. It’s vital everyone is trained into using the CRM system and it’s vital the vision about how the system is supposed to be used is shared with everyone. Most importantly, everyone in your company must buy into it, rather than the new system being imposed on users.

What can you do about it?
Write a one page (not more as not everyone will read it) document about your vision for improving the customer relationships. Add a set of rules to ensure everyone fills in notes when they communicate with customers and promptly fill in sales opportunities and use the system to track their tasks. Add a section about the quality of data you expect. Circulate it to everyone and include it in the onboarding documentation you give out to new employees. You might have to keep an eye on the quality of data and ask for improvements where you see the rules are not being followed.

If you’re consistent in your commitment to data quality, this will ultimately reflect in the quality of your relationships with your customers and your business will be much more succesfull as a result.

Social CRM or talking to your customers where everyone can see it

Social media is changing the CRM (customer relationship management) traditional strategies. With so many social networks and ways to interact with customers directly online, no wonder the interaction with customers is changing. It was never this easy to reach out to customers, listen to what customers really think and find out quickly how others (non-customers and prospects) perceive you – the real value of your brand. Not your brand as you see it or as you intend it, but as your customers perceive it.

However, most companies are afraid of the social media. They are too used to talk to customers individually, especially if it’s to do with complaints – they don’t want anyone to find out about what an angry or unhappy customer has to say. It’s not unreasonable – this is the old way of doing things. This is the old CRM and how companies used to engage customers.

Yes, you might think, but why don’t these companies change, why don’t they just adapt the new model? It’s so easy. Just start using twitter, facebook, linkedin, etc. etc.

Change is hard though. Especially if you’ve done things the same way for years and years. Agility is not something established companies are very good at – it’s difficult to unlearn the old way of doing things, especially when you’re still making money using the old ways. And then it’s difficult to learn the new social media. This is indeed a difficult change, but not impossible.

There is however a bigger problem. The new way of doing things is not just a new method of contacting customers, it’s not just a new tactic – it’s a whole new philosophy. It’s not just a new way of doing business – it’s a whole new way of being. It’s who you are – who your company is. It’s something so deeply rooted into your company’s DNA that you simply cannot learn it overnight. If you try, you end up faking it and your customers will see through it. It’s like telling someone who is naturally introvert to just go out there and talk to people, make friends, get phone numbers. For the extrovert it’s so easy, it comes naturally, but the introvert needs to analyse it, learn, read books about it, study it in-depth and still probably not get it right – certainly not from the first attempt.
Your company has a similar DNA or perhaps personality, depending on which, it might find it easy or almost impossible to switch to the new way of doing CRM. If you’re company is an introverted company, you will no doubt shy away from social CRM and find it very difficult.

So before you jump on the social media CRM train, spend a few moments, days, weeks thinking about the profile of your company and about your personality too. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Employee appraisals

I’m a small business and I’d like to have a system which allows me to track the performance of my employees. A lightweight appraisal process. Can you recommend something?

Yes, we can. You can use an online contact management system not only to manage your customers, but you can manage notes about your employees too. You can make those notes private or you can share them with your employees. It should allow you to track any objectives you set for your employees. You should have a regular one-to-one to track progress and set quarterly or bi-annual performance reviews. In these reviews you can sit together and review the performance in the last period and also agree on objectives for the next period. You can also rate your employees in various areas: technical skills, business skills, customer facing skills and identify areas that need improvement. Set pragmatic, quantifiable and achievable objectives rather than generic ones. Think: in the next period, how will I measure my employees’ performance on this particular objective. If you can’t think of an easy way, it’s probably too generic.

You can also keep online notes about your employees when something happens, either good or bad. For example: Julie impressed me today with her ability to conduct a very pragmatic team meeting, focus on actionable items, etc.
You can also track things that do no impress you about your employees. You need to write everything down otherwise you might forget some of that come appraisal time. We’re all humans and we forget if we’re not organized enough and keep notes. Instead we tend to retain just an emotional baggage – I vaguely know that Julie didn’t perform this year, but I can’t remember exactly why, some specific incidents that I can raise with her. This is not a very healthy attitude as employees will have no chance to improve if your feedback is very generic.

Start using your contact management system today and your employees will thank you for it!