The customer has spoken: Every employee must be socially engaged

LinkedIn's list of the 25 most socially engaged companies
LinkedIn’s list of the most socially engaged companies
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what position employees hold in your organizational hierarchy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a B2C company or B2B, or whether your workforce is younger or older. Employees in your organization will use collaborative media on the job. There’s not one damn thing you can do to stop it, so you might as well figure out how to turn it to your advantage.

Fortunately, regardless of industry or hierarchy or demographic, there’s a lot of advantage to be gained.

You will retain more customers

In virtually every call center, performance is measured based on the number of calls a representative can complete during a shift. That means reps have incentives to get customers off the phone as quickly as possible. And despite the fact that nearly 70% of consumers believe social is a necessary customer channel, 60% of companies have no formal support for social customer care.

That’s a bigger problem than you may think, since the customer experience eats product/service quality for lunch. Customers who are happy with your product or service—even those who are inclined to recommend you to others—could drop you like a an ebola-infected garment for a competitor if you don’t engage them frequently enough with meaningful interactions, according to an Ernst & Young survey.

It’s not just customer support staff who should be engaging customers via social media. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is clear: technical experts are more credible than just about anybody else in your company. When I blogged about a frustration with a Microsoft product several years back, it wasn’t a customer support rep who responded. It was the executive responsible for the product. In his comment, he suggested someone from his staff could offer more insights; one of them did. My subsequent praise for this response undoubtedly led people in my networks to think more highly of Microsoft. In fact, research supports the idea that when one person sings a company’s praises over a great experience, the people with whom she’s connected develop improved perceptions of the organization’s reputation.

It’s not just me. Customer service inquiries on Twitter are up 44%, according to research from SimplyMeasured. According to Mike Lazerow, chief strategy officer for Salesforce.com’s Marketing Cloud, “If you get things wrong, customers have more ways than ever to tell everyone they know about it (as well as several thousand people they’ve never met).”

Lazerow believes responding to customer inquiries is every employee’s job regardless of their role. “When a customer reaches out to an organization, they don’t care which department they’re speaking to,” he said in a Fortune piece. “They are speaking to your brand, and they want a solution to their problem.”

The benefits of “every employee engaged” extend beyond technical experts. When I tweeted dismay over a lost FedEx delivery, it was a media relations staffer who reached out to me to solve the problem; he just happened to follow me on Twitter. (It was an employee communications staffer from UPS who contacted me to suggest I might get better service from her company. She also just happened to follow me, which is how she saw my tweet.) And when I tweeted unhappiness with my cell phone carrier, it was a member of the company’s ambassador program who connected with me and put me in touch with the right person to resolve the issue.

Employees will be more productive

If you have a teenager, ask yourself: Does he or she use email?

Odds are long against a positive answer. For a lot of people—especially those who have grown up with collaborative communication tools—email is horribly inefficient. (Let’s not even start on voicemail, which is in serious decline. Studies indicate its use is falling and that people hang up when they hear a voicemail greeting. Coca-Cola is the most recent and largest company to announce that it’s dumping voicemail in favor of more efficient technologies.)

Social software may have started out as a way for people to talk about their cats, to share pictures of their goals, and to waste time. In the enterprise, though, a growing and substantial body of research finds that productivity improves when employees communicate using collaborative tools instead of less efficient means—for both internal and external communications. John Hagel and John Seely Brown wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog that collaborative software “allows the user to reach out to a large number of relevant participants and bring them into a virtual discussion around a specific problem or challenge, so tacit knowledge is shared and new knowledge is created.” A McKinsey Global Institute study found that businesses in which employees use social software see productivity gains of up to 25%. While that’s counterintuitive to leaders who still see social media as an irrelevant time-waster, it makes perfect sense given that, among information workers, finding information, solutions, and answers is the single biggest drain on productivity.

McKinsey calls it the social economy. Most everybody else refers to it as social business, in which value is produced by networks of people. Social business is here, now. Employees throughout companies are using it—either sanctioned by the organization or in willful violation of policy—because it’s more efficient. As long as five years ago, former hospital CEO Paul Levy noted that “limiting people’s access to social media in the workplace will mainly inhibit the growth of community and discourage useful information sharing.”

You’ll drive more new business

Employees who are socially engaged “are more likely to drive greater lead generation, cultivate innovation, and yield top talent,” according to the Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis, who reported on a a new Altimeter report. According to the study, companies with socially engaged employees—defined as one who uses social media to improve engagement and relationships with customers and colleagues—are 40% more likely to be perceived as more competitive, 57% more likely to get increased sales leads, and 58% more likely to attract top talent. These employees are also more likely to be inspired and optimistic about their company.

It’s not about technology. It’s about culture and engagement

“If culture is the heartbeat of your company, your employees are the life-blood that carries your culture to customers and beyond.”

These words from Matt Ehrlichman, founder and CEO of home improvement network Porch, convey a vital notion: Your culture must be ready for employees to engage on social media, particularly with customers. Imagine a company with a large population of disengaged employees suddenly being unleashed on customers via social media. Their lack of passion (among those who are not engaged) or outright undermining of company goals (among the actively disengaged) is the culture they would carry to customers and beyond.

Connect the dots:

  • To thrive in the emerging business environment—one in which customers make decisions based on the experiences and engagement they have with employees at all levels—all employees must be engaged on social channels.
  • For that engagement to produce positive results, those employees must be engaged in their work (not just online).
  • To grow your population of engaged employees, you must have a culture that supports those results. Contract CMO David R. Frick argues that “One role of leadership is to create an environment that employees want to positively post things in social media about the projects, products, and culture at work.”

Nurturing the right culture is everybody’s job: leaders, communicators, HR staff, supervisors, everybody. There are certainly programs and processes that can grow the right culture. At IBM, for example, a social reputation system helps employees attain greater visibility on how they’re performing within the internal socialsphere, using these insights to help them realize greater value from their internal networks. The program also helps management better understand how staff collaborate in pursuit of business goals.

Each organization’s culture (best defined as “how we do things around here”) is different; each is based on different shared values, the nature of the organization’s work, and the composition of its staff. Changing (or reinforcing) the culture is also unique to each enterprise.

But this is work that must be undertaken now. With customers fleeing companies—even those whose products and services they’re satisfied with—because they’ve heard of better company-customer experiences with competitors, organizations that continue to isolate employees from social business are in peril.

Those that take the right steps—like those listed among the top 25 socially engaged companies—are meanwhile grabbing market share from their competitors.

In which of these camps does your organization fall?