[This blog first appeared on American Express OPEN Forum on May 23, 2011]
In today’s “always-connected” world, it’s increasingly true that referrals are better than cold-calling. Businesses that engage customers and allow them to scream from the social media rooftops will be pleasantly surprised. Listen to what your customers are saying online, and you will see measurable sales uplift.
So how can a small business owner reach out to always-connected customers and keep them engaged?
Understand their world
There are 303 million mobile devices in the United States (close to 96 percent penetration), according to CTIA. Twenty-seven percent of thosemobile devices are smart phones capable of browsing the Web, going on social media sites, tweeting and so on. New devices like the iPhone, iPad and Android products will escalate the always-connected culture. Your prospects and customers are always online at work, at home and on the go. They inquire, search and interact—blind to your company’s “operating hours.”
Use systems/tools for help
Fortunately, there are many systems and tools that you can use to make it easier to manage so that you don’t have to actually be available 24/7. Short, pithy and clear product videos on YouTube can direct people to self-help. Informational blogs and a FAQ or resource page on your website can also answer many customer questions. If your customer community is large and active, create a online user forum. Also, you can tweet messages about your product or service—but don’t forget to also highlight news and information on related topics in your industry. Increasingly, businesses have a corporate LinkedIn account and active Facebook pages. If your business relies on 24/7 services rendered by various servers, then so do your customers. There are many software-as-a-service tools that can send you e-mail, SMS or mobile app alerts. Some systems even provide you a dashboard of your various systems and severity of automated alerts.
Mobilize your team
Engaging customers and prospects is not just the senior management’s or customer service representatives’ role. It is the entire team’s role, so the entire team must be empowered to act. After training, stress three words: Use common sense. Then, watch how well an empowered and results-oriented team operates. In an always-connected world, there may not always be a “map” or instructions from management. Dynamic teams solve problems on the ground, and you must give them space and trust to do so.
Measure and respond
Today, there are many free and paid tools that allow you to measure anything. At the very least, you should use Google Analytics to measure traffic to your website. Sophisticated tools can even tell where on your website customers are clicking, so you can eliminate sections of the website that people don’t care for. Create “listening posts” around the Internet that direct users to your website—content on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and referring links from stories on media sites or partner sites. The larger the number of links, the higher your organic ranking in the eyes of search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. If you want to give the organic ranking paid help, you can buy AdWords, sponsored links and banner ads. Whatever you use, make sure you can measure its efficacy.
Show that you care
With customers, always listen, listen some more and respond—online, in Twitterland, on Facebook and even via e-mails and letters. Even if the response is, “We are aware of the problem and working on it,” please respond. The speed at which you respond will speak volumes about your proactive stance. And speak with authenticity. Everything is amplified by the Internet, so promote, but don’t cross the line. Ask for forgiveness if needed, but be proactive and authentic.
Establish referrals as a new sales channel
If people trust you, they’ll recommend you to their social media friends and retweet or share your tweets or blog posts. When it all works, it’s like magic. Referral and repeat business keeps coming and the amplification of the Internet makes it a virtuous circle.