Humanizing the Brand: Building Partnerships Throughout Your Business

Frank Eliason Director of Global Social Media, Citibank

Posted on December 17th 2010

Humanizing the Brand: Building Partnerships Throughout Your Business


This post has been a long time coming.  Over the past few years I have sometimes been frustrated by the shortsighted views I sometimes hear regarding social media.  Over the years I have heard PR or marketing should own social, to which I always respond the Customer owns social, not the business or these specific business units.  To this point I have always asked the question as to why shouldn't Customer Service own social, since they are the best equipped to have discussions with Customers.  This is what they do best.  Of course one could make the case that I am just being as short sighted as the PR and marketing teams who state the same about the areas they work in.  But in reality we are all right, yet we are all wrong.

Although the thoughts of this post have built up over the past few years, the inspiration to post it today is based on a post by David Armano in November called 'Humanizing Business & Brands: Your Ambassador Ecosystem.'  His post was also cross referenced on Edelman's blog and today David and Chris Ehrlich exchanged comments that really add to what has been going through my mind.

"The approach to social media as marketing/communications only is not sustainable to business in the long run." -David Armano

Social is the Disorganized Labor Movement

The sheer numbers of those on Twitter (over 175 million registered users according to their about us page and Facebook (over 500 million active users per their statistics page) guarantee that many employees are participating in social media.  If you read many employee handbooks you will see many restricts on representing the company in social media.  I apologize to the lawyers, but that is not very enforceable.  Employees are a key part of what people think about the brand and people in social media like to talk about what is one their minds.  Since most people spend 40 hours or more each week working, this is a key part about what is on their minds.  They will and do share the good, bad and ugly as part of their day.  They also connect with many of their friends from work within these communities which helps magnify the voice that they have.  Over the years many companies have threatened, fired, or even promoted people for the voice they have taken in social media.  I have been asked my view on actions companies should be taking, and to me it is not much different then what I would recommend regarding Customers.  First if they are talking, they do have a passion for the company.  If you do not like what they are saying, it is best to listen to them, and talk about it with them.  Maybe it is a point they do not fully understand, so maybe you help them with that.  It can also be a valid point and I would highly recommend listening to them and seeing if there is a way you can improve the employee experience.  The fact is your employees are the brand ambassadors and it is key to give them the tools necessary to achieve this.  I know legal departments are scared of these blurred lines, but that fire is already started and there is not going to be a way to put it out.  Like it or not, the world as we used to know it no longer exists.  Employees are key partners.

Be a Part of the Customer Revolution

I have discussions all the time with Customer Service, marketers and communications experts from major brands.  It amazes me the lack of understanding each group has regarding social media.  Many marketers have visions of sales galore and viral marketing gone wild.  Some of the communications experts have vision of their message spreading like wild fire.  Parts of the Customer Service field view the space as snarky and in many cases the 'lunatic fringe' of the brand.  Of course there are many individuals within these business worlds who do understand the space, and excel at it.  The first key message is understanding Customers are really the ones who own the space, and they will be the ones who decide what messages spread.  Over the years I continue to hear about 'influencers' and how they will drive the right messages.  Today your everyday Customer is the true influencer.  No one will want to spread a message if your own Customers don't buy in.  Imagine blogging about a brand that is not well liked?  What would happen to your influence?

The easiest way to understand this revolution could be reviewing your own habits.  If you are like me you do not make a purchase without reading reviews.  I have been in the middle of best buy and using my phone to read reviews on Amazon or other website.  I have also asked friends their opinions via social media.  It is amazing but in many ways we trust people we have never met in person to rely their experience with a product or service.

If you are among the many companies doing social service, I will be the first to tell you this is not enough.  Jermiah Owyang over the years has spoken about social Customer Service not being scalable.  Well, technically it is scalable.  It is easy to queue a tweet or blog post.  But I agree fully with his true thoughts, which is companies need to correct the causes of the trouble in the first place.  This means rethinking the way Customer Service operates, improving products based on this feedback and building your Customer base as a community for your products.  Unfortunately most companies listening in social are not taking much action to improve the Customer experience.  If companies truly want to be a part of social, they must understand the concepts of building community and create their own brand advocates.  This is what will lead to the holy grail of social media:  Customers leading the charge regarding your brand message and building sales.

We Are All Part of the C-Suite

The key to social media success is not fighting employee involvement or the Customer revolution that is going on, but to embrace it.  Encourage your employees to participate in social media and educate them how.  Listen to their suggestions as well as those of your Customers.  Your employees will be able to build trust in the space and show the expertise they have built within the field.  We know from many surveys that people tend to trust people, especially those who are like yourself.  The reason Zappos has been so successful in social is their own employees build trust and we can relate to many of them as people like us.  Beyond all this, it is key that we break down these silos that separate us within our business.  As I mention above, many listen in the space but few take action.  This is because much of the listening is taking part within a silo and not shared throughout the organization.  I do not care if you are in PR, marketing, Customer Service, or even work for an agency of the company.  Each of you represent the company and must strive to improve the business.  The company must rethink the typical top down we have seen, but I also think all the other layers within the company must start to feel like they are part of the C-Suite and help the organization improve.  You can no longer say it is not my job!



Frank Eliason

Director of Global Social Media, Citibank

Frank Eliason has been described as the “most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly the world.” By expanding the reach of customer service via social media, and taking the simple approach of asking "Can we help?” he repositioned the relationship between Comcast and its customers. At Citibank, Frank and his team are helping to change the way a global financial institution manages its relationships with a diverse community of consumer, small business and corporate customers—to serve and exceed their expectations and helping build a lifetime of trust between Citibank and its customers.

Frank Eliason is currently Director of Globalof Social Media at Citibank and author of @YourService published by Wiley. Frank became well known in social media for the Customer Service outreach function that his team at Comcast was involved with. This work has been recognized by many news organizations such as ABC News, New York Times, Business Week, among many others. Follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankEliason

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Thanks for the shout out here.

Think that the public nature of social media has clearly created a sort of customer service renaissance for consumers where some brands have reached more accountable and responsive planes, particularly in industries where service has long been a key differentiator (e.g., hospitality, restaurant, retail). The bar has been raised.

And think that many customers who use social media want to be advocates of the brands they consume and rely on most, and they're not being elusive about it. They talk about brands all the time, if not complain, and they're ready to have a relationship with thoughtful brand ambassadors. There is a causal relationship between social media engagement -- as PR, marketing and customer service -- and the incidence of new consumer brand advocates. Yet, the process, like any relationship, isn't always a science -- despite the data.

As for employees, they should absolutely be given the latitude to be themselves online after being given a social media policy shaped by multiple departments. The obstacle is largely an inhibited corporate culture. Brands, including B2Bs, that are proud of their employees -- and, by extension, their offerings -- and that foster an open culture will, no doubt, connect with more customers through social media.

-Chris Ehrlich