Social Media and Financial Services are getting to know each other pretty well.
There are some obvious opportunities to be grabbed. For decades B2C verticals such as banking and insurance brands have littered doormats and TV screens with broadcast style messaging. Yet even the most inventive direct marketing only provided one way response mechanisms as a token form of interaction.
The net result was ever diminishing returns from a generation of consumers that learnt to tune out the noise and instead preferred to seek advice and recommendation from trusted sources.
So what's being done? Certainly the race is on to persuade C-Suiters that they need to invest in the social business model. And as ever, those at the top find themselves challenged to accept ideas that are not native to their own generation or instinctive ways of thinking.
Finding Reasons To Engage
Nonetheless the train is leaving the station and 2012 and beyond will host another era of experimentation from financial service brands. This time hoping that customer engagement, using the channels and culture of social networking, will deliver better returns than legacy direct marketing techniques. Of course for those that get it and have set the right expectation, they know this is not about any instant success in order to deliver next quarter's funnel targets.
Instead they have realistically set the scene that social engagement is a matter of long term strategic intent. That of building a new identity which today's increasingly self sufficient customer finds valuable. Of course a well executed social campaign, maybe embedded with gamification hooks, is still capable of delivering immediate customer wins and renewals. But the bigger issue of learning to become a social brand remains.
For some, this may start with assessing the many communities of interest that matter to customers and which a brand can become affiliated with as part of establishing that new identity.
Like health, wealth is a common human concern and a great opportunity to engage for those that provide such services. Equally, reducing the risks from going about one's daily business is a great point of focus for insurance brands. Might this allow them to deepen their relationship with consumers, which in many insurance niches has become transitory and purely task focussed? That's the carrot currently dangling out there.
Thus, there are many opportunities for creative brands to set about redefining their value to customers and prospects. The key will be to experiment intelligently and find out how investments in listening, dialoguing and all the other aspects of engagement can be integrated with more traditional business processes.
The notion of 'customer engagement' is catalytic since it cuts across silos. This emerging era of Social Business is going to redefine how key customer facing functions such as Marketing, Sales and Customer Service learn how to gravitate towards a common agenda.
This is not a trivial matter. Goals and rewards amongst these teams have never been consciously synergised. Hence all the dumb behaviour that costs brands so much in effectiveness and goodwill as blindsided functions bump into each other in pursuit of their own incentivised priorities.
Have you noticed they are also populated by different types of people? Imagine an identity parade. Could you spot the Marketer, the Salesperson or the Customer Service representative? I bet you could. Why? Ask any recruiter and they will instantly tell you that they come from 'different countries'. No surprise then that any cross-over between these tribes remains uncommon.
So how are these culturally diverse groups inducted into the greater cause of 'One Agenda'? In other words, helped to consciously recognise that they now need to be witnessed as a coherent brand? Remember, the essence of being 'good' at social is accepting that a brand's behaviour is now transparent and so must be made congruent in the collective eyes of their online audiences.
Listening and learning together is a good start. This is enabled through social media monitoring and a shared interaction workflow. These allow brands to organise unified responses to what their target audiences are communicating on social networks. Of course this is guided through interaction policy about when to respond, who should respond and how to respond if things get ugly.
Some brands that have advanced beyond first base are also busy empowering much larger numbers of workers to engage in the belief that making customers part of the company is the right radical next step to take. Crowd-sourcing, co-creation, co-evolvement is some of the new language being formed to describe this new unprecedented level of involvement.
Piggy In The Middle
One of the short term issues being thrown up during this seismic shift is how social customer service is being delivered. From what I've just described, it should be pretty obvious that social customer service is more than just adding Facebook and Twitter as the latest arrivals in an ever expanding multi-channel strategy. In fact getting the latest upgrade from your customer service technology partner is the least of it.
It remains true that most social customer service teams are owned by the Marketing/PR axis. Some may have moved into the traditional customer service environment but remain specialist units. Those able to 'talk Shakespeare' in 140 characters now find themselves in great demand. Interestingly these teams often become multi-cultural in their membership and so provide an early glimpse into how social business activity might be resourced in the future.
In the main, these small teams operate outside the cultural and policy norms of the customer service mother ship. In fact much of the initial popularity of social customer service from the customers' perspective lies in that difference. They appreciate the 'humanness', 'responsiveness', the 'concierge style service' being provided through the process pitfalls of middle office red tape. These customer advocates have scored highly for their more customer friendly house style.
However they risk suffering the same fate as their cousins in traditional customer service. They are expected to absorb the mismatch between customer and brand priorities and so end up 'piggy in the middle' between the internal and external agendas that brands seem to find so difficult to effectively align.
The idea of using feedback from the front line to change the business is not new. NPS, customer effort, speech analytics and so on have already provided some of the stepping stones to rebuilding an Outside-In culture. But its tough. And the blueprint is not yet out there for everyone to access.
Nonetheless I remain optimistic. All things social are currently part of the zeitgeist. They have mojo and plenty of folk are pushing hard for a different way. So it will be interesting to see if the messages that social customer service teams take back into the heart of their organisations are listened to more than has been the case to date.
Maybe the fear of reputational risk has opened a few more senior eyes than before. Equally, a new generation of operational management could be more in tune with customer sentiment.
Let's hope 2012 turns out a defining year.