In many ways, social media is just another channel. Most of the marketing techniques they teach in business school are just as applicable to social media as they are to direct mail. And if you've worked in or managed a call center, translating those skills to social is relatively straightforward.
But here's the big difference: Whereas traditional marketing and call centers have focused on 1-to-1 experiences and, in the case of mass marketing, 1-to-many, social media introduces the phenomenon of many-to-many experiences.
What does this mean for your business? It means that if you don't get the offline experience right, you are likely going to suffer the consequences in social media.
These days everyone with a cell phone can snap a photo of their poor experience and post it to Facebook or Twitter in mere moments - and they're doing so, at an alarming rate. When this happens, their friends or followers are now witnesses to the experience and often engage in discussion about it to their friends or followers as well.
So what should your business do? First and foremost, focus on your customers' real-life experience and make sure it's outstanding every time. "Customer experience" is loosely defined as how your customers feel when they interact with your company. It incorporates all touch points, whether active (they come into your store or call your customer service number) or passive (they receive an ad in the mail or see your commercial on TV).
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Consider these two very different experiences, both coincidentally pertaining to garbage.
During a recent trip to Las Vegas, I visited a pastry shop at a large hotel on the Strip. After enjoying the meal, I brought my tray to the garbage receptacle and noticed that the hole in the countertop was unusually large. I dumped my trash and realized that it was large so that the items easily fell into it rather than some hitting and some missing the mark (I'm sure we've all struggled to dump our trash into those tiny receptacles at many fast food restaurants). On a whim, I tested to see if the tray could fit in the garbage, and guess what? It couldn't. That's when it dawned on me that someone had actually thought about the customer experience of using this garbage can and designed it to be optimal for both the user (easy to dump the garbage) and the owner (no more lost trays). Brilliant!
A friend recounted a story of the recycling collector using the mechanical arm on his truck to lift a recycling bin and dump the contents into the truck. During this maneuver, a whole bunch of cardboard boxes - which my friend had carefully broken down and placed at the top of his recycling bin just underneath the lid - spilled out and landed on his driveway. Can you guess what the driver did next? He drove away and left the boxes strewn across the driveway!
Now ask yourself: Which one of these experiences is most likely to be shared with friends on social media? I'll admit, most people probably don't recognize the design genius of the garbage can at the Vegas hotel, but that's OK: by making that experience easy, the restaurant ensured a smooth transaction and prevented a potential negative experience from occurring. But the garbage collector? There's no excuse for that, and the company shouldn't be surprised if it saw pictures posted for the world to see.
Remember that the little things matter. Every single interaction with your company is an opportunity to create an advocate or alienate a customer.
Most companies have a program in place to upsell or cross-sell customers in an effort to get them to spend more money. This is fine if it's done tastefully and with customer value in mind. But that's not how a major rental car company did it during another recent trip.
After booking a pre-paid vehicle for a week for $200, I was told by the person at the counter that there was "no way" my family of four (plus luggage) was going to fit in the vehicle we had chosen. So the upsell began: "The regular price to upgrade you to a larger car is $320, which I know is ridiculous," he started, which sure sounded like he was on my side. "Since you're paying with Discover, I can knock that down to $160." (Disclaimer: I work for Discover.) I politely replied, "No thank you" so he tried again: "What airline did you fly in on?" I answered, and that got me an additional discount down to $80. I again politely declined, so he appeared to give up and moved on to completing the paperwork.
When everything was finished, he said, "I'm not supposed to do this, but I upgraded you anyway at no charge."
Wow! If that's where we were going to end up anyway, imagine how much better the experience would have been had he just started with the complimentary upgrade. Instead, I felt disgusted by the whole process, and my wife said she wouldn't come back to this company because it employed "used-car salesmen" at the counters.
So what's the likely social media outcome in each of these scenarios? A surprise complimentary upgrade will often result in a positive tweet or Facebook post about the brand. But this upsell madness likely results in a longer Facebook post so my friends can laugh along with me, or perhaps an article on Social Media Today detailing the experience.
The worst part? The end result was exactly the same! I got an upgrade to a larger car. But in one scenario, I leave happy with the brand, and in the other I leave disgusted.
Customer experience is more important today than ever before, largely due to social media. Those brands that focus on amazing experiences at every touch point will likely see more positive sentiment on social media, boosting their brand reputation, whereas the brands that ignore the real-life experience will likely find themselves fielding lots of public complaints.
Customer experience is so powerful, in fact, that it allow your company to differentiate itself even against "the big guys" without spending tons of money to differentiate based on price or benefits. As John DiJulius (@JohnDiJulius) advised in his recent Social Media Marketing World keynote, "Don't get into price wars. Get into experience wars."