Predictions for Social Business in 2012, Part II: Knowing Your Customer

Rather than simply make prognostications, I wanted to give actionable advice based on these trends. This is the second of my three predictions and priorities for Social Business in 2012 (read the first prediction).

Prediction #2: Your customers want to be known. Your customers don’t merely want you to understand their needs or pain points. They want you to know them as individuals anywhere and anytime they engage with you.

Companies sure know a lot about us, without knowing much. For example, I’m classified for marketing purposes as a Gen X, 35-45 years old, graduate degree holding, Real Simple and Wired magazine reading, working mom. I frequently “like”, “follow”, and engage with companies on sites like Facebook and Twitter. And yet when I walk into a store or visit the site to which I am loyal I get…the same 15% off, free shipping offer, and experience that everyone else gets. To most companies, I’m a faceless member of a target market.

What I want instead is a relationship with companies that feels more like the ones I have with small business owners in my community. It goes beyond simply recognizing or understanding me. They KNOW me. They’ve taken the time to see me as a person and I have come to know them as well.

The problem is that this is hard to scale on two levels. First, there is a huge fire hose of rich social and mobile context that is not put to use because of the difficulty of connecting unstructured data to transaction data. Second, it’s hard to tailor it for a single individual at scale.

For example, I can check-in on Facebook or FourSquare when I enter my local grocery store, but the store won’t know it’s me until I punch in my loyalty code in the checkout lane. At that point, it’s too late — I’ve already made my purchase decisions and the tailored offers and coupons being printed out will remain in the bottom of my shopping bag awaiting recycling. What a lost opportunity to know me.

Instead, what if I could automatically “check-in” to my grocery store and receive a list of tailored specials on my smartphone dedicated app. They might also know that I’m shopping for a big party (thanks to integration with my Facebook status updates) and someone from the Deli section would make some recommendations. I could also see and pick which specials to include in my shopping list and then be guided by an in-store GPS app that navigates me to the shelf where each of my items are located.

Some people call this “social CRM” and the evolution of “Big Data”, two very hot tech topics these days. But these are spaces that are still being defined and the data integration needed means that it may be years before most of big data and social CRM can reach their full potential.

I’m advocating something much simpler and that can be applied today — which is the hard work of thinking through how your customers *want* to be known by you. This means turning the tables and anticipating how your customers want these new relationships to work.

How To Get To Know Your Customers Better
One way to do this today is to find simple ways to integrate current social data about your customers into your every day work flow. I use a very simple plug-in for Gmail called Rapportive that shows the latest Facebook posts, tweets, and other social media updates right next to an email from someone. It provides context for follow-up emails and conversations and is a great way for me to be connected with what’s important to the people I interact with.

In the beginning, this will be a highly manual effort, but over time you’ll find commonalities and trends in terms of what works to get closer to customers. More advanced tools like Nimble (aggregates all social account activities) and GetSatisfaction (aggregates customer questions into a single community) can enable additional aggregation and help scale. My colleague, Jeremiah Owyang, will be releasing a report this Thursday about the latest social media management suites that can help with this as well.

The other thing I see companies doing is putting in place the building blocks for these new experiences. The Midwest grocery/department store chain Meijer recently launched a smartphone app called “Meijer Find-it” where a shopper can search for an item, add it to a shopping list – and see it’s exact shelf and aisle location. It’s only available in a handful of stores and it’s a static map — but it’s a beginning.

How To Tell When You Know Too Much
The biggest question that comes up when discussing this topic is privacy and permission. How much can and should you piece together across social media about your customers? How can you tell when you’ve crossed from knowing and anticipating what your customer want, to uncomfortable spying?

It comes down to constantly checking in to make sure that the relationship is moving in the direction that both parties want. At some point, your customers will have had enough — they feel they are known enough and don’t want to take the relationship any deeper.

The master at this process has been Facebook. With each innovation, they push the boundaries of where we previous drew the line on what we would consider sharing. Not everyone is eager to embrace each new change, but more do because they see the value. Facebook has had the courage to lead change and advances, knowing that not everyone will follow. But they also knew where to draw the line — and to acknowledge when they had crossed it.

You will have to risk crossing that line as well, and as long as you are transparent about your mistakes (see my first prediction) you will be able to recover and retain a strong relationship with your customers. And isn’t it worth it, to be able to get to know your customers

Your task in 2012 is to discover what it is that your customers want you to know about them — and how it adds value for them, as well as for you as a company. It will take a lot of testing and learning, as well as numerous mistakes. But by the end of the year, you should have learned a great deal more about what it is that your customers want you to know — and hopefully have strengthened the relationship to allow that “knowing” to take place.

Next up: How connected are your employees?

  • http://twitter.com/correlationist Correlationist

    Great post. I think everyone needs to participate in their own unique way to counter the scale issue. What are your thoughts on corporate culture, SM policy, C-suite, etc. being the start point?

    • Charlene Li

      Can I say yes to all three :-)? There is no magic bullet but it does boil down to leadership. Corporate culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum and the social media policy needs to be a part of corporate culture that is lived every day — not something that nobody reads or understands. 

  • Dennis Hall

    Having embarked to sea with our Navy three times, the take-away for me was that it would be great if organizations could foster public affairs and relationship building through similar endeavors.  I believe it requires the marketing department to develop and implement a recurring, continual operational plan to invite people to see operations and meet the people that make the success happen and resolve conflicts.

  • http://www.bilal.ca/ Bilal Jaffery

    All part of how companies and others will start utilizing our social graphs. 

  • Darren

    This is a topic that I have been talking to clients about for over a year now, and although scalability is an obvious barrier, it seams to come down more on the side of unwillingness. Social CRM is really a big part of running a social enterprise and I really believe that organizations who make the investment in this area (budget & resource) will reap the rewards.

    • Charlene Li

      Darren: I’m not so sure that it’s unwillingness so much as it is inertia. I often hear companies say, “Oh, we can’t do that because of policies/executives/IT/risk management….” and so on. These barriers are *very* real, so I don’t mean to minimize them. But there is a need for leadership that can keep people focused on the long term benefits so that they can get enough momentum to start. Thanks for posting!

      • Darren

        Thanks, Charlene. Inertia was actually the word I was looking for :) Great article, btw. Looking forward to part 3.

  • http://www.adigaskell.org/blog Adi

    As Darren says, scalability will be the main stumbling block to this.  My local grocery store has thousands of shoppers in it at any one time.  They might be able to analyse my habits alongside my social data courtesy of an algorithm but it’d be really difficult to deliver a personalized service human-to-human.

    Maybe that sort of thing would be reserved for the very best (most profitable) customers to deliver them something a bit extra.

    I look forward to reading the post by Jeremiah on management tools though.  Will that be posted on this blog too?

    • http://www.facebook.com/charleneli Charlene Li

      I think it would be prioritized against the most valuable customers — you’ve got to start somewhere! And yes, I’ll be posting about Jeremiah’s report. 

  • Trine_dan

    Great article. I have a Social media analytics exam today where I have prepared a small piece about getting to know the customers better, so now I can draw this article into the equation as well:-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/charleneli Charlene Li

      Glad to know that the post will help you exam – hope you ace it!

  • http://twitter.com/jamesparton James Parton

    Thanks for the @rapportive tip, I had not come across that before. Looks great. 
    Ironically I can see the need for the same service, just in the opposite direction, e.g. flagging up existing or waiting email from a social contact within my preferred social network(s)
    Increasingly customers are using social to either discuss your brand or engage with it directly rather than email, which as we all know, is beginning to have a distinctly web 1.0 feel about it.The real time, ultra connected, sharable nature of social will win out over email eventually, may be not in 2012, but soon. Looking at my circle of friends I now receive zero personal email and now significantly less text messages on my mobile, all communication having been replaced by Facebook messaging.

  • http://twitter.com/ggheorghiu Gabriel Gheorghiu

    I honestly don’t want my bank or internet provider to know me. All i want is good service and issues fixed as soon as possible.

    Can we start with that and then focus on stuff that customers may not even need?

  • Toby

    Good read and so true of many of the customers/prospects I talk to.

    I’m convinced this isn’t a technology issue – yes the data integration is tricky, but it’s far from insurmountable – and it’s something my company demonstrates regularly.

    The challenge is the culture of fear. Fear of being open; seeing criticism and engaging in a discussion; fear of losing a customer; fear of saying something “non-corporate”; etc.

    If business leaders believe in their product and are focussed on delivering the best possible service, they will gain more customers than they lose … and the customers they gain will be more loyal.

  • seocompany delhi

    Wonderful document, I look forward to messages by you.

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  • http://christianbusch.blogspot.com christianbusch

    Good post, thanks for sharing. I believe apps like shopkick can show the direction of where things are going; ultimately shoppers will self-identify (i.e. you checking into the store as opposed to checking into foursquare) when they receive utility. A store could already put up a sign saying “check-in to receive recommendations personalized for you” and tie that back to their CRM. not easy yet, but doable.

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    Huge amounts of information, which share with each other social media users, just simply gonowhere. It is time to do a search on social platforms, convenient and high quality. 

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  • http://fashionblinds.ie/window-blinds.html window blinds

    I think social media is the ultimate in internet democracy. Long may it last!

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    I think social media is the ultimate in internet democracy. Long may it last!

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    Thank you Charlene. Laid out in a very easy to read and simple way.