It’s only been over the past few years that brands have started to pay close attention to customer activity on social media. It took a combination of the smartphone and a few popular social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, for brands to notice that customers might be talking about their products and services online.
However, although it may be a recent change in customer behavior, it is now an important connection between the customer and brand.
To understand the significance of today’s social networks, it’s necessary to think first about how customers would interact with brands before there was any option to use a social network. The first point is that, in the past, the brand generally defined how a customer could communicate and ask for help—using a defined phone number or email address—and brands also dictated which times were allowed.
Now contrast that to today, when a customer feels comfortable communicating with a brand on Apple business chat, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These modern-day consumers don’t check the time before sending a message. They may or may not publish a comment online that references the brand—using a @brandname on Twitter for example. However, there is now an expectation that if a customer publishes a comment online, then the brand should answer.
The difference is that now the customer is defining how and when they will contact the brand.
But something else is happening: Social interactions are taking place at every stage in the customer journey
Step back to that old world for a moment. A customer might learn about a product from advertising, search for some information or talk to friends to learn more, make a purchase and then only contact customer service after a purchase if there is a problem. Most customer service interactions in this type of customer journey were related to problems or questions.
Now consider the present customer experience, with customers interacting long before a purchase, during a purchase, and long after the purchase, too. This scenario is entirely different and reflects more of a relationship between the brand and customer.
This new brand-customer affiliation is happening today and it’s a key factor in the changing role of social media. Customers are now forming social bonds with brands in the same way that they use social networks to communicate with friends. I conducted my own research and looked around at some of my own social networks. I saw people asking Nike for advice on how to train for a marathon. I saw people asking Sainsbury’s for mushroom recipes “because that’s all I have in the fridge” and I saw motorcycle enthusiasts planning a weekend ride with employees of their favorite bike brand.
Just think about that for a moment. A decade ago, who would ever have walked into their local supermarket for a chat with the checkout supervisor about how to make a stroganoff? Now it’s a normal and everyday customer interaction.
But this focus on relationships is what I believe is important
Many customer experience experts will talk about the development of multichannel and omnichannel customer experiences; however, their focus is on how many different channels customers are using, not how customers are using social channels.
Recently, I heard a European Google executive speaking about the customer relationship and his words reflect this new approach. He said that we should not consider customer service to be limited to the time a customer is on a call. It’s not just about closing out a problem inside two or three minutes. Instead, we should consider how to connect together every single customer interaction the brand has with that customer over their lifetime. Therefore, the focus of the customer experience strategy is to build a relationship that will last for half a century or more.
There is a great opportunity for social engagement to largely replace the typical customer loyalty schemes many brands still operate
Some loyalty programs will survive, but in many cases, customers will migrate to brands that understand and engage with them and make them want to remain loyal, rather than compelling them to keep on collecting points.
Social networks will be the backbone of this approach to customer engagement but executives need to think beyond social networks as merely additional channels. Stop thinking of chat plus email plus social. The way you deploy and use social channels can completely redefine your relationship with customers and that has the power to create loyal customers that advocate on behalf of your brand on their own social channels.