June 7, 2010

Collaboration 2.0: Join the Conversation Online

By Malcolm Fleschner

What are customers saying about you today?

The sales world is waking up to the notion that, beyond the power to reconnect with your grade-school classmates, social-networking platforms offer a tremendous business potential for creating dialogue with customers, improving collaboration, and accelerating the sales cycle. Just how to harness that potential, however, remains an open question.

Salesforce.com president of worldwide sales and chief customer officer Jim Steele says he frequently gets puzzled looks from customers who can’t see the value certain Web 2.0 applications have to their businesses. “Twitter is a good example,” Steele says. “When I bring up Twitter, customers often say, ‘We don’t waste our time with that.’ That’s when I say, ‘Here’s why you need to change your thinking,’ and I key their company name into the Twitter search box, and all of a sudden there are pages and pages of Twitter input on their products and services.”

Twitter, Steele says, provides an ideal platform for what he calls a “mob mentality,” an outpouring of online opprobrium that can begin with just a few posts from a customer who has a bad experience with the company and then snowball into a Web-based rage fest as others pile on and add their own horror stories. “People start posting in response, ‘Yeah, that company sucks. We’re not doing business with them,’ and it just grows,” Steele says. “If the company is not tied into that, it becomes a runaway train where there are all these negative comments being made about your company, and you’re just defenseless. But being defenseless is your choice if you decide to take a dismissive attitude toward the people on Twitter.”

Steele says he encourages customers to abandon their preconceived notions, not only about social networking, but also about the best strategies for tapping into customer opinions and the access points to begin a dialogue.

“To many companies, the image of a customer-service representative is someone sitting in a cubicle with a headset on, taking eight hundred calls,” Steele says. “But today, more than 50 percent of the requests for information about your products and services come from a source other than your Website or 800 number. People would rather go to the community first – to Google, Facebook, Twitter – instead of to the company, because they know that they’re only going to get a partial answer or a company-sanctioned response from the company.”

In response, Steele says salesforce.com recommends that customers send their tentacles out into these social-networking platforms to drill into as many information wellsprings as possible. “Many times a customer will have a question that involves products from two different companies, so he or she will start the search with Google,” he says. “So maybe the customer will want to know, ‘How do I hook up my Bluetooth headset from company X to my phone from company Y?’ Individually, neither of those companies might have the answer, so it makes sense to look to the community of users for an answer. We’re trying to say that whenever something’s being said about your company, whether it’s on one of these social-networking sites or somewhere else online, you need to immediately capture it and seize the initiative.”