Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fear of Listening

It’s all about the listening. In school; in friendship; in relationships; in parenting; in business. But just because we can easily identify what we need to do, doesn’t mean we do it effortlessly. Far from it. Listening is a ton of work, we might not have the time for it and we might not always like what we hear.

In business, the benefits of virtual communities -- a business' online earpiece -- have been proven repeatedly: examples include Chick-fil-A, Intuit and Starbucks, to name three. Virtually connecting employees with customers can help promote a brand and can harness the customers’ creativity to improve the business’ product line. Utilizing a virtual community, Starbucks developed “My Starbucks Idea” where Starbucks employees introduced themselves with website profiles and visitors were asked to suggest products they would like to see introduced at Starbucks stores.

A big hurdle in developing a virtual community initiative or implementing a basic social media strategy is the fear of negative publicity. We have all witnessed, directly or indirectly, the power of the viral complaint. We know we are not perfect and businesses make mistakes just as people do. So why go out of our way to draw attention to a difficult situation or to give complainers a platform? The answer is: we want to connect with our customers to build a loyal customer base and gain insight into their thinking. Social media gives us the tools we have been wishing for to take some of the guesswork out of buyer behavior. 

Those tools come with planning and effort attached to them. “Most companies don’t have a strategy for what they’re trying to accomplish with their virtual communities,” says Constance Porter, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame. “They put up a website and a forum, but don’t plan for what they should do after that. They think consumers’ activity will emerge organically. Sometimes it does, but if the marketer isn’t playing a role, then they’re missing out on value.” The opportunity costs of ignoring the online conversation can be large.

We have to listen. Companies must be carefully monitoring online mentions. To negative mentions, we need quick and proper responses. Quick is easily understood. Proper responses involve using the right, thankful, polite tone, careful word choice and lack of idle promises. Negative mentions, handled properly, can turn into the best PR we never planned – as the virtual community sees and respects how we handle the delicate situations. Ignoring the negative, in hopes that it disappears in time, is taking an unnecessary risk when we have the power to steer the conversation toward a fruitful or at least conciliatory end. 

Two important lessons to keep in mind as we plan how to listen, engage and respond:

  • Participating in a conversation changes that conversation. 
  • Social media backlashes are not created by the initial trigger event, but are created by how the company responds.

(Many thanks to Mack Collier for his insightful blog post on Social Media Crisis Management)

Now, for that Chai Tea Latte that is on the Starbucks menu purely as a result of the “My Starbucks Idea” initiative.

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