Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Social Media Curmudgeon, Part I - Engagement

If you're reading this blog, chances are you know the Social Media Curmudgeon. The Social Media Curmudgeon hates – and wants nothing to do with – "social media people."

Looking around, it's hard to blame the Curmudgeon. In a space cluttered with "gurus," "ninjas," and "rock stars" spouting sheer idiocy, the competent, thoughtful social media professional risks guilt by association.

It's not just brand-damaging; it's industry-damaging.

I have been writing the Social Media Idiocy series to try to change the thinking and culture from within, as well as dispel some myths. I am now starting this series to try to undo some of the damage the idiots have caused by focusing on the Curmudgeon – who thinks all of this social media stuff is garbage.

I like my steak medium well.

"Medium well" means a minimum of – and ideally no – pink in the middle – but without any charring.

In other words, I like my steak gray.

Not black, not pink, and certainly not red or blue. Gray. Throughout.

Unfortunately, because my preference for medium well seems to be a rare one (pun unintended), lots of chefs don't quite get what "medium well" means – or, worse, they arrogantly refuse to accept that I prefer my steak medium well. Consequently, I have sent back lots of steaks in my time.

Several months ago, when my girlfriend and I were out dining at one of our favorite steakhouses, my steak came to me a very definitive rare.

Surprised and nonplussed (after all, this steakhouse had become my favorite by no accident; I was used to paying a bit extra there for a perfect steak), I summoned the waiter and politely sent my steak back.

No big deal, though. After all, this was my favorite steakhouse. They had earned enough of my confidence to allow for this unique slip-up.

My girlfriend was about halfway through her meal when my steak came back to me – burnt.

I had now moved from nonplussed to severely disappointed. Two chances – two screw-ups.

As I started to pick through my thoroughly charred steak, the house manager came to check on me, unsolicited, and ask about my steak. I admitted, a bit embarrassedly, that it was not to my liking, and asked if I could have a new one. The house manager profusely apologized and agreed to replace my steak with a new one.

Although I was very grateful and glad to get a new steak, disappointment lingered. My girlfriend finished her entrée before I had even gotten to enjoy a bite of mine (leading her disappointment to become more than empathetic on my behalf; this was now affecting her dining experience too). Wondering if the restaurant had a new (and bad) chef since my most recent visit, I was sincerely questioning how frequently – or if – I should return. After all, it was a luxury (and a pricey one at that). If I didn't thoroughly enjoy my experience, what was the point?

Eventually, my new steak came, and it was perfect. That started to make me feel better (although I was still reassessing how frequently I should be visiting the steakhouse).

What cinched the deal, however, was when the house manager came back to check on me. He fell all over himself apologizing and making sure we were happy (not in an unclassy way, but rather in a profusely sincere way). Later, he even offered us a free dessert.

The dessert was just okay, but I was so thrilled and so impressed by the way the steakhouse handled the slip-up that my girlfriend and I left that evening feeling even more positively about the steakhouse than we did when we walked in. The steakhouse had improved its brand by screwing up and then taking care of the screw-up in an extraordinary way.

It remains one of our favorite restaurants.


"I just read this article," said the Newbie. "It was about how Netflix is losing control of its brand because of its failures to engage on social media."

"Netflix isn't the only one," said the Blogger. "Lots of companies – companies you'd think would know better – are not paying any attention to what their customers are saying. It hurts their image."

The Curmudgeon sighed heavily. "I am so tired of the phrase 'social media,'" putting down his whittling to make air quotes, "and the notion that companies need to 'engage' customers." He made the air quotes again, enunciating the word "engage" with all the contempt worthy of a curmudgeon. "Sounds like marketing-speak to me."

"But Curmudgeon," the Blogger said, taking a quick puff off of her cigarette. "When a company angers loyal customers, the backlash festers and spreads when left unchecked. Instead of having any control over the conversation, customers take engagement into their own hands by doing things like tying up customer service lines and directly calling and emailing company executives."

"Now, now, little lady." The Curmudgeon held up his hand to cut the Blogger off. "Listening to customers is important. I admit that. But that doesn't mean that a company should bend to the will or kiss the butt of every whiner that pisses and moans on Twitter with some catchy hashbag."

"Hashtag," corrected the Newbie.

"Same difference," grunted the Curmudgeon, scratching his beard. He went back to his whittling.

The Blogger exhaled a couple of smoke rings and walked away, gripping her arm; she knew that the Curmudgeon considered the subject closed.

The Newbie naïvely pressed on. "Come on," he protested. "Don't you think there's some value to be gained by engaging in the conversation?"

"I engaged in this conversation, didn't I?" said the Curmudgeon, not looking up from his whittling. "Didn't get me a dang thing."

While marketers are fond of using (and misusing) the word, "engagement" is not a marketing term. It is a customer relations term.

Social media are often linked to marketing, and the two can go hand-in-hand, Nonetheless, while some social media campaigns are primarily or solely marketing efforts (Old Spice and Pepsi are two brands that immediately come to mind here – and even those brands have used social media as part of only one aspect of a multimedia marketing campaign), social media and marketing are not inherently the same thing.

Social media are also platforms for PR and customer relations. Public relations and customer relations are not new business functions invented by marketers or the digerati; it's just that the digital age has brought us a new way to perform them – and an essential one at that given current trends. Indeed, these have become the primary uses of social media for many (if not most) businesses.

Good customer relations practice is not merely "[l]istening to customers;" it also includes talking back with those customers and openly and actively engaging with them in some fruitful discussion. This is not a new notion; social media have simply made it more obvious -- and, in some cases, painfully so (e.g., Yelp).

Any good businessperson will tell you that an upset customer is not a problem per se; it's an opportunity – an opportunity to re-instill the customer's confidence in the business (and, in many cases, give the customer even greater confidence than he had before).

In my example above, the house manager successfully took full advantage of this opportunity to make my girlfriend and I feel better about doing business with his restaurant. It worked not because he sucked up to us or bribed us or "ben[t] to [our] will" any such "demeaning" behavior. It worked because he ably demonstrated to us that he and his business takes satisfying us very seriously – that our satisfaction was extremely important to them.

In other words, he made us feel valued.

That's what much of life is about – making the people you interact and associate with feel valued by you. As human beings, we all want to be liked, to be loved, to be appreciated, and to be cherished. Those positive feelings add value for us.

If someone ignores us, however – if someone makes us feel especially small in this great big universe – then we suffer a value-loss (i.e., the opposite of a value-add). If we feel like we will continue to lose value by interacting or associating with someone, we will actively seek to dissociate from them.

So too with business. Customers that feel genuinely appreciated and valued are contented customers. Customers that feel otherwise will not be customers for long.

Earlier this year, I Tweeted to my followers that I was planning on switching banks because of some fees that I should not have been charged. My bank's Twitter team saw the Tweet, immediately contacted me, and put me in touch with a very kind, very efficient escalation executive. She readily refunded my money and remedied the issue for me. More importantly, she sincerely cared about helping me and making me a happy customer.

I am still a customer of that bank – and I let my followers know about it.

Engagement makes the difference between having a customer praise you and having an ex-customer badmouth you. When a company ignores the idea of mutual engagement on social media – when it fails to achieve Conversational Convergence – it loses control of its brand, suffers brand damage, and loses customers.

Every "wrong" that a business commits that causes it to lose business is, ultimately, perceived as a value-loss. If you don't care enough about providing customers with a sufficiently high-quality product or service, you are that much less likely to have customers.

Part of providing a high-quality product or service is making a good effort to discuss your product or service openly and honestly with your customers. Another part of it is a willingness and openness to improving the customer experience. If you can't – or won't – try to make things better, your business will only get worse.

Engagement, therefore, is vital. If you maintain a presence on a social channel, you must engage there – and not simply "talk at" your audience.

That's not marketing-speak. It's reality.