The most successful companies over the coming years will be the ones who don’t shout at customers. Instead, they will listen to them, be honest with them, empower them, build relationships with them, and connect them with other like-minded people.
If companies do these things well then they will turn their customers into powerful advocates for whatever it is they are trying to sell. They’ll create tribes of influencers, rather than demographics of consumers. They’ll create a movement of passionate supporters, rather than dispassionate participants.
Achieving this requires intent, effort, and investment – but it is not beyond the reach of any organisation or brand.
Marketers have long understood the power of creating advocates for their brands or products. Today it’s easier and more powerful than ever. The rise of social networking tools has made it much easier to identify potential supporters and turn them into advocates, as well as massively increasing their reach.
For every organisation, there are a million different specific ways they can turn their customers into advocates, but I think we can break them down into three basic steps:
1) Listen to them
2) Talk with them, honestly and transparently
3) Build relationships with them
Listen to customers
This is where it becomes particularly important to stop shouting at your customers. The first step to turning customers into advocates it to really listen to them, and it’s much easier to listen to them when you’re not shouting.
Customers are talking about your brand every day whether you like it or not. Chances are that they’re talking about your brand online. This means you can listen in on the conversation – in fact you’ll probably find they are happy to know that you are listening.
Sometimes they’ll say great things about you. Sometimes they’ll say bad things about you. Customer compliments and complaints used to happen behind closed doors. Now they are broadcasted to the world and recorded forever online.
Keeping track of these conversations is easy. Subscribe to Google Blog alerts for your company and product names. Subscribe to the RSS feed of a Twitter search for terms relating to your organisation. Join forums where people talk about your industry and see what they’re saying about you.
Talk to customers honestly and transparently
People love being listened to. But they love it even more when someone listens to them, takes what they’re saying seriously, and responds back to them in some meaningful way. They love it even more when a company does this because this is such an unnatural thing for companies to do.
Achieving this will be extremely difficult if you keep your staff locked up behind your corporate firewall. It means letting the people who create your products or deliver your services talk directly to your customers. Companies often find this much scarier than it really is. I absolutely agree with Tony Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos (which was recently acquired by Amazon for more than US$900m). He says: ”If you don’t trust your employees to tweet freely, it’s an employee or leadership issue, not an employee Twitter policy issue.”
Build customer relationships
Once you’re listening to your customers and talking with them in a meaningful way, over time you will start to build meaningful relationships with them. I don’t mean relationships in the traditional “we sell you stuff sometimes” terms. I mean relationships in the “we would both go out of our way to help each other” sense.
Finally, it is more important than ever for companies to try to avoid doing things that could upset customers. To paraphrase Mark Twain for the social media age – a bad story about a company can travel halfway around the world while a good story is putting on its shoes.