Five Steps to Savvy Social CRM - and Three Missteps to Avoid

As customers increasingly take control of the relationship, companies must learn how to interact on their terms.

Among its many allures, social CRM can enhance customer experience, strengthen customer relationships, build brand loyalty and - no lie - make Austin, Texas, an even cooler place to live.

Among its numerous attractions, including serving as host city of the recent social-media-rich South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, Austin is the only city in the United States that still boasts soaring lighting towers that were installed in the late 19th Century.

The 165-foot-tall moonlight towers, as they are known locally, generated controversy early on - local farmers worried that the massive lights would create mutant corn crops and cause chicken to lay eggs around the clock - and a century later starred in the movie Dazed and Confused. Short-story writer O'Henry supposedly nicknamed Austin the City of the Violet Crown due to the purplish glow emanating from the moonlight towers.

Many Austin locals know this history thanks to the social CRM efforts of Juice Homes Founder and Broker Jason Heffron. "We strive to provide a mix of highly relevant real estate information and human interest stories with at least a loose tie to the world of real estate," says Heffron, who frequently blogs about unique Austin places and historical events that shaped the city. "Social CRM's objective really boils down to what our high school English teachers always told us: If you want to convey an emotion in a story, show it don't tell it. And marketing is all about stories."

The city of Austin, with its many lifestyle attractions and rich, funky history, play a starring role in Juice Homes' story. The company's blog, Facebook page, and in-person monthly happy hour gatherings around town show customers and prospects why the place they choose to live is so special.

Heffron's description of social CRM, its objective ("to build likeability and trust," he says), and his execution strategy track closely with the definition coined by social CRM "godfather" Paul Greenberg: "Social media isdesigned to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment," writes Greenberg, president of The 56 Group LLC. "It's the company's response to the customer's ownership of the conversation."

That customer ownership of the conversation is increasing exponentially; social CRM as a strategy and practice is growing quickly in response.

As is often the case with an alluring strategy, however, it's easy to rush in without thinking through the best approach. What follows are five essentials for social CRM success, and three missteps to avoid:

1. Social CRM is not just about CRM - or wedding dresses
David's Bridal
sells wedding dresses and related items, but its customer strategy is not about the dress. "We're in the business of helping to fulfill dreams and create beautiful memories," says Scott Rogers, director of strategic planning.

The company's social CRM activities, which include blogging about gown styles and trends and publishing wedding-planning guidance online, support the company's customer strategy. "With social CRM companies can't manage customer relationships," Rogers explains. "Customers don't necessarily value their relationship with the company. What they value is the outcome from the experience, product, or service that the company offers. If you understand that and accept the fact that the customer is in control of this conversation, you can focus on figuring out what you need to do to support your customers."

Like Juice Homes, David's Bridal uses social CRM to build trust with customers, along with using more traditional CRM systems to track online comments and other social activities-online and off-for customer insights. In fact, social CRM is content-driven, while traditional CRM is data-driven, according to Brent Leary, cofounder and partner of CRM Essentials. This is one reason to integrate the two approaches.

"Social CRM needs to complement the company's existing customer strategy," says Tim McAtee, director of research for "The most important factor for success with a social CRM strategy is that it makes sense within the larger context of whatever existing CRM strategy is in place."

2. Acting wisely is wiser than acting quickly
Are you on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Mashable, Reddit, Digg? Have you made a cheeky, slightly self-deprecating YouTube video about your product? No? That's OK. Take a deep breath.

According to McAtee, author of's report "The State of Social Media Marketing," the two most common mistakes companies make relate to rushing into social CRM are:

  1. Mimicking the social media tactics of other company, rather than coming up with a strategy of their own
  2. Not listening to customers first to find out what they want, which should be the basis for developing a strategy that actually delivers what customers want.

David's Bridal's social CRM efforts officially kicked off in 2007, although Rogers had been observing and evaluating social media marketing possibilities since 2002. Rather than plunge in, the company took an iterative approach to adopting social CRM in ways that would support the company's overall customer strategy, Rogers' says. First, he used social media tools to listen to customers to find out what they were saying about the company in online conversations, and what they wanted from the company. Next, he and his team evaluated how what they learned about customers' desires (customers wanted more practical knowledge and guidance to related to wedding planning) meshed with the customer strategy. Fortunately, it meshed perfectly, so David's Bridal created a site stocked with how-to guidance from a wide range of experts.

3. Be wary of social CRM expertise
With apologies to Greenberg, McAtee, Brent Leary, Jeremiah Owyang, and other insightful social CRM thinkers, the barrier for entry into the social CRM thought leadership arena remains low thanks to, well, the explosion of social media.

Almost anyone with an Internet connection and some familiarity with customer strategy basics can start a blog, snag a few speaking engagements, and hang a consulting shingle. As any social CRM expert will tell you, the discipline remains in its infancy.

Nigel Dessau, senior vice president and CMO of computing and graphics solutions provider AMD, advises other CMOs to avoid "anybody who is a 'social media expert. I think most of them are talking rubbish. The first person who crossed the Andes was not an 'Andes specialist.'"

Simply put, business leaders should hire social CRM "experts" who possess CRM expertise, as well as an understanding of social media tools. Look for consultants who have actual experience with social CRM initiatives and strategies, and who can provide client references. Having a large following on Twitter, but no results to show except popularity among other social CRM practitioners, does not ensure social CRM expertise.

4. Remember, you have two ears and one mouth
Companies that expect to successfully apply social CRM should start by "understanding what your customers want, then work your strategy backwards from what their needs are," says Rogers of David's Bridal.

In fact, to gain that understanding David's Bridal spent two years listening to customers.

Rogers used Google alerts and similar tools beginning in 2007 to find out what customers were saying about David's Bridal. Shortly thereafter, the company started using Nielsen BuzzMetrics to listen more deeply. What Rogers and his colleagues heard - a distinct desire for planning guidance related to weddings and other special events - motivated them to create a new social networking site to house that content.

Companies that gain the most valuable returns from their social CRM efforts, says Leary of CRM Essentials, "use social media tools to listen, not just to push messages out."

5. The technology may be cool, but it's still about the walk
Juice Homes' Heffron uses traditional CRM tools to track leads that stem from social CRM interactions, such as those that occur on Facebook, in response to his blogging, or at the firm's happy hours. While this information helps he and his colleagues better understand the impact of their social CRM efforts, Heffron points out that it takes time to build trust.

One of the most valuable benefits of social media is that it lets companies communicate directly with customers. And that is the key: communicating with customers, not talking at them. Doing so reflects a company's intent (whether it has its customers' interests in mind or only its own) that is shown over the course of a relationship, not told in a burst of one-way messages, Heffron notes.

Additionally, the value of those communications, regardless of the communications channel, depends on their content. "Nothing captivates the attentionlike relevant, compelling content," says CRM Essentials' Leary. What makes content relevant and compelling is that it's based on customers' needs and interests. Taking the time to determine those needs, and delivering content based on them, is another way to build trust.

Socially Challenged in Three Ways
A 2005 episode of Chappelle's Show features a sketch, "What if the Internet Was a Real Place," that remains a sharp reminder of the bad behavior that routinely takes place online. In the sketch, comedian Dave Chappelle ambles through a half-empty, withering-on-the-vine shopping mall whose different stores represent websites. The message is clear: If people behaved in-person as they do online, the real world would be a much scarier place.

That point may help managers responsible for corporate social CRM efforts avoid the following pitfalls that will hamper social CRM efforts and, sometimes, make a laughing stock out of a company's brand:

    1. Don't be asocial. In February CRM Essentials' Leary received an automated tweet - "@BrentLeary You are not following me back. I will unfollow you if you will not follow me back." - that raised his hackles. Leary says the only thing the sender wanted was a "follow because he thought high follow numbers would make him appear influential." Leary immediately blocked the sender.

    Another tweeter introduced himself to Leary only by identifying his "followership" number (the equivalent of Facebook's friends or LinkedIn's connections). When individuals and companies behave this way, Leary blogs, they mistake numbers with importance and influence. Social media's tools offer breathtakingly convenient, direct, and powerful connections to customers and prospects, but these tools are only as valuable as the messages and behavior that they convey.

    2. Don't try too hard, too much, or too fast Rogers of David's Bridal has invested much of the past three years easing his company into the realm of social CRM. "I think the biggest failure companies commit in this effort," he notes, "is when they say, 'Wow, our customers have moved someplace else - they're on Facebook, so let's get on Facebook.' Well, what do you intend to do on Facebook? This is a social interaction. It's like a conversation at a party, you have to keep it going. You have to understand what you're getting into before you leap."

    3. Don't be a control freak. Toyota discovered that marketing messages (of the crisis management variety) from the highest level of a corporation cannot "contend with the breakneck, crowdsourced, unmediated reputation-wrecker that is the 140 characters of a tweet," Matthew Debord notes in Slate's The Big Money site. One of the biggest and most common mistakes companies commit in their social CRM efforts, Leary notes, is "trying to control the customer relationship as was done in the past." In other words, Leary suggests, don't use social media to push one-way messages and don't try to prevent or avoid negative conversations about your company, which will take place with or without you; instead, join in the discussion in an honest, engaging, and transparent manner.

      Read more about social CRM in the 1to1 InAction white paper, Measuring the Returns From Social Media.