Listening to your customer via social is good for service, but listening to competitors’ customers is great for sales

Here’s a scenario for you: a company gets a social analytics tool and starts messing around with it. Initially, as is the case with most businesses, early applications are akin to “ego surfing,” where the company looks for mentions of itself (a handy exercise if you want to find issues to direct to your support team). But then, the social media manager gets creative.

She starts looking for mentions of the competition coupled with a negative word. Soon, she’s surfacing Tweets and posts from dissatisfied customers looking for a new vendor. And she forwards that information to sales, where they become leads – and where the sales team picks up the conversation armed with the customer’s own tale of woe about his current vendor.

This is an often overlooked but very concrete aspect of social CRM  and social media: it allows you to keep an eye on your customers, but it also allows you to see what your competitors’ customers are saying, and what their mood is about the people they currently buy from.

The social analytics platform in the above case (which is a real one; the names have been kept quiet to protect the company’s competitive advantage) is NextPrinciples, which officially launched its social analytics and engagement platform Insight-To-Action last week, but has quietly been working with businesses to perfect the platform for a long while. They were a winner of the App Throwdown at SugarCon 2012, where they demonstrated how quickly and easily the platform could be used to discover trends and filter social information by slicing and dicing social media traffic from that day’s traffic about the show. That characteristic is still present in the product – I received a briefing about the platform from head of marketing and product management Ted Sapountzis and head of operations Ramalingam Subramanyan last week, and they had added a lot of smart business-centric functionality in the past several months. The result is exactly what you’d want from just such a platform, especially if you were in the midmarket space: something that’s intuitive to use so that instead of fixating on how to use the platform you can focus on thinking about what you’d like to learn, and then powerful enough to deliver actionable information.

But enough about them – let’s talk about you, the social CRM-inclined business. How you use such a platform and what you look for will determine your success. When it comes to understanding the conversations about your business, the objective should not be collecting positive feedback that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Really, it should be to isolate areas where you can improve – how can you make individual customers’ experiences better, and how can you then take that knowledge and apply is to processes internally to make every customer’s experience better? Precious few customers complain directly when they have problems. Social media makes it a little less intimidating to do so – so these valuable customers can be heard and their input can be acted upon more easily today than ever before (if you have the right tools, of course).

Back to the main idea: if you’re one of the few businesses who’s actually listening to what’s going on in social media, your real opportunity comes when you listen to your competitors’ customers, because the odds are great that your competitors aren’t listening. Last year, a study by Conversocial, another social monitoring and engagement platform vendor, found that 10 large brands had a miserable rate of responses to complaints on Twitter – 13 percent. Even the businesses that did well made rookie mistakes, like failing to monitor Twitter on weekends. You could extrapolate from this study of some fairly large brands (all in the apparel industry) just how effective other businesses (especially in the B2C realm) are; as a whole, 13 percent is still an aspiration.

And while only about one in five customers are taking their service issues to social media, according to the American Express 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer, among those customers 46 percent say they take to social media to vent frustration with a bad customer service experience. That’s free competitive research for you, if you care enough to listen to it.

Once you collect that data, and feed it into your CRM, the next step is to act quickly. Those unhappy customers were expecting answers from their people they buy from today; a delay in responsiveness is not going to help them decide to buy from you tomorrow.

But it happens – I know, because I’ve seen it. Complaints about you are opportunities to improve your customers’ experience; complaints about your competitors are opportunities to win business away from them. But this is only possible if you’re listening. Are you?

–Chris Bucholtz