Employee Engagement in Social Media: For Better Business or Company Messages

Social media- increasing importance as an ideal way to connect with customers
Social media- increasing importance as an ideal way to connect with customers

Conversations and commentary across the Web touch upon virtually every aspect of your business and industry sector.  They also occur at such a volume and speed, the traditional corporate response mechanism (i.e. forward inquiry to appropriate department, draft response, legal and PR review, spokesperson reply on behalf of the company) often does not work well. That traditional response process is slow and comes from the “corporate spokesperson” when people actually want to hear from, and trust more, the employees directly involved in the subject matter under discussion.  In this respect the “corporate response” lacks the transparency often demanded of the Web.

In 2006, at Dell we broadened our search and response program on the Web beyond just customer tech support and care (two departments but for the Web they acted as one since people did not differentiate between the different responsibilities of these functions – that was internal demarcation) to look at anything and everything being said about us.   We recognized that all commentary (good and bad) ultimately impacted what people thought of us and our corporate reputation.

Frankly, I think we were a little surprised at the breadth and depth of commentary we found.  It included positive and negative feedback about specific products (not related to technical support), commentary on our website, perspectives on our Corporate Social Responsibility efforts, customer experiences with our different “business processes”, as well as thoughts related to our business model, and much much more – to the tune of about 4000 comments per day in 2006.  As social media grew and more people came online to interact with their friends, business colleagues and family that comment stream grew to upwards of 26,000 daily mentions of Dell in 2012.

The traditional response mechanism adapted for the Web (copy Web commentary into an email, contact appropriate department for response, follow up, get required approvals for public comment and post response) strained under the volume of “just the relevant matters” separated out from 4000/day, and it certainly could not keep pace with the speed of the Web.

One other surprise (a subject for another post) was the generosity and respect even when the corporate response was not necessarily in agreement with the inquiry.  Engagement in social media does not always mean saying “yes” to everything.

That operational mis-match between traditional corporate practices and the Web is one of many reasons we came to the conclusion that the only way to scale social media efforts across the business was to actively involve employees in the direct connections with customers.

Dell’s employee engagement on the Web was based on matters that were relevant and related to the employees’ job responsibilities  — “things” that were part of the employee’s area of expertise.  For example, someone from product engineering should not be dealing with a customer tech support issue—that should be the tech support team’s responsibility.

When you think about it, not only does this approach scale a company’s ability to connect one-on-one with customers on the Web, it also drives the customer voice and connections deep inside large companies.  This is real business and customer connectivity—irrespective of where your company is based, the customers are virtually walking the halls every day.  Rather than a “few” customer facing departments or contact points in the company, this approach to employee engagement with customers gives real meaning to the voice of the customer being right there — in the day-to-day work stream of your business.

In fact, the IBM CEO Study of 2012 revealed that CEOs want to treat customers as individuals; that CEOs are looking to implement extensive changes to enable faster, more relevant responses to markets and individuals and that social media will become the number 2 way to engage with customers, 2nd to the best, face to face interactions.

In addition to the operational and customer-centric rationale for broadly empowering employees to engage on the Web, any business also benefits by putting a human face on the otherwise nameless, faceless, contactless “Big Corporation”.  It brings to life that “Big Corporation” is really just a collection of people too – and in reality, often people who are dedicated to their jobs and wanting to do what is best for customers and their business.

The other added bonus of empowering your businesses employees is that your company experts are among the most trusted sources about your company.   By enabling employees to connect, you are strengthening the trust in your products and services, and your Company, through your experts.

Empowering employees is not something that just happens.  It requires some important facilitation and support, such as:

  1. Limiting engagement to matters that are part of the employees job responsibilities and have it start with listening, really understanding what customers are talking about.
  2. Complete awareness and understanding that all engagements should be transparent about who you work for and what you do
  3. Training related to communications in online forums; why they are of value to the business; and, the importance of this kind of customer connectivity – as well as the public nature of such discussions;
  4. Guidelines related to confidentially should be very clear;
  5. Methods for escalation and how to identify a potential “hot” issues or crises, so employees understand how to proceed in difficult circumstances

But here is the rub! Sometimes what is implied when we talk about empowering employees is that we want employees to be tools for marketing the brand, to wield those brand messages on behalf of the company. In some cases we seek to merely set up another group of spokespeople or another mouthpiece in the social media noise. Looking for that value out of employee engagement is short sighted and misses the bigger opportunity.

It has been reported that Cisco has 1.3K employees “amplifying the company message.” Now, I am not sure of the details about that matter of “amplifying the company message” but if it means they are sharing more links from the company then the company branded social sites, there could be a risk here.  Rather than listening and connecting with customers, we might be simply using employees to be megaphones for corporate messages – and in that process it is possible that the push or corporate messages overwhelms that customer voice on the Web.

Such a course of action might also result in the social media listening metrics not being representative of the customer voice, but rather the employee spokespeople.   In which case, the value of the metrics, and the belief by management, that social media empowered employees are driving stronger customer connections might all be upside down — in a worse case scenario.

That is a #fail in terms of Social media’s true utility for building genuine connections. I recently came across a post (HT Frank Eliason) on Medium by Marcus Nelson, “The Next Social Imperative.” I strongly encourage you to check it out.  He notes:

“People are not tools to be wielded for crass commercialization. Companies need to think about, and simplify, how their greatest assets can reach out to customers. Connect them. Give them an outlet for goodwill and customer rapport. Empower everyone throughout the entire organization to react and respond to their best impulses.

This is our next cultural imperative: Putting human empathy at the core of every customer interaction, and at any level of communication. We are not tools, so stop treating us as if we were. Empower us to build relationships, and to thrive on those connections. That is, after all, what humans do best.

And if that doesn’t translate into customer trust and loyalty, nothing will.”

I cant say it much better than that.

2 thoughts on “Employee Engagement in Social Media: For Better Business or Company Messages

  1. Let me start off by saying that “amplifying the company message” is a very vague statement and as such is open to misinterpretation. The real reasons behind employees amplifying company messaging can be and are numerous. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t at least occasionally share information and links related to their work that they find personally interesting. Cisco’s program makes sharing easier (especially for social newbies) and helps drive consistent messaging around popular topics. I will agree that using employees like robot megaphones is a bad idea for all the reasons you mentioned but that’s not what is really going on. Also as a Cisco employee I’m sure I see more of our posts than 99.9% and I have yet to be “overwhelmed”.

    To reference your point on the metrics: Using an employee specific hashtag is great for metrics because with the tools we use it is easier separate from non-employee posts which gives us better data than not using one.

    You speak of the true utility of social media as “building genuine connections” but I believe the sharing of information is just as important if not more so. To take it a step further; sharing valuable information can lead to developing genuine connections over shared interests.

    The article is interesting and highlights some potential pitfalls with some social strategies which is great but I think taking a step back and looking at the big picture can provide a lot of clarity. Hit me up on twitter if you would like to chat more @1andonlyMikeT

    1. Mike, these are great comments and appreciate your taking the time to provide both the context from Cisco but also for adding some other great points and broad perspective. Much appreciated. You are absolutely right about the sharing of valuable information and the role that plays in nurturing and strengthening long term relationships. And you have a new twitter follower so we can continue to stay in touch 🙂

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