Editor's note: One of those over-used business buzz words so often heard these days is "community." Usually it means something to do with social media -- like Facebook, LinkedIn and others -- where business owners and their customers are starting to communicate with each other more and more. So why should community really matter to business owners? Is it just because circles of customers and prospects are meeting up more and more online to talk about things important to your business, including you, your products and your services? And what can business owners do to more effectively connect with customers and prospects online?
What Works for Business asked Toby Richards, general manager of Community & Online Support for Microsoft, to weigh in on those questions. His guest post follows. -- Daniel Kehrer
By Toby Richards
For any company, regardless of industry, size or age, customer relationships are crucial to success. And certainly in times of economic strain, customers can abandon ship, bail us out or put more wind in our "sales." If you have effectively built trust and loyalty, it is likely that customers will stick by you through thick and thin. But how do you establish that trust? And how will you know when you've achieved loyalty with your customer base? While there is no silver bullet solution to achieving better customer relationships, there are a few simple steps you can take to charter a course to greater customer loyalty.
1) Listen up! Ever been in a conversation with someone and could barely get a word in edgewise? Are you sometimes more focused on what you want to say during a discussion with a friend or colleague and fail to hear what they are saying? All too often, we simply push out information before, or instead of, really listening. Find out what kind of buzz already surrounds your business. This is crucial to understanding customer perceptions. The obvious first place to look is your company web site. Do you have a feedback system established where customers can post comments and questions? Even if you do, that is just scratching the surface.
2) Do more listening online: Harnessing the power of social media is one of the most important things your company can do to listen more effectively. The boom in the number of niche online forums, blogs and social media sites has created opportunities for business owners to find potential customers. Search the web, using keywords that apply to your business, to determine what people are, or aren't, saying about your company.
3) Join the conversation: The number of online conversations taking place in any given hour, on any given topic, is staggering. At Microsoft, we make it a priority to understand and be a part of these conversations. We find out who's driving them, what they're about, and what they mean for our products and services. We analyze 15,000 Microsoft-related articles each day across 600 forum locations and blogs, and we actively monitor Twitter, Facebook and other forums to stay in tune with our community influencers.
4) Move from monologue to dialogue: Once you know where your key customers are and what they're saying, you must engage them in two-way communication and be open to feedback -- both positive and critical. Taking it one step further, you must tell customers -- singly or collectively -- how their feedback is being used.
5) Create virtual discussions about your company and what you offer. This might include establishing a Twitter account, a company blog, or a Facebook group to facilitate conversations and provide places for customers to share their views, ask questions and make connections. If an online forum makes sense for your business, create one. Engage with the "power users" of your products and services, even if these individuals are not always on your side. In so doing, you'll actually build more bridges and create new avenues for customers to meet each other's needs and depend on one another.