A more tangible take on social CRM

While I go about my business as an industry analyst, I sometimes come across problems and solutions highlighted by the vendor community that somehow don't seem quite right. When my instincts flag up such situations, it's often because the way the problem has been defined is not something I can personally relate to, and/or from our end user research, we know that mainstream IT and business professionals wouldn't see the world in that way.

I have had this niggling 'something is not quite right' feeling about the whole 'social CRM' thing. At a high level, the reasoning seems sound enough; social networks are now well ingrained into consumer behaviour, so it makes sense for CRM systems and processes to somehow integrate with them. However, when you hear some of the propositions from the incumbent CRM vendor crowd, they don't seem particularly well thought out.

In relation to sales and marketing, for example, you rarely hear anything that is genuinely 'game changing' as claimed. When you strip away the revolutionary rhetoric, most of it boils down to social networks representing just another medium or channel that can act as a vehicle for promotional activity. Some of the more specialist marketing consulting houses go beyond this and talk about 'influencing the influencers', which is basically about identifying people who have a large 'following' and focusing your promotion on them, on the premise that they will pass the goodwill onto their flock. When you consider, however, that the majority of Facebook users reportedly only interact routinely with less than ten people on average, this kind of tactic can only ever represent a part of the overall marketing equation when considered in the context of the mass consumer population.

And on the customer service side, some of what I hear seems downright reckless - e.g. the harvesting of tips, tricks, and problem resolutions from social networks and facilitating the automatic propagation of these as part of your support processes. Judging by the number of recommendations I get for dodgy registry hacks whenever I search for a resolution to a Windows problem on the broader internet, it's clear that for every useful and legitimate piece of insight or advice you come across, literally tens or hundreds of useless or even dangerous 'opinions' exist. It's then the old problem of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Yet the principle of genuine communities helping each other in a relatively well-bounded manner is well proven and useful. Furthermore, in any customer base, 'experts' exist that probably know more about the real world application of the product or service than the supplier or manufacturer itself. My instincts therefore told me that it should be possible to pull all this together in a way that made sense, and ultimately, after a conversation with a company called Lithium, it all started to fall into place.

With its roots in the gaming industry, Lithium had a suite of software that facilitated genuine communities to be built by recognising the concept of 'credibility'. This isn't just based on the 'follow the noisiest' principle in which the most prolific contributors tend to become the centre of attention (as is the case in many social media 'echo chambers'); it's driven by a rules-based scoring, ranking and reputation management system based on the things that really matter - good product knowledge, original problem solving capability, and so on. Sounds pretty obvious when you say it, and anyone (like my 15 year old son) who participates in a gaming community will already be familiar with the principle, but when you apply this approach to the 'social CRM' problem, you can see how it might solve some of the challenges.

I'll not attempt to explain the workings of the Lithium engine, and there may well be other solutions out there that do the same or similar, but talking to the Lithium guys was the first time I could get my head around some of the specifics to do with the interplay between customer services and social networking. It's probably noteworthy that with the latest iteration of its solution, which allows a virtual community to be built as an overlay across a number of popular social networks, Lithium has rebranded its core offering as the 'Social Customer Suite'. I suspect this is as much as anything so Lithium can distance itself from some of the ill-defined arm waving that goes on under the social CRM banner.

Anyway, this is an area that Josie and I will be ramping up coverage of as we look forward, so if anyone out there has recommendations for other solutions we should be checking out (apart from the obvious traditional CRM suspects), then let us know.

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By Dale Vile, Managing Director at Freeform Dynamics.