These days, if you really want to know what your customers are thinking (and where they are shopping), you need to connect with them online, on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, in today’s social media-driven world, having a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn profile, and a blog where you can interact with customers and, more importantly, they can interact with you are an essential part of customer relationship management (CRM).

To help you get the most out of the leading social media tools, I asked business owners and social media experts to share their most successful tips for using social media to help improve CRM the top 10 of which appear below.

Use free tools like HootSuite or TweetDeck to monitor what customers are saying about you on Twitter. “I provide community management for 10 to 15 clients at the same time on a regular basis. [And] responding to my clients’ customers in a timely manner and getting good content out on a regular basis is critical to great customer service,” said Lisa Loeffler, Principal, Genuine Media. That’s why Loeffler uses HootSuite and TweetDeck, “to help manage all my clients in one place, so I can respond on the fly to their clients’ needs.”

Create Twitter lists. “I have found creating Twitter lists helps me keep my Twitter audience organized,” said Jillian Koeneman, the founder of Freshlime Marketing. “I can scan any particular list to get a pulse on what [people] are thinking or talking about and respond if appropriate.”

Store Twitter and blog URLs as well as important tweets and comments in your CRM system.

Use LinkedIn to ramp up your networking and find new prospects. Patrick O’Malley, a social media consultant who goes by the name (617) PATRICK, is a big fan of LinkedIn for networking and generating sales and claims that this specific LinkedIn tip resulted in over $150,000 in sales (over the course of six to eight deals) for one of his clients, a company that sells insurance to other companies: “If you are going to contact a new company, see if any of your [LinkedIn] contacts knows someone there.” The way to do this, he explained, is to log onto LinkedIn and click on ‘Advanced’ in the upper right-hand corner, then put in the name of the company, and just below it, select ‘Current.’ In the search results, you’ll see names for people in that company. If someone is a first-level connection, you know them. More importantly, if someone is a second-level connection, you have a common contact. (The person will be listed as a ‘shared connection.’) “You can now use your own sales techniques to use them as a reference, or use their name to get in the door,” said O’Malley.

Give your Facebook fans and Twitter followers exclusive discounts and notify them of any specials, promotions or sales. “We use social media to improve customer relationship management [by] offering a discount code when a potential customer becomes a Facebook Fan of Rosena Sammi Jewelry,” said Rosena Sammi of Rosena Sammi Jewelry. As a result, the company has attracted many new customers who tend to be very loyal. The James Store, a 64-year-old clothing boutique located in Granville, Ohio, similarly rewards Facebook fans with discount codes. Those Facebook discount codes in turn “drive new fans to our Facebook page, which in turn drives foot traffic to the store,” said Peter Morse, the James Store’s marketing director, who also uses Twitter to alert followers to sales and specials.

Engage your customers on Facebook and Twitter by asking them thought-provoking or funny questions. “One of the best ways that I have found to gain and retain [customers] is to ask fun or funny questions … on Facebook and Twitter,” said Paul Draper, a mentalist, anthropologist and speaker who runs the website www.mentalmysteries.com. Draper says that posting questions on Facebook and Twitter elicits more responses than a normal post does and “when [people] answer, your question and your page is seen on the pages and in the feeds of all of their friends.” Moreover, when people who aren’t yet fans or followers see how much fun you are, they are likely to become fans and are more inclined to do business with you. Draper cautions that you need to carefully gauge who your audience is, so you don’t offend people with your tone.

Use Facebook and Twitter as calling cards. Long-time customers and employees of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, fondly recall how Wally Bronner, the founder, would spend hours on the sales floor personally greeting customers and chatting with them, especially during the busy Christmas season. Today, employees are keeping that tradition alive with the help of Facebook. “When I see a fan post [on our Facebook page] that he’s coming to Bronner’s, I often post an invitation for him to stop by our reception desk and ask for me so I can meet him,” said store spokeswoman Lori Libka. “That personal touch, that face-to-face, is so important in making your guests feel that they are part of your extended family and you are welcoming them home for a visit.”

Respond to your customers on Facebook, Twitter and/or your blog in a timely fashion, even if they haven’t directly asked you for help. “For example, if you are a clothing retailer and a customer of yours has commented about a stain [on a dress] on their Facebook page, offer a solution,” said Carolyn Goodwin, the president of and senior strategist at Cake Communications. “By acting as a friend and advisor more than a product or service provider, you’ll develop a more personal relationship [with your customers]” and engender trust and loyalty.

Use social media to help customers find your products. “My company, Cape Classics, is a New York-based importer of South African wine to the U.S.,” said Courtney Luick. “As we do not have a store locator on our website, we use Twitter and Facebook to inform customers where they can find specific wines, either at a restaurant or retail.” The Nauti-Dog Company, a three-year-old retail dog-apparel business that sells both direct and online, likewise uses Facebook and Twitter to alert fans, followers and friends to where they can find Nauti-Dog products as well as events, such as its dog walks and offers them free product when they use a code phrase.

Use social media to involve your customers in product decisions. Few things engender more brand loyalty than involving customers in product development decisions. So next time you are working on a new product or service or revamping an existing one, considering querying your Facebook and Twitter followers, as well as asking for suggestions and input on your blog, advised Scott Bradley, the founder of Rapid Results Marketing Group and an expert on social media. Then when the new product or service is released, “give them recognition for helping come up with it, as well as a discount [or other token of your appreciation],” said Bradley.

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Today’s post covers two extremely important topics for all entrepreneurs/small business owners:  1) how to make sure your business isn’t just a job and 2) how to handle disgruntled customers.

Regarding the first topic, the difference between creating a job for yourself versus creating a business, read entrepreneur Jay Gotz’s latest entry on the The New York Times‘s You’re the Boss small business blog, titled “How Can I Turn This Into a Real Business?” and make sure to read the comments.

Btw, there is nothing wrong with being a solopreneur, as long as you are happy being a one-man — or one-woman — show. But if that’s not making you happy, or why you created your business, be sure to read Jay Gotz’s “Ask Jay” column. It’s short and provides several excellent suggestions.

Regarding the second topic, how to handle disgruntled customers, I want to share with you a recent experience my husband and I had with an online luxury vacation rental company called Haven in Paris.

I came across Haven in Paris while searching for a Parisian apartment to rent over Thanksgiving week on VRBO.com, a well-known (and well thought of) vacation rental site, and I was very impressed with its website, the clean layout, the good use of graphics, the great photographs, and well-written copy. Moreover the site was easy to navigate and I was able to quickly find what I was looking for, i.e., a nice one-room apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris that could comfortably sleep three.

As someone who reviews websites for a living, I would give the Haven in Paris website an A-. (Haven in Paris also has a blog, a must for small businesses, which is also quite well done and filled with interesting and useful information.)

After several emails and phone conversations, where I posed several specific questions to the HiP team, and received satisfactory answers in a very timely fashion, I rented an apartment through them. The whole process was handled professionally and smoothly, and my family was soon looking forward to staying in a “luxurious” fully equipped apartment instead of the tiny Parisian hotel rooms we were used to.

Indeed, everything went great — until we arrived at the apartment.

Despite emails and phone calls to the Parisian greeter, letting him know when we’d be arriving, several times, he was not there when we arrived, and we had to track him down to get in. Moreover, despite the Haven in Paris promise of flowers and wine upon our arrival, we were met with neither. Not being big wine drinkers that wasn’t a big deal, but it did not reflect well on a company that made luxury and service its motto.

Far worse was the fact that the greeter was unfamiliar with our apartment and its workings or with the checkout procedure or what was going on in the building, which was undergoing a major renovation. (We had been told there might be “some painting” going on, but that it would be quiet and would not effect us or the apartment and were given a discount in the event the work had not been finished by the time we got there, which we thought fair.)

Worst of all, though, was when we tried to get assistance from the local contact, none was to be had — or had very belatedly.

Frustrated and sleep deprived we fired off email after email to the Haven in Paris team back in the States. And much to their credit, instead of ignoring our pleas or being defensive (which many small business owners are tempted to do when things go wrong), the Haven in Paris team promptly replied to each and every one of our queries, acknowledged our frustration, and tried to make things right, as much as was in their power over 3000 miles away — which was absolutely the right thing to do.

Indeed, if I had to name the top three things to mollify a disgruntled customer they would be:

1) Respond promptly to any and all complaints, i.e., in less than 24 hours, and preferably in under three hours (if during regular business hours), either via email or by phone.

2) Acknowledge the customer’s frustration or complaint politely and professionally, i.e., don’t be defensive or put the blame on the customer but apologize for any inconvenience or confusion or problem and let the customer know you really heard her.

3) Offer a solution — or ask how you can make things right, even if it means refunding the customer partially or fully.

The result: Even though we experienced numerous problems, as a result of Haven in Paris’s superior customer service, and proper handling of our complaints, we would still recommend their service (and apartments) to friends and would rent with them again.

So next time you find yourself dealing with a disgruntled customer, remember these three vital tips: Respond promptly. Acknowledge the complaint. Offer a solution or to make things right. Trust me, the resulting good will, referrals, and repeat business will more than make up for any inconvenience.

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Mar
22

As shoppers walk into Stew Leonard’s, a small specialty grocery store chain located just outside of New York City, they are greeted by a large granite block with the following written upon it:  Rule 1: The customer is always right. Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.

Now I’m not saying the customer is always right. She isn’t. But if you want to keep your customers — and these days, who can afford not to? — you can’t afford to piss them off.

Let’s face it, “stuff” happens, both in business and in our personal lives. And  it is often incredibly hard to control anger and frustration when things go wrong, whether in the business or in our personal lives. Yet as business owners — especially small service business owners — you have to learn to grit your teeth (or count to 10) and say or do nothing that could cost you a customer and revenue.

Especially now, in a down economy, where businesses are losing customers and going out of business left and right, you simply cannot afford to piss off your valuable customers. Yet some business owners just don’t get it.

Case in point, this small business owner, who actually preaches courtesy and self control as part of the service he offers and instills in customers.

Here’s an email I received from him this past week:

In an attempt to make life a little simpler, I realized that G-Mail was much better (so far) at sending mass e-mails than Yahoo.  So, if you don’t mind, mark this  nameofbusiness@gmail* address as “friendly” so that you can receive our e-mails.

Thanks

* This is not the actual email address of the business.

This was the third such email I had received (in approximately as many months) from this business owner, whom I have known for over four years, and have helped with PR in the past.

And knowing of his frustration, and wanting to help (as a fellow small business owner, who happens to help small business owners to communicate and market their businesses), I sent the following, short reply:

You forgot the “.com” = nameofyourbusiness@gmail.com

Have you considered an email newsletter/alert service like Constant Contact or iContact or My Emma or Interspire? They all offer free trials and are pretty cheap — and very easy to use. Also gives your emails a professional look and allow you to send emails to hundreds of folks at once.

JLS

While I was prepared for the business owner (who is very proud, and might not appreciate me pointing out his mistake) to ignore my advice or say “thanks but no thanks,” I was not expecting the tirade that followed (which I cannot reprint here). Indeed, I was so shaken by his vitriol that I was literally shaking — with fear — and quickly wrote an apology.

Hours later, and still shaken, and a bit angry, I mentioned the incident to a friend whose husband is also a small business owner. Her response: How does a guy like that stay in business? Do you know how much ass-kissing my husband does each day? But you have to if you want to stay in business.

And you know what? She’s right.

Now I’m not saying you have to be an (excuse my “French”) ass-kisser to be successful, but you do need to control or channel your anger, especially where customers are involved.

As for the small business owner mentioned above, whom I have given thousands of dollars in business and referrals and help to over the years, I am not sure we will be doing business much longer. While he sent customers an email the very next day with the correct email address, he has yet to apologize to me for his unprofessional and uncalled-for behavior.

Have a customer service or small business story you’d like to share? Leave me a comment.

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