Does Control of the Conversation Equal Control of the Relationship?


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Starting with the basics; If Social CRM is about the company’s response to the customer’s control of the conversation, I suppose we should first ask: Does it matter that the customer is controlling the conversation?  Of course it matters! However, your response to the conversation matters more.

Keep the ordinary, ordinary

As Paul Greenberg reminded us last week during his keynote at SugarCon. “Keep the ordinary, ordinary”. When conversations happen, there is a time to jump in and time to leave it alone. Listening in for while is important, to gauge trends and build up experience. If someone (Prospect, Customer, Partner) asks a question or makes a request in  a public channel, answer appropriately. My point is simply that controlling the conversation is not the same as controlling the relationship and that sometimes letting the conversations happen without you is ok, really (please do not interpret this as ignore).

Are customers like your kids?

Before I get lambasted for suggesting such a thing, work with me for a minute. This is more about communications than anything else, I have a ton of respect for my customers (as well as my kids). I have 3 awesome kids, really! – I am a lucky man. Are they perfect? No. Do they complain about me and/or their mother (my equally awesome wife) to their friends or to each other? Yes. Why, because we are not perfect parents either (or, we are being parents and saying “no”). Now, when they are talking among themselves or their friends, should I jump in and try to make sure things are ok? Sometimes, I suppose, more often than not, ‘no’, actually, but it depends. Sometimes an immediate reaction is necessary, sometimes it is not.

(Yes, I am a bit of a geek, but no, I do not have neither a KRM  or a Social KRM system – you can figure it out)

Taking a bit of leap, this begs the question ‘do you need tools to practice Social CRM’? My answer is the following: No, they are not required, but they will certainly help. The consultative answer is ‘it depends’. I would suggest that sometimes the tools are not new tools though. I can share with you the need to engage on the channels where you customers are talking. This is a lesson learned from my kids as well – My 15yo son shares a whole lot more with me (especially when I am traveling) via text messaging than voice (btw – email, NO WAY). Talk to your customers where they are comfortable!

Social does not demand a public conversation.

At SugarCRM, where I hang my hat, if someone writes something on our forums (4+ years of Forums BTW), answering there, or changing channels is fine. In other words, our forums are still quite active (we are thinking of making some changes though). If your customers are not on the new fancy channels, Twitter Facebook, yeah I am talking about you – then you may not need to be there either. This is a slight word of caution to companies – if the marketing group decides to jump onto a new channel, then you will need to listen appropriately on that channel as well.

A good practice would be for the whole company to agree on the social channel strategy. According to Denis Pombriant (someone who I have great respect for), the proper balance of talking to listening is around 25/75; plus/minus. As he states “The ratio of outbound to inbound need not be 50/50, in fact, most of us don’t want to provide input to our vendors most of the time, and vendors don’t want all of that input. ” Kira Wampler, of Intuit, shared the example that the most important Social Channel for Intuit is Amazon – where customer reviews happen. That channel has been around for a long time, it is where their customers are, makes sense to me.

In further reading Denis’s post; The Relationship Entity he also makes a great reference to the old CRM 1.0 world, and offers some sage advice: “When CRM was a new idea companies — large, respectable companies — ran out and bought Siebel for no other reason than it was what other large, respectable companies were doing.  I know because I asked them.” Skipping ahead, I love this line from the post, so I needed to include it “I just reading the labels looking for nutrition” – As a vendor, the message to me is ‘I better be part of a balanced diet’

I do believe there is a difference though, this time around the customer is driving the change. Companies are put in a position of needing to change, exactly how is not 100% defined yet. The change is both cultural, internal processes as well as technology. Does this change mean Social CRM for everyone? No, probably not. Friends have said to me “If you are a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail” – point taken. From a Social CRM perspective, there is buzz and hype – I am on record as stating we need to get past that, but companies are already doing ‘it’. Sometimes the effort is organized, sometimes, not so much. The key question is, who is doing the organizing?

By the way, I most certainly did not answer the question – but control is a very strong word. I suppose you could say it was a bit of trick question, as I do not think there is a right answer because independent of the first clause, no one really controls the relationship, because ultimate control is ending a relationship, and either side can do that.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mitch Lieberman
Finding patterns and connecting the dots across the enterprise. Holding a strong belief that success is achieved by creating tight alignment between business strategy, stakeholder goals, and customer needs. systems need to be intelligent and course through enterprise systems. Moving forward, I will be turning my analytical sights on Conversational Systems and Conversational Intelligence. My Goal is to help enterprise executives fine-tune Customer Experiences


  1. Mitch, I’m glad you posted on this topic of control and conversation.

    Sure, Social CRM can be thought of as a response to the social customer. But is it really a response to the “customer’s control of the conversation?”

    This makes no sense, because a conversation is about an interchange. How can any one party “control” the conversation.

    Here’s a dictionary definition of conversation:

    informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by spoken words; oral communication between persons; talk; colloquy.

    The customer is in control of deciding what company they want to do business with. The business is in control of deciding which customers it wants to serve.

    But a conversation by definition means interchange, so if one party (business or customer) attempts to “control” a conversation how can it be a conversation?

    If a business and its customers want to have a conversation, they both need to give up control and actually engage with each other.

    And who knows, maybe a real conversation will lead to an actual relationship not “controlled” by either party either.

  2. Bob,

    Thanks for the feedback and comments.

    Interestingly, Paul Greenberg blogged on a similar topic on Saturday, which I did not see until today (I wrote mine on Friday on an airplane and did not publish until today).

    Here are Paul’s words first regarding “conversation”, but I am not going to just stop there: “It simply means that the customer can impact a company in good and bad ways without the company having anything to say about it. It doesn’t say the company can’t try and have conversations with customers.” Here is the link to Paul’s post

    Like many other terms that we use in this space (Social this and that) the dictionary definitions are hard to extend. I do not think the definition you shared is wrong, just maybe needs some thinking about, is all. Social is another example, which Esteban Kolsky spoke about last week as well. Current ‘conversations’ seem to occur in many new ways – when people are saying things, often it is unclear to whom they are speaking. It is not a conversation until someone responds.

    I see the control aspect also suggesting that historically, a company could say ‘ conversation over ‘ now, companies have a harder time, so the playing field is level, because the customer has a say in when it starts and ends. Right now, it is possible that since the customer has not been in this position very long, they are enjoying being able to say what they want, when they want to say it. As you point out, a real conversation does not happen until both parties decide to talk – but I believe that we will get there eventually.


    Mitch Lieberman

  3. Bob,

    This isn’t the control of the conversation between customers and companies. Its the fact that the customers are able to converse amongst themselves (e.g. between persons) about brands and companies and things that they love and hate about those companies and they can have an effect on those companies without the companies inputs whatever. The control of the conversation which is clearly a metaphorical term for activity going on outside of the company’s firewall that affects the company means that the balance of power has shifted out of the control of the company and to the control of the customer. We’ve seen evidence of this every day in big ways like “United Breaks Guitars” to small ways when someone complains on Twitter and gets retweeted 50 times and is read by hundreds and maybe even thousands of people – and has an impact on a brand that’s notable to some degree.

    I don’t really think that peer driven conversation that reaches many people having an effect on corporate brands is really much of a question at this point. That’s the control of the conversation that at least I’m talking about. How a company responds to all that activity and deals with it on a mass and individual level is what it means by the “Company’s response to the customer’s control of a conversation” which is a tweetable definition and is thus driven by its metaphors since there is a 140 character limit. I wrote CRM at the Speed of Light’s 4th edition to explain it in more detail.

  4. Mitch, I find the use of “conversation” as a synonym for communication very dangerous.

    A customer can tweet or blog about a bad experience and stir up a lot of ill will against a brand. Anyone can write anything, but it’s not a conversation in my book if there isn’t some interaction.

    The customer can choose to post and that might create a conversation with other customers/users, but only if those others choose to engage.

    What sense does it make to say just blasting our point of view into the Social Web is a “conversation.”

    In a free world, we can only control what we do. A conversation has multiple parties (at least 2) that have decided to communicate with each other.

    Instead of talking about who has control, let’s recognize that companies, customers and other market influencers all can communicate independently, or engage in a conversation if they choose.

  5. Bob,

    There is something here between Communication and Conversation. But even the definition of Communication includes (one interpretation): “activity by one organism that changes or has the potential to change the behavior of other organisms.”

    I respect your opinion, maybe we are distant, or maybe we are closer than we all think. I will think further on this topic and maybe we can put together a panel to discuss. It is a good discussion.



    Mitch Lieberman

  6. I do believe that all conversation is communication – but all communications are not conversations. Dialog is a precious thing – it needs to have a balance, or else it simply becomes a monologue. And even if there is a huge audience – it is still a one way communication. And that, in the sense of communication’s sake – is quite boring.

    I think too much emphasis is put on the idea of “control” as if it is a dangerous or unwanted notion. When you have a conversation in real life/time – the control shifts, ebbs and flows, as it were. I do believe the same is true in the social marketing realm.

    The customer is usually in control – mainly because they have all the power. Companies are at their mercy because ultimately – if we lose attention and trust – we’re dead.

    (Not trying to get into a Bakhtinian notion of power and authority here…sorry.) But the company is in control at certain times. In customer service, the customer is partially at the mercy of a company’s policies and bandwidth…NOW – this may lead to a far different conversation wherein the (usually angry) customer has a lot more power and control of the conversation.

    I guess what I am saying is that the idea of “control” should not be seen as an absolute. There are varying levels, and the exchange in control adds depth, authenticity and trust into customer engagements.

    Also – as a marketer – maybe I am just not ready to feel completely powerless 😉

  7. Thanks, Martin.

    CRM got into trouble by trying to control (“manage” is a nicer word) the relationship through the customer’s data. Too one-sided.

    Paul rightly points out that peer-powered conversations have tipped the power towards the customer.

    But the idea behind Social CRM is developing a collaborative relationship. I think it’s counter to that idea, and inaccurate, to now imply that customers have all the power, and “control the conversation.” They don’t — not even on the Social Web. Because just as customers can vent on YouTube, so too can companies lobby their own point of view.

    Is any of this shouting into the ether a “conversation?” Not really.

    Customers have power. Companies have power. Neither controls the conversation completely, either inside the company or out in the wild west of the Social Web.

    Mitch, now that I’m done ranting about controlling a conversation, don’t get me started on controlling a relationship. You’re not serious, are you? Do you control the relationship with your family and friends?

    For heavens sake, why go there? Using words like “control” and “power” is antithetical to the whole point of an SCRM strategy.

  8. First thing: Mitch – please send me your KRM!

    In this stream we’re seeing communication and conversation, and perhaps a little collaboration. I think ‘Control’ was an unfortunate choice of words, but I do think that it is entirely valid to want to inform, shape, direct where the conversation is going.

    This is not peculiar to the Social world, but just happens a little faster, so real-time response to the conversation is not fast enough anymore. To influence the direction of the conversation, you will need to contribute to the shape of the environment in which it is happening, before the conversation starts.

    This is possibly a weak analogy, but it’s a little like investing in a cell-phone network. Whoever designs the network controls/shapes/directs the conversation. The physical analog is, well, a bit too physical, but I hope you get my point,

    Now, Mitch, about that SKRM …


  9. Donal,

    The KRM is the mirror of KRM is PRM and my kids have been asking for that, so I am steering clear 🙂

    As I said to Bob, above, my fear, is that on the customer side the exercise of control (strong word, yes) may happen. We should avoid it, it is not very social, I agree, but it might happen. I believe the Social Customer is demanding, the leap from demanding to control is not very far. “If you do not offer me the product I want, or the price I want, then the relationship is over” That was written about very recently.

    Thanks for the comments,


    Mitch Lieberman

  10. Bob,

    I am not going to far down the control path. All I am suggesting (did not think I specified in the post) is that in a one sided relationship (perception of power and control, real or not) the other side may simply end the relationship – exercising the only form of control they have.

    No, it is not very social, and we should all do what we can to avoid such things. It just seems as though when a relationship ends, it seems rare that it is a joint, equal, decision. Control is certainly a bit of a dirty word in the world of social, I agree. But looking back, we all seem to agree that the social customer is demanding – the leap from demanding to controlling is not far (and not one I like) but it is something that is worth discussing.

    Like the next post – How Social is the Social Customer


    Mitch Lieberman

  11. A relationship is defined as a platform that bridges people.
    A conversation is defined as a communication/communion/community between people.

    Conversations are meant to expand/share on ideas, insights and experiences between people.

    Companies are asked to observe this not control it. The only thing a company can control is the reaction/action that surfaces each day through these “real time” conversations.

    Companies then must realize they are transparent in the conversation, and only should surface when they need to communicate a message that is a reaction to an idea shared, an insight shared or an experience shared.

    Thus when you can control the relationships/platforms you don’t need to control the conversation, because your observing it from the relationships you’ve “built” by using twitter, facebook and all the analytics that come with it.

  12. Mitch, we all have “control” to end a relationship. Or stop communicating.

    That’s not the same thing as controlling the relationship or a conversation, because these by definition mean 2+ parties interacting.

    Control is not the word we should be using. What we’re really taking about is power. About the ability to influence the other party directly or indirectly.

    Sometimes companies have too much power — e.g. locked in customers that are taken advantage of. Social media is giving more leverage to consumers but it doesn’t give them control over “the conversation” or “relationship.”

  13. Great discussion. My thoughts are companies should focus on engaging customers. There’s an important distinction between having a conversation and truly engaging a customer. Engagement drives action – whether that’s buying a product or service, providing valuable feedback, giving you a heads up on a competitive solution or referring friends and family.

    In my work, I spend a lot of time helping companies of all types engage and activate customers. One surprising segment of small to mid-sized businesses – orthodontists – has really opened my eyes to the opportunity to truly engage customers in a way that encourages behavior change. In my recent post on Fast Company: I share a few simple, yet effective, learnings that demonstrate customer engagement that may prove useful.

    I also want to providea perspective on the issue of control. To truly engage with customers, you need to communicate with them in a way that suits their preference. For example, people under 25 are more likely to communicate via SMS messaging than their older counterparts. You’ll be more successful if you just ask customers how and when they prefer to engage – whether that’s via email, voice, phone or text. And, then, be sure to send relevant and useful information when you do reach out.

    Scott Zimmerman, President at

  14. Scott,

    I really appreciate your comments, and appreciate the perspective. It is spot on. Your piece on FC is a great example, which others should see as well. I have been thinking recently as well, along these lines: In larger organizations, do the support people actually talk to the marketing people? The issue is exactly what you raise – if support is having success on one channel, is marketing using the same channel?

    Thanks for stopping by!


    Mitch Lieberman

  15. Thank you for the follow up questions, Mitch. In a truly customer-focused company, I believe the support people should be talking to the marketing people.

    Customers are now taking an active and vocal role in the brands and stores they choose. And, in today’s world of Yelp, Twitter and YouTube, a single act of poor service – whether that is with the individual working in customer support or with a technician who comes to their house – a bad experience can have far-reaching brand impact in terms of loyalty and word of mouth. Increasingly, the quality and timeliness of delivery makes or breaks the brand experience.

    With mobile and ubiquitous communications, customers are now constantly moving targets; and what’s more they expect service to accommodate their schedules. In order to be successful in business today, all departments in a company need to work together.

    The marketing department needs to hear from customer support how consumers are finding out about the product or the manner of communication through which they are receiving complaints or questions. I believe that marketing should be using the same channel as support and likelytesting others as well, while following up with support to make sure they are aware of any changes in strategy.

    We are busy engaging our outside customers now and we need to remember our employees as well. Employees are a bit like customers, if they feel truly engaged with the company, it will show in their work and how they react to customers. All employees should be encouraged to speak to other departments in order to share information and ideas to engage customers and grow the company.

    Thank you again.
    Scott Zimmerman


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