Social Customer / Social CRM / Social Business: snake oil or great medicine? (Part II)


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In this (second) post I want to move on and tackle ‘social CRM’. Before I do that I wish to recap my thinking on the ‘social customer’.

The Social Customer

In the first post in this ‘social’ series I shared my thinking on the ‘social customer’. In a nutshell, I was neither impressed by the ‘anatomy of a social customer’ nor by the ‘social customer manifesto’. The ‘anatomy of a social customer’ left me thinking that the ‘social customer’ is like the unicorn – fantasy. The ‘social customer manifesto’ occurs as both mistaken and unrealistic.

Most customers simply want stuff to work. Most customers want to spend their valuable time on that which matters: self, family, friends, ‘life projects’. Most customers don’t want to use social media to complain / get service – they want the service to work first time. Most customers don’t want to get into partnership with corporations. Why? Because we are interested in making ourselves better off not making corporations better off. Apple has got rich by creating value for us – enriching our lives, not by engaging us in ‘social’. Finally, the whole social stuff showed up in my world as the kind of thing that life insurance sales folks do: scare the living so that they part with their money. Unfair? Perhaps. Lets move onto to Social CRM.

Social CRM

What is this ‘beast called Social CRM’? What does it look like? How does it move etc? On my travels the internet threw up the following definition by industry guru Paul Greenberg:

“Social CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a technology platform, business rules, workflow, processes and social characteristics, designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment. It’s the company’s response to the customer’s ownership of the conversation.”

What? So let me get this right, Social CRM is:

  • a philosophy – “a way of thinking about the world, the universe, and about people”;
  • a business strategyWiseGeek states that “A business strategy typically is a document that clearly articulates the direction a business will pursue and the steps it will take to achieve its goals”;
  • a technology platform;
  • business rules;
  • workflow;
  • processes;
  • social characteristics – what are “social characteristics” exactly? I remember that when I worked at IDV the management had to make a big effort to suppress the social characteristic of (some) staff members getting drunk at lunchtime and not being fit for work for the rest of the day

OK, it is everything! The whole point of a definition is that it draws a line so cuts off what is from what is not. Can you make sense of it? If you had to draw it, how would you draw it? Do you remember this post on good strategy, bad strategy (fluff)? No, let me share RR’s quote with you again:

“The hallmark of true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable. A hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is unnecessary complexity – a flurry of fluff masking an absence of substance.”

Maybe, I am being unfair, so let’s continue with Paul’s definition to see where else it leads. Here is what else sticks out for me:

  • designed to engage customers in a collaborative conversation;
  • a trusted and transparent business environment; and
  • companies response to the customer’s ownership of the conversation.

Let’s take a look at these in turn.

Where are the collaborative conversations? I remember reading that the vast majority of companies that have set up Facebook pages do not engage in conversation with their followers. On the contrary these companies are using Facebook as a marketing billboard to ‘message’. And the report suggested that most people who follow companies on social media are doing so for ‘special offers / deals / discounts / privileges’. Furthermore, even the more advanced companies (and there are not many of them) which have social media centres are mainly focussing on reputation management. Responding to issues that flare up and doing online PR without it looking like online PR. Where are the collaborative conversations? If I am ignorant then please illuminate me, share with me what you know and I do not know.Incidentally, I do know that some companies are using social tools to tap into the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ globally in order to solve specific business problems e.g. Netflix (and the algorithm) – I do not count this as ‘social CRM’.

Where are these trusted and transparent business environments? Let me be specific and make this even simpler: “How many businesses do you know that operate in a transparent environment? Can you even imagine what a ‘trusted and transparent environment’ looks like? How likely is that given that a large part of the ‘power of corporations and powerful individuals’ stems from deception – conscious or unconscious? Before you answer get present to what “transparent” is and the revolution it implies in the design, operation and management of organsiations. Now I ask you: how seriously would you consider the following statement “Social CRM is the island where pigs fly”? So why would you take this definition any more seriously. From a zen perspective, a key component of living effectively is to distinguish between ‘what is so’ and our ‘delusions about what is so’. From this perspective, Paul Greenberg’s definition occurs, at best, an aspiration and at worst a fantasy.

In what sense does the customer really own the conversation? It occurs to me that the customer may want to own the conversation and the reality is there is no conversation! Really, where are the conversations? Where is the unrelenting dialogue between the customers and the company? I recently wrote a post about my shockingly bad Amazon experience, I have heard nothing back. Not even an acknowledgement that I exist or that Amazon is open to a conversation. A customer ‘owns the converstion’ to the extent of his ability others to join his cause. I know that on review sites, like TripAdvisor, customers can have a huge impact simply through the aggregation of their reviews. Does this constitute ‘ownership of the conversation’?

My take on ‘social CRM’

‘Social CRM’ is classic hyperbole rather like the wizard in the ‘Wizard of Oz’. Like the wizard it looks interesting, impressive, sparkles and catches your attention. And if you happen to look behind the curtain this is what you are likely to find:

‘Social CRM’ is a phrase cooked up by technology vendors to sell their latest wares. What are these wares? Mainly tools for listening into and reacting to what people are saying about stuff in their lives – including their experiences with companies (people, products, events, advertising;

Social CRM’ is being played for all its worth by consulting and marketing services companies. Why? To sell their ‘wares’ to the ‘gullible’, the ‘greedy’ and the ‘desperate’. There are no ready made, cookie cutter, formula’s for social success. And the last people I’d trust are people in consulting companies (who tend to be analytically adept and relationally suspect) and marketing companies (too obsessed with messaging and manipulating).

Some companies are doing interesting stuff like Dell, Starbucks – to engage their customers in sharing their ideas. Is this ‘social CRM’? I thought it was the ancient practice of tapping your employee for ideas / suggestions for improvement. extended to include customers.

The promises of ‘Social CRM’ are exaggerated. The context that would give life to ‘social’ in its truest sense is simply not there. First, most companies are not ‘social’ and they absolutely do not want to be ‘social’: transparency is death to the existing institutional models. Just look at the News of the World hacking scandal – the government, the politicians, the police, the press supervisory body were all able to cover it up for a long time because of the lack of transparency. Look at the way the business press reacted to Pizza Huts decision to be honest about its pizzas. Why was this newsworthy? Because dishonesty / deception is the taken for granted norm. Second requires a shift from self to the other and from I to you and me, us. And as such, humanity, generosity, helpfulness, kindness, sacrifice, contribution are key part of social. This is completely at odds with the current business ecosystem which is centred around selfishness, greed, manipulation, extraction and control – in short, “inhumanity’. If you doubt me then ask yourself why the Sainsbury story took such hold in the press. Or for that matter ask yourself why our insides warm up, we say “wow” and jump up and down when we hear tales of humanity in business and institutions?

Do you want to get free tickets to the Social Customer Conference, 29th March, London?

If you want to win one of the 3 free tickets then please read the following carefully:

What you need to enter the competition for the free tickets? You need to send a tweet that conforms to the following specification:

“I’d like 2 attend The Social Customer 2012, London, 29 March #MzIq | {give a reason here}”

Who will choose the winners? Me.

How will I choose? The three tweets that make the most contribution to me: put a smile on my face / make me laugh; and/or put something into the world eg. by contributing to – a social cause dear to my heart, I love children!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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