It used to be that customer relationship management (CRM) was all about a database of leads with contact information and other pertinent data. But CRM has undergone a lot of changes, not least of which is the fact that it's gone social (much like just about everything else these days). And as more people flock to Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and many other networks online, this new type of CRM is quickly becoming one of the most important strategies that a business can adopt. Here we'll take a look at how social CRM works and how it can help businesses engage customers. (Read about more of the trends occurring in CRM in Top 6 Trends In Customer Relationship Management.)

What Is Social CRM?

Social CRM uses social media tools, technology and techniques to engage customers. It is essentially a series of concepts that a business needs to fully understand its customers in what has become a highly social online world.

There are a lot of definitions floating around, but the best one that captures the full essence of social CRM comes from author and President of The 56 Group Paul Greenberg. Greenberg writes that social CRM is, first and foremost, a business strategy and philosophy. In other words, this is no marketing fad, but something that can affect an entire business.

Greenberg further states that social CRM is "designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide a mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment."

Sounds like a mouthful, huh? But what is clear here is that unlike in the past, where businesses took charge of the client-customer relationship, social CRM emphasizes a collaborative relationship involving both the business and the customer. Social CRM uses tools, technology and techniques to carry out this goal.

Just as in other types of CRM, there are many different ways to get the job done. Social CRM doesn't fit into a neat package; in fact, in works best when companies adapt it to suit their needs and to conform to the feedback they get from customers. If customers are engaged in a way that benefits the business, that's mission accomplished!

CRM Tools, Technique and Technology

Social CRM would be very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out without the necessary tools, techniques and technology. Social CRM applications are used by customer service, marketing and sales professionals to listen in to the social media conversations that their customers and target market are having.

These applications are what help companies build awareness about their brand, gather data and information, foster trust, evaluate and modify decisions, and sell and conduct after-sales activities.

Social media is just another way for companies to communicate with their customers. Social CRM software is the technology that allows them to do this. For example, programs such as Hootsuite allow companies to track what people are saying about them over social media so that they can interact and respond with those potential customers. In 2010, social media sites accounted for 22 percent of overall Internet use. Clearly, people have a lot to say to each other, which is why companies are so keen to listen to what their customers are saying and do something about it.

The Strategy and Philosophy Behind Social Marketing

This brings us to the next element of social CRM. A company can have all the right tools and updated software in the world and still fail at getting customers interested.

Why? Because social CRM only works if the sales staff, marketing team and customer service personnel participate in the conversations that social CRM tools are designed to capture. After all, a large part of the point of social CRM is to put a human face on an organization. In order to do that, organizations need to understand the value in participating and be committed to engaging with customers as individuals, not just as potential sales.

That's why adopting social CRM often requires a change in attitudes. For many organizations, this means acknowledging the importance of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Particularly in an older workforce, the value of these channels of communication may have a tendency to be written off. (Get some wise words on social media in Jedi Strategies for Social Media Management.)

Enhancing CRM

A lot of businesses fall into the trap of thinking that social CRM is a replacement for their basic CRM efforts. It's not. Social CRM only adds several features and functionalities to existing CRM efforts, making it a more comprehensive way of bringing in new customers - and keeping existing ones. It's also important for companies to determine what they want to achieve through social CRM.

But regardless of the plan put in place, engagement should be a major goal. Control over the client-business relationship is no longer the sole domain of the company. Instead, the customer plays a hand in it too, even to the point of owning the conversation in venues that are not controlled by the company.

Just how important is it for companies to engage customers? Take it from the world's top CEOs. In 2010, IBM interviewed 1,500 of them in more than 30 industries. Eighty-eight percent felt that it was very important to be closer to customers in the next five years.

So how can companies drive engagement with social CRM? The key is to put the focus on interacting with customers rather than make a transaction. Here are some top tips on how to do it.

  1. Become a "social" organization
    The business objectives surrounding social CRM should be embraced by everyone in the organization. Get employees to understand social media, how it works, and more importantly how they should behave in it. For instance, customer service personnel might use Twitter to address customer questions or complaints, while sales personnel might create relationships on Twitter and Facebook.

    In a social organization, a business must accept the fact that the brand is now what customers say it is. As such, social businesses should be participating in a conversation with customers on how to shape that brand.The key is to make sure everyone in the organization shares the same vision.


  2. Be transparent and have a customer service orientation
    Take a look at how online shoe retailer Zappos does business. It is known for its relationship marketing and loyalty business model. This has allowed the company to amass a loyal base of customers, making it one of the most successful online businesses today.


  3. Get the processes right
    Technology and tools are pointless if no one knows how to use them. Getting on a social CRM platform can be overwhelming; how can a company bring itself into so many conversations? How can it even get noticed amidst so much information? The first step is to formulate a plan that details how to capture relevant conversations, how to prioritize them, and where to direct them.

    This often means putting the right people in charge of certain types of communications. For example, a complaint about a product should go to both the product research and customer service departments, while sales related matters should go to the marketing and sales departments.

Ready to Get Social?

All in all, social CRM is something that businesses of all shapes and sizes should consider and apply. In a world where consumers are digitally connected, few businesses can afford to miss out on the opportunities that social media tools, technology and techniques present.