What's the Big Idea?

Recently a well-known European airline lost my suitcase. After five days of leaving messages on the straight-to-voicemail customer service line and waiting in vain for an update, I started tweeting about it. Within one day I got this response:

We're sorry for the inconvenience. Our colleagues doing their best - as soon as they have more information, they will contact you.”

Their colleagues didn’t. Two days later, while I was at work, the suitcase was unceremoniously dumped on my doorstep.

When it comes to using social media effectively, this airline has gotten half of the memo. They’re (sort of) listening. They’re (kind of) personalizing their brand. This is a huge improvement over businesses that use social media simply to trumpet their latest products or features. But it still doesn’t go nearly far enough. From a customer-service standpoint, social media is an unprecedented tool for connecting in real time with customers – for gathering information about their needs and concerns and letting them know you’re addressing them. But the social web has a powerful nose for spin and adspeak and frankly “We’re doing all we can” doesn’t really cut it.

Maddie Grant, co-author of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, argues that what the social media generation wants most from business is genuine transparency and a human face. They want to know that someone is actually listening and interested in their personal needs as a consumer. Companies that understand this – as opposed to paying lip service to it – can reap huge rewards in the form of customer loyalty and a real competitive edge.

Grant uses the example of a misstep by the company Motrin in the video below to illustrate this lesson. 

Watch here:

What's the Significance?

Most businesses understand that social media is important, but not necessarily how to use it in their own best interests. Maddie Grant argues that it represents a paradigm shift not only in popular culture, but in the fundamental relationship between businesses and consumers, and, as a result, in organizational best practice. Instead of being assigned to the marketing interns, she argues, social media needs to be at the heart of how a company connects with the world. It needs to become a barometer of what’s working and what isn’t, and a source of inspiration for future growth.

After all, wouldn’t many of the resources businesses devote to surveys, focus groups, and market research be more usefully directed to the live stream of questions, suggestions, and complaints people are happy – even eager – to share online? Business leaders, if you’re listening,  the take-home lesson from my recent twitter/airline experience is this: if you’re going to do social media, do it for real. Commit to it for the benefit of your customers and your business. Pretend engagement is a waste of time and resources, and frankly, it just isn’t fooling anybody.

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