seeing the wood for treesIt’s always been axiomatic that employees needed to know how they fit into the organisation’s strategy, and how what they do contributes to results. Remember the story about the janitor at NASA saying that he was helping to put a man on the moon? It’s also always been crucial that management has a clear view of what’s going on across the organisation and beyond, from production to customer. What’s different now, perhaps, is that the rise in social media, and particularly the rise of the empowered consumer, is making both these tasks both easier and more difficult.

A clearer view of customers?

There has never been more data available about customers and consumers. Companies can find out about what people do, what they say, their opinions, their likes and dislikes, and so on. Empowered consumers are quick to take to social media to tell a company if they like or dislike its activities. But does it really help? Some would say that perhaps there is too much information available, and certainly it’s a challenge for any company to pick out the useful data.

There is a powerful mystique around numbers, and they often seem more ‘real’ than other results of analysis. This means that a dashboard without numbers is likely to feel pretty useless. But which numbers? Some reports suggest ‘likes’, while others go deeper and suggest ‘conversions’, from click to purchase, are the crucial link to the bottom line. Our research on customer engagement via social media suggests that those companies who are getting the most from social media treat it as a way to have conversations with customers, but that even they are struggling to link individual social media activity with sales. What seems to be crucial is to have a clear idea of what information you need and why it will help drive your business. Without that clear line of sight, anything else is useless.

Talking to the right person

Human to human contact is becoming increasingly important. The rise of the empowered consumer has also led to the rise of the empowered employee: often the same person. As a consumer, you want to engage with the person who knows what you’re talking about, not the ‘customer service representative’. As an informed employee who knows what they’re talking about, you don’t want to put your information through ‘customer services’ to have it ‘spun’ into something meaningless before it gets to the consumer. In many ways, this shortens the line of sight between product developer and consumer, but it’s a difficult idea for management to accept. There will certainly be a few PR mistakes in the process, with infelicitous tweets going viral, as Greater Manchester Police found out the hard way.

The rise in the flexible workforce is also making life harder for management. Many companies are now moving towards a workforce which is not actually employed, but whose skills are drawn on when needed, on a freelance or consultancy basis. This is flexible for both company and workforce, but it also means that there are many more people privy to ‘inside’ information who can engage directly with customers on a personal basis. It also means that the person who most needs to engage with customers may no longer be inside the company itself. Engagement, after all, is a two-way process.

Shortening line of sight

Are there ways to engage that can shorten line of sight? Content marketing is probably the biggest trend for 2014, with research from the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs suggesting that 54% of companies planned to increase or significantly increase their B2B spend on content marketing in 2014. But it’s got to be good content. Shane Snow, founder of Contently, cites several real ‘misses’ of recent months in content marketing terms, which are probably best allowed to disappear without trace, as well as some genuine hits such as Dove’s Real Beauty videos. Good content marketing allows brands to engage with customers, both business customers and end-users, to improve understanding of the brand’s identity. But best of all, by starting a conversation in which customers’ voices can be clearly heard, it gives better line of sight to all those involved, from management down.

And that, after all, is the desired result: a better understanding throughout the company of what customers want and need, and an ability to engage with them to solve their problems, with minimal gap between customer and company. In other words, direct line of sight.

Image credit: Burning October by Michael Greene

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