* This article was originally posted on Forbes.com *
Whether your business is just taking off or you’ve been around for decades, getting to know — and truly understanding — your customers is a huge part of paving a pathway to success. It won’t happen overnight, but with the right team members and a strategic approach, it’s a move that will pay dividends.
There are a few key components to doing this well:
1. Employing The Right Systems
There are two types of systems every business should have in place to have any hope of effectively collecting and analyzing customer data. At the very least, you need a customer relationship manager (CRM) system of some sort.
Quite often, especially for emerging brands, this ends up being your e-commerce platform. Many of the options out there today can easily manage tracking, as most have decent email communication management and solid customer profile capabilities.
What becomes necessary pretty quickly after implementing this, though, is some sort of marketing automation or email marketing system. This will augment the customer data, and it will often end up living as a layer on top of your website.
A good email tracking software will tie-in fluidly to your e-commerce website. It will know any time you send out an email to a customer and take subsequent action, allowing you an opportunity for personalization based on that individual consumer’s habits.
2. Proper Division Of Labor
These days, outsourcing is a popular way to keep costs down and operations tight. But I remain of the opinion that you should keep any first step that touches your customer 100% in-house whenever possible.
Your social media manager is a natural extension of your brand — do you really want that to be someone external to your company? Similarly, customer care or customer service should always be routed to the people who hold the brand closest to their hearts. Customer service interactions can become personal, and you want people in that role who will take ownership of it.
When you send these kinds of positions to those outside the company, the person ultimately cutting the paycheck is the outsourcing company, not the customer. This puts a different incentive in place.
That’s not to say you can’t utilize offshore workers. Call centers or remote workers in other states, or even countries, can work wonderfully, but it’s vital that they remain a connected and integral part of the brand they’re serving.
3. Activate Social Listening
Social media is one area of customer engagement that, in my opinion, still doesn’t get enough attention and isn’t leveraged properly. I know it can be complicated because there are constantly changing algorithms and multiple platforms to juggle. And while it’s easy to retrieve basic analytics from the big players like Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, the real challenge comes with pumping all that information back into the system(s) that informs your segmentation decisions.
Yes, you can view all that data easily, but companies are falling short on using it. At the very least, find a way to listen to your customers on social media and get a good pulse of the sentiments and engagement.
The simplest way to do so is to read comments or personally reply and interact with your customers. There are plenty of major CEOs who are in the comments section and direct messages every day on these platforms because they understand the importance of getting close to their customers. Taking it to that next level means finding someone on your team — or partnering with an external service — who is knowledgeable enough to not only read and interpret this data but feed it back into your systems in an actionable way.
There are so many of these opportunities available through social media, and there are plenty of data points to pay attention to such as “lookalike audiences.” If you find a page on Facebook that has a million followers, and it just so happens that page concerns a topic relevant to your brand, being able to see how many of your customers are there or how many members are prospects or potential customers provides amazing insight. To know you’re aligned at that level is quite valuable.
You can scale this kind of social listening, as well. Say you find 10 or 20 pages that are aligned with your base. Any time a member of one of those groups visits your site, roll out the red carpet and offer them incentives — they’re already in that ultra-sweet spot. These sorts of data points are only found on social media, so you’ll experience a huge competitive advantage if you leverage them.
The most important part of the journey to know your customers better is to be humble and actually listen to what they’re saying. I’ve seen founders who are so in love with the product or service they created that they’ll almost argue with the customer when expressing their opinion — not necessarily explicitly, mind you, but in their actions.
The customer may not always be 100% right, but you need to hear them out. In the end, you benefit from going where they go.
Things change. Trends come and go. But if you don’t keep your ear to the ground and go with the market, someone else will. The last thing you want is to find yourself at the helm of a brand that’s vanishing because you didn’t open your ears to what your customers were trying to tell you.