In the old days, it was easy to understand the customer experience. You had your manager or salespeople walk around. You asked or incentivized your customers to complete comment cards or surveys. Then you added in mystery shopping. All were good sources of information about the customer experience.

But that won’t suffice anymore. Today, you have to think about your online reputation and what your customers are saying about you in social media. Customer feedback spreads like wildfire: The average online review is read by 150 people.

Comfort with social sites growing: Cumulative reviews on Yelp, for instance, grew 54 percent year over year to more than 30 million, and average monthly unique visitors grew 52 percent year over year to more than 78 million.

Online reviews drive sale: A half-star improvement in online ratings can lead to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a restaurant will be fully booked during peak dining times.

The social world is here to stay. And the best brands in the business use social media, or more specifically the customer intelligence gleaned from these online conversations, to optimize their supply chain, tighten service standards, and generally make their customers happy.

Achieving these goals starts with listening to the feedback — really listening. And the feedback should be categorized. For example, restaurants would assign feedback to specific categories such as service, food, prices, wait times, and ambiance. Then brands can improve strategically based on this data and communicate to let consumers know they care. The results play out in operational improvements that earn customer loyalty and affinity.

The effectiveness of using data-driven intelligence to drive business strategy depends on a brand’s social media maturity. The more mature the company, the better they are able to leverage social market intelligence. There are four stages to social media maturity: read, engage, empower, and optimize.

Stage 1: Read and understand customer sentiment

During this stage you will find that you are visiting 15-20 review sites, bookmarking them, and reading every review. In most organizations with less than five locations, it’s the owner who does this task. Once the business grows to more than five locations, this usually becomes the responsibility of the marketing and promotions team. Some reviews can be lengthy and have lots of location-specific data. Some will be mostly positive and others mostly negative, but the majority of the reviews will be nuanced. That is they will contain several insights, positive and negative, and the corresponding star ratings don’t give you the full picture.

When it comes to reading online reviews, best practices include: Hire a full time social media manager, especially if you have more than five locations. Minimally, make this the job of your marketing team, as a high priority. Ensure the reader is taking notes. Try to categorize the feedback by what matters to your business. Read everything. Don’t skimp. It’s important to ensure you understand the entire landscape of reviews. Reading online reviews comes with challenges, such as handling a large volume of reviews, remembering what was said over time, and staying focused on this task. But if you can overcome those difficulties the results will definitely benefit you as you use the data to make informed, intelligent business decisions.

Stage 2: Engage and connect with customers to show them you care

The next stage in social media maturity is to engage with customers and let them know you’re listening. Reaching out can be done for a variety of reasons: to offer an incentive to come back after a bad experience, simply to tell them you’re listening, or to actually do something about it. By engaging with customers you can stop negative reviews in their tracks, and you can take neutral and positive reviews and make them more positive. The result is increased customer loyalty and ultimately increased revenue. Best practice guidelines for connecting with your customers include: Reply to all types of reviews. Don’t just focus on negative ones.

If possible, make the conversation private. Some review sites allow this, others do
not. Avoid the temptation to fix the customer. Rather, you should fix the experience. Treat this even more sensitively than you would an in-person exchange with an angry customer. When you engage with reviewers, the results are impressive. Ultimately you are working to increase customer loyalty. Loyal customers talk to friends, bring friends with them, and increase sales. In the meantime though, by engaging with customers you can demonstrate that they matter — that you are a brand that cares.

Stage 3: Empower staff to make the right decisions to fix issues before they damage your brand

Brands at this stage empower their general managers, staff, operations team, etc., to use the intelligence gleaned from online reviews to make the right operational changes in order to deliver a consistent high-quality customer experience and earn customer loyalty. Best practice companies know: When empowering your staff, let the data inspire you. You know your business better than anyone, but sometimes you need that extra bit of information that only the customer can provide. Look at the data with an open mind. You can’t just do this once. It’s important to make sure you are keeping track of your operations and the customer experience over time. Measuring progress is critical. When you make a change, watch for results. Not to react or overreact to individuals. You don’t want to experience a yo-yo effect on your decision. Let the volumes of data be your guide. When you do all of this, you will deliver on your brand promise, motivate your staff, keep customers coming back, and grow your revenues.

Stage 4: Optimize top-of-mind customer feedback to drive strategy improvements to your business

This final stage of social media maturity is when you change your business to better serve your customers. Usually regional managers, owners and CEOs, or VPs of operations look at the social intelligence to determine how to optimize the business. The goal is to drive the strategy, make changes that improve the business, and monitor the results. To change strategy or drive strategic initiatives based on social reviews: Let the data challenge your fundamental beliefs. Sometimes making a change like this can yield dramatic results. Keep tabs on the social market data of your competitors. There is a treasure trove of information on your competition online. Take time to evaluate it. Monitor your progress. Ensure the changes you are making have the desired effects and continuously and dynamically adjust. Moving through the stages of social media maturity doesn’t have to be difficult. You can start by reading, and step through the other stages of maturity over time as it works for your business.

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