Predictions for Social Business in 2012, Part II: Knowing Your Customer

Rather than simply make prognostications, I wanted to give actionable advice based on these trends. This is the second of my three predictions and priorities for Social Business in 2012 (read the first prediction).Prediction #2: Your customers want to be known. Your customers don’t merely want you to understand their needs or pain points. They want you to know them as individuals anywhere and anytime they engage with you.

Companies sure know a lot about us, without knowing much. For example, I’m classified for marketing purposes as a Gen X, 35-45 years old, graduate degree holding, Real Simple and Wired magazine reading, working mom. I frequently “like”, “follow”, and engage with companies on sites like Facebook and Twitter. And yet when I walk into a store or visit the site to which I am loyal I get…the same 15% off, free shipping offer, and experience that everyone else gets. To most companies, I’m a faceless member of a target market.

What I want instead is a relationship with companies that feels more like the ones I have with small business owners in my community. It goes beyond simply recognizing or understanding me. They KNOW me. They’ve taken the time to see me as a person and I have come to know them as well.

The problem is that this is hard to scale on two levels. First, there is a huge fire hose of rich social and mobile context that is not put to use because of the difficulty of connecting unstructured data to transaction data. Second, it’s hard to tailor it for a single individual at scale.

For example, I can check-in on Facebook or FourSquare when I enter my local grocery store, but the store won’t know it’s me until I punch in my loyalty code in the checkout lane. At that point, it’s too late — I’ve already made my purchase decisions and the tailored offers and coupons being printed out will remain in the bottom of my shopping bag awaiting recycling. What a lost opportunity to know me.

Instead, what if I could automatically “check-in” to my grocery store and receive a list of tailored specials on my smartphone dedicated app. They might also know that I’m shopping for a big party (thanks to integration with my Facebook status updates) and someone from the Deli section would make some recommendations. I could also see and pick which specials to include in my shopping list and then be guided by an in-store GPS app that navigates me to the shelf where each of my items are located.

Some people call this “social CRM” and the evolution of “Big Data”, two very hot tech topics these days. But these are spaces that are still being defined and the data integration needed means that it may be years before most of big data and social CRM can reach their full potential.

I’m advocating something much simpler and that can be applied today — which is the hard work of thinking through how your customers *want* to be known by you. This means turning the tables and anticipating how your customers want these new relationships to work.

How To Get To Know Your Customers Better
One way to do this today is to find simple ways to integrate current social data about your customers into your every day work flow. I use a very simple plug-in for Gmail called Rapportive that shows the latest Facebook posts, tweets, and other social media updates right next to an email from someone. It provides context for follow-up emails and conversations and is a great way for me to be connected with what’s important to the people I interact with.

In the beginning, this will be a highly manual effort, but over time you’ll find commonalities and trends in terms of what works to get closer to customers. More advanced tools like Nimble (aggregates all social account activities) and GetSatisfaction (aggregates customer questions into a single community) can enable additional aggregation and help scale. My colleague, Jeremiah Owyang, will be releasing a report this Thursday about the latest social media management suites that can help with this as well.

The other thing I see companies doing is putting in place the building blocks for these new experiences. The Midwest grocery/department store chain Meijer recently launched a smartphone app called “Meijer Find-it” where a shopper can search for an item, add it to a shopping list – and see it’s exact shelf and aisle location. It’s only available in a handful of stores and it’s a static map — but it’s a beginning.

How To Tell When You Know Too Much
The biggest question that comes up when discussing this topic is privacy and permission. How much can and should you piece together across social media about your customers? How can you tell when you’ve crossed from knowing and anticipating what your customer want, to uncomfortable spying?

It comes down to constantly checking in to make sure that the relationship is moving in the direction that both parties want. At some point, your customers will have had enough — they feel they are known enough and don’t want to take the relationship any deeper.

The master at this process has been Facebook. With each innovation, they push the boundaries of where we previous drew the line on what we would consider sharing. Not everyone is eager to embrace each new change, but more do because they see the value. Facebook has had the courage to lead change and advances, knowing that not everyone will follow. But they also knew where to draw the line — and to acknowledge when they had crossed it.

You will have to risk crossing that line as well, and as long as you are transparent about your mistakes (see my first prediction) you will be able to recover and retain a strong relationship with your customers. And isn’t it worth it, to be able to get to know your customers

Your task in 2012 is to discover what it is that your customers want you to know about them — and how it adds value for them, as well as for you as a company. It will take a lot of testing and learning, as well as numerous mistakes. But by the end of the year, you should have learned a great deal more about what it is that your customers want you to know — and hopefully have strengthened the relationship to allow that “knowing” to take place.

Next up: How connected are your employees?