So What’s Your Story?

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Before joining the online conversation you and your staff better get your stories straight.

What’s your story? Can you tell a colorful story that paints, from a customer perspective, a vivid picture of what it’s like to do business with your company? Describe every interaction at each of your touch points. Before you can make the social web work for your business, be certain you and everyone in your company can tell the same story to every customer.

Your story may start with someone answering the phone. How many times does it ring? What does the person answering your phone to greet your customer say? Perhaps your typical customer experience starts with a physical visit to your store, office or practice. What does the customer see, smell, hear–what grabs his or her attention immediately. Be a fly on the wall and describe the conversation between the customer and the person representing your company. Let’s give him a name and job description. How about Beau? (Why not Beau–you have a problem with Beau?) Beau is a salesperson. He may have other duties but at this moment of truth, your first customer touch point, Beau is a member of your sales team–and your marketing department.

In a retail environment with a typically short sales cycle, examine every touch point all the way through checkout including where Beau warmly thanks the customer for coming in. If yours is a professional service business with a longer sales cycle, describe exactly how you want the customer to experience very step in your lead nurturing process.

Putting words to this experience will enable you to consistently communicate to each of your employees exactly what is critical for every customer to experience. This experience is what your customers are talking about. If the experience exceeds their expectations they will create buzz. If it falls short, they will quickly forget you or create the kind of buzz you’ve worked extremely hard to avoid.

You may not realize it but your customers are describing this experience–on social communities like Yelp, shopping portals like Amazon, Biz Rate and in increasing volumes on Facebook and Twitter.

If you are a traditional marketer you may find yourself quite uncomfortable with this concept. Traditional marketers are used to doing all the talking. From mass media to more direct methods such as direct mail, email or print advertising, traditional marketers set an expectation. If the creative is good, it also begins to tell a story–the story you want to believe is true. But it’s the customer’s experience that determines which story gets told. This is especially true online.

In large numbers customers are looking to online reviews before making any buying decisions. Their numbers increase daily, spurred by tough economic conditions where every dollar counts. Their stories are the ones that matter, because it’s the one that will be told to friends, family, and co-workers. Oh yeah, they’ll also probably tell tens of thousands of others by writing about it on their Facebook pages and other social networks. If their experience was memorable, good or bad, you can bet you’ll get “Tweeted” about on Twitter.

This is part of marketing today that makes traditional marketers so uncomfortable. The customers are in control. You don’t get to do all the talking anymore. So what should you do about this?

First, make sure the experience you describe when doing the suggested story telling exercise is one that can be told and lived by everyone who interacts with your customers. If you can’t tell it, you can’t expect an Oscar winning performance by your staff. The primary generator of negative buzz is failure to live up to expectations.

Next, take a tour of MySpace, Facebook, and other sites that allow customer feedback and reviews. Yahoo Local and Google Local are a good place to start. Try to locate your business and see if there’s a conversation online you didn’t know about. If you stumble upon a bad review resist the temptation to write your own review or address any conflicts online–not yet. If your business is not listed you’ve stumbled upon a huge opportunity. Get listed on critical local search engines and social community websites.

Get a feel for the culture and tone of each site. Learn the lingo, what generates interest, what’s okay and what isn’t. Keep the bit in your teeth and don’t say anything yet. Words have an extremely long online shelf life. On social networks it’s important to learn how to listen before you start talking. Trying to undo a rookie mistake can be a daunting and expensive task.

If you find enough people telling your story differently than you tell it, start by taking a fearless look at your operations, examine every touch point and get to work on the story-telling fluency of everyone at your company. Make sure the same story is told to every customer. Once you have accomplished that, you’re finally ready to engage the online social community.

Next time we’ll discuss how to get started participating in online communities, how to handle negative buzz and how to use tools like twitter to stay a step ahead of your competitors.

Before moving to Western MA, Dan launched his career in New York in advertising and public relations, where he worked with some of the country’s top brands. Dan also has many years’ experience in small-business and corporate marketing, finance, franchise business operations and field consulting. In 2005, Dan became the first area president of TruePresence, a national internet marketing firm specializing in web design and search engine marketing. Dan’s clients have included Johnson & Johnson, Sears, Warner-Lambert, Monsanto and Pepsi, but he prefers the individuality of his smaller business clients. Dan launched The Green Internet Group to help business owners fully leverage the digital marketing and social media by offering results driven marketing planning, consulting, training and creative services.

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