Your customers have always talked about you. Their gossip about you over the telephone was always out of your reach, but it's much easier in the digital world to hear what they're saying, and not just because you can read their Twitter feeds, either.
Even while we're all concerned with privacy, many people are only too happy to broadcast their opinions and knowledge about brands and products to the world — including the companies behind them.
For the longest time, the enterprise world looked on at social media's hundreds of millions of users with envy and confusion, never quite sure how to put it to use outside of a few sponsored tweets and Facebook ads.
Now, there's a new frontier opening up when it comes to having a global conversation about products to ensure that it makes a more tangible contribution to your business.
"In just 30 days, when Telstra commenced selling the iPhone 5, crowd support helped over 40,000 customers find the answer to their questions without having to call or visit a Telstra store," said Monty Hamilton, Telstra director of digital operations.
It may sound like just another corporate cost-cutting exercise to outsource questions to the crowd for free that one would traditionally employ staff to answer, but in some cases — as in Telstra's iPhone launch — no call centre can handle the sheer volume, and you never know how many sales you're losing.
Watching what people say on social media, by monitoring a company Facebook page, for instance, is an established practice nowadays, but it might surprise you that older technologies like forums are being used to great effect as well.
As well as having peers answer user questions that the internal support infrastructure can take too long to address, they're a great place to identify a superfan — the community user who knows so much about your product that he or she becomes everything from your unofficial evangelist to free tech support. Many companies today put a lot of effort into finding and curating such people.
Sometimes, customers will even prefer to look for information about your product in a community than come to you to get it — we've all been given "it should just work"-type marketing spin when all we need is a real-world user we can trust with an honest workaround.
It's also for more than customer service — stories of new product development inspired by comments in user forums abound. After all, who better to tell you what your customers want than your customers themselves?
The lynchpin to exploiting all of that potential is in deploying the means for your customers to do so.
You can merely leave the conversation about your company to the four winds of the online world if you like, but many — from Telstra and Vodafone to the Commonwealth Bank and BarclayCard — are much more aware and responsive to the conversation, because they provide the user communities themselves.
Vodafone's iPhone app can itemise your usage, billing, and plan data, but it can also connect you with the company's entire user base to ask questions.
The result? "We're seeing a more collaborative and rich customer service experience," said Vodafone's innovation and systems manager Erik Jacobsen. "It's drawing more voices in and answering more diverse service enquiries."
There's also the big data angle — hearing what a great many people are saying gives a much better dataset to work with.
Jacobsen said the volume in the Vodafone community takes the company as close as possible to a given problem, giving him "a more meaningful answer for the customer on their terms and using their descriptions instead of our industry jargon, which means better information for customers down the line".
Buying or building a custom community or social media hub isn't free, even if you pay someone to watch your Facebook wall. Last year, Telstra reported that it had paid 60 people to monitor social media.
You might even consider a custom app or website-based project through a large provider.
Lithium CEO Rob Tarkoff said that his service "builds online communities and social media tools that help brands define their social customer experience strategy".
"The missing piece in the marketing customer service equation is what to do with engagement," he said.
And when you go to the CFO asking for the budget to help your customers talk to each other, you'd better have an ROI plan ready.
To some, it's very tangible. "Every interaction resolved in the community is at least one less call to our call centre," said Vodafone's Jacobsen.
The effect is a little less direct for Telstra's Hamilton, who said the company's community tools are about customer satisfaction first, "and then maybe sell a few phones".
But according to Lithium's Tarkoff, nobody can afford to ignore it. He added that many industries now understand that if they don't take action, their customer service costs are going to go "through the roof".
It also used to be that listening to your customers was about spotting negative comments and reacting through improvements or damage control — Twitter's still seen as a forum to shame a company into action.
But Tarkoff said that this is changing, too. First, he said, Twitter is a new platform for tech-savvy users who don't call anymore. Second, it's less about servicing individual customers than customer service strategy.
"Brands that listen and engage know dropping everything when a customer complains on Twitter isn't sustainable. The value is in building a community where people use their time for free to help others. Over time, social will drive down the economics of customer care."
Building to scale
Deploying a user collaboration and information sharing platform among your customer base also sounds like the sort of thing only a multinational can do, but Vodafone's Jacobsen thinks it's just the larger scale of what an SME already does well.
"Business size and complexity shouldn't matter," he said. "Smaller businesses often already have close relationships with their customers. Larger businesses are simply finding new ways of taking that approach and scaling it for distance or complexity."
Telstra's Hamilton said that such upsizing then gives companies the best information. "The customers of a company as big as ours hold incredible knowledge, and if we scale the wisdom of the crowd, the best content will always surface."
Giving your customers the forum to connect will show you the best they have to offer, and whether it's new product or service ideas, free tech support from peers, or some other methodology you haven't even imagined, it might go straight to the balance sheet.