Sears Holdings Corporation (SHC) has been a silent giant in social media for some time. Its online community now boasts more than 300,000 users and it was one of the first major retailers to adopt OpenID to connect MySears.com directly from major social networks. The company has been injecting social into most of its brands, which, in addition to well-known Sears, include KMart, Lands End and Orchard Supply Hardware. It hasn't always been a pretty story, as Sears has suffered some online woes as well, most recently a defaced group of product pages on the Sears Web site. However, the company credits an existing social media presence with helping them deal with that crisis swiftly by allowing immediate engagement with its customer community. I spoke with Rob Harles, vice president of community for Sears Holdings Corporation, about this and more.
Q. [Jennifer] How is SHC using social media?
A. [Rob]We are one of the only retailers – and the only one of our size – that’s created online communities specifically for our customers (MySears.com, MyKmart.com, MyVoice.com for our MyGopher concept). The goal of these communities is to connect with our customers. We offer discussion forums to facilitate questions and answers between customers and associates, an ideas platform to hear what new innovations are most important and product reviews written by customers. The communities also offer an opportunity to address customer service issues. We offer members information about sales, deals, discounts and access to unique coupons and specials for their participation.
Q. How did the use of social media start?
A. We started our first version of our customer community about two years ago. It was primarily intended for research; we used it as a platform for surveys and online focus groups. We realized the greater potential in this forum and quickly moved to expand our community offerings. We launched MySears.com and MyKmart.com in the spring of 2009 with product reviews, discussion forums, member profiles, a company blog, the ideas platform and a number of options for members to find and connect with one another around similar interests. MyVoice followed in July.
Our marketing initiatives have included a social, online interaction, component for some time now on platforms like Facebook. We are becoming more and more purposeful about engaging with customers on those platforms. One example is the recent Sears Back to Campus campaign where we utilized Facebook, Twitter and blogs to let consumers know about the product offering from Sears. We also created several online interactions like the Facebook application that allows college roommates to plan the lay out of their dorm room together, online. They can then buy what they design, creating a link to social commerce.
Q. For which brands, and how?
A. All SHC brands have a social component to them. All brands are represented in our customer communities and have their unique platforms and programs on the greater Web that meet their customers where they are.
One example is our Kmart Design brand. This initiative has introduced our Kmart designers and their design process through blogs, videos and Twitter to customers. Being transparent and upfront about what goes into our design process has proven to be successful; we’ve seen great response in customer engagement and in sales.
Q. What are your social media objectives:
A. Being present in a variety of social media outlets is part of our “Shop Your Way” concept. Shop Your Way is about letting customers choose what works best for their schedule, their shopping preferences and their budget and providing for them through our SHC properties. Our social media efforts offer a choice of online forums for customers to learn more about our products, to share their thoughts with us and to have their concerns or service questions addressed and answered. All within the course of their current online habits.
Q. How does social media help with customer support:
A. Social media gives us an opportunity to identify issues or concerns we may otherwise miss. Not everyone picks up the phone, tells our store managers, or submits a form to tell us how we can improve. Instead, they may tell like-minded customers or friends and family online. Social media helps us learn first-hand what we can improve upon and we use those examples as educational opportunities for all of our associates.
We also have a team of Blue Ribbon Customer Service representatives, called SearsCares, who are empowered to reach out to customers directly in our online communities or on other social media platforms and let the customer know how they can help.
Q. …crisis management?
A. Similarly, social media affords us an opportunity to react quickly and in the same forum in which an issue may be raised. We have recently contracted with Radian6, a technology provider that allows us to efficiently see a more complete picture of what’s being said on the Web (both positive and negative). Having this more complete picture guides our response.
Q. Did social media help or hurt during the defacement issue?
A. Absolutely helped. We were able to identify the conversations when they started and we were able to address the issue directly with the individuals who were commenting about the defacement issue. We received several positive responses from individuals about our participation in the conversation and our reaction time. We would not have been able to do that without an existing presence within social media.
Q. What lessons have we learned?
A. Social media is as much a philosophy as it is a series of tools and technologies. To be successful, you must have support and participation from all levels and roles within the organization. At SHC, our associates are encouraged to participate in our customer communities. Each associate is challenged to connect with our customers in a way they can learn and relate the experience to their work.
Whether it’s negative or positive, it’s still important to be part of the conversation. We feel strongly that negative sentiment is as important to hear as positive. Our goal is to funnel all feedback through our business as learning opportunities. It’s not easy to open your company up and know that some of the most vocal people may be really unhappy. But if you don’t open your door to this, you may not have the chance to include the unhappy customers in developing solutions.
Q. What is one success story to share?
A. Having over 300,000 members and over 1M users each month is probably our best success. The reason we have subsequent success stories – customer service wins, invaluable product feedback, increased participation in promotions and events – is because we have so many loyal, engaged customers who choose to spend their time with us online. We’re continuously working to improve the communities, to present engaging conversations and offers in order to grow the population.