Wendy Lea: online, 'customer service is the new marketing'

Want to really converse with your customers? First find out what they're already saying about you, says Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

They call Wendy Lea a "social enterprise visionary": smart, tough and, naturally, social.

The former OnTarget and Siebel executive now plies her trade as top dog at Get Satisfaction, a startup that sees business opportunity in helping companies connect with their customers online.

Part corporate psychiatrist, part turnkey marketing firm, Bay Area-based Get Satisfaction exists because there are more places to reach customers than ever before. It's no longer just about hanging around the shop all day (and for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Adobe, it never really was).

She spoke to us from her office in San Francisco's SoMa district.

ZDNet: What are companies getting wrong about customer outreach online?

WL: All companies are trying to figure out where their customers are and where their customers are having an online experience. It could start with a Google search. Or a smartphone. Or from any page of the company's website. Or Facebook. One of the discovery questions that we force ourselves to ask companies to come to us for help is: let's talk through where your customers are, period, and what they are experiencing about you when they're there.

Once a company understands that -- they think through the customer experience of their brand -- then we can help them.

The next question is, how you would like to show up for them? What do you want them to know about you, or to find about you? Getting a company to talk through that level of detail is painful, but important. Otherwise, they're going to be "social-washed." (Like "greenwashed" for social media; talking the talk but not walking the walk. -- Ed.) They'll end up buying tools that can't really give them the picture or perception they want.

The first phase is generally listening to what their customers are saying. But that's not being with those customers. Once you listen, then what? Are you going to tweet back? I don't think companies can afford a call center of people [tasked with] tweeting back. This conversation around "engaging" is a little nebulous. When companies say, "I want you to be engaged," they mean they want you to be a fan and to market to you. That's not working.

ZDNet: Companies have always had to connect with customers, since the beginning of time. Where did we get lost?

WL: The need is ages old. The principles of Get Satisfaction stem from the fact that local businesses knew their customers. They had conversations early and often. A relationship built through exposure and normal, natural language about things.

What's changed from the days of local merchants interacting in a coffee shop environment with customers is a lot of things. We have to break down all this kludgy inside-out process.

I used to be in customer relationship management, and we really weren't helping companies get to know their customers better. We were helping customers forecast their sales better. It was about efficiency, not effectiveness. It wasn't about honesty and transparency; it was about control. It was called "customer relationship management" -- it just never did that.

What's so fascinating about your question is that this inside-out strategy of CRM bounded by people, process and technology has kind of been exposed and exploded by the Internet and consumerization of applications and a certain generation who wants to be online and wants answers fast and friendly. Companies have to rethink all this.

This is about good business practices. Know your customer. Be where they are. This is not about a mobile platform; this is about the mobility of customers. If you're a company, product, service or brand, you want to make sure you can be with them and over time engage with them: help them get their questions answered, products solved.

This jargon, this [process] -- there's all this stuff that's been set up to deflect, not engage.

ZDNet: Are these online problems signs of systemic issues with regard to company culture?

WL: You have siloes, groups that want to use different technology…for CRM to really work, you had to have a membrane.

In these new social times where companies are really attempting to put their toe in the water, sometimes there are organizational challenges. It's not like roaming in the deep, dark sea. Customer service is the new marketing -- you're dealing with service and support groups, and Get Satisfaction wants to make sure the path over to marketing is open. We do our bit, although we're in the business to sell a platform, not a consultancy.

We are very hands-on relative to the role of community management. We have deep expertise about that functional area, the skills and process and knowledge required, the touchpoints that a particular leader should have within the company. But they really need to have some internal urgency to be transparent and open to address that.

ZDNet: What's your biggest challenge, personally?

WL: My biggest challenge is making sure our organization has the right skills and knowledge and processes to support a highly valuable independent business. We're in a startup mode. We're operating in a very sophisticated marketplace with lots of different toolsets and segments. It's a lot to maneuver. Strategically, if you saw the market landscape, your head would twirl. To have the right consumer chops, design chops, enterprise chops and solution skills…it's a very complex company to build. And it's online as well as an annual software-as-a-service business. When you're running a freemium business model, it just reeks of complexity. I have to deploy the capital in the best way.

I'm in San Francisco, and hiring is hard. It's very different in these times. We serve the long tails to the largest companies in the world. We are core -- a serious part of the social solution. When you are working with a community platform, you are touching internal systems as well as all the pieces of the social web. That's a pretty important role. And then you're onboarding customers from Wendy's Coffee Shop to Pampers in Cincinnati. Their needs are different, their price point tolerances are different.

There are a lot of CEOs in this space that are quite naive about running a freemium model in the social space. This is different than putting software on a disc. Our dependencies to the cloud, to Amazon and Salesforce and Zendesk and other open source pieces...this is a complex partner strategy.

Plus, there's a preliminary discussion around social return on investment. I don't hate it, but that book hasn't been written yet.

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