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Social CRM customer data management can be the hard part

Barney Beal

As organizations embark on social CRM projects to capitalize on the rapid growth of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, there is one major stumbling block that must be considered -- and ultimately addressed.

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It’s a stumbling block that plagued many of the initial deployments of traditional CRM: the data.

The rise of new communication channels is bringing with it a rise in customer contact points, and therefore customer data. Should you collect Twitter handles, Facebook page addresses or monikers from online customer communities? Does that fit into your CRM system, and can you associate it to the right customer record?

Determining whether John Doe and J. Doe are the same person and how they're related to Jane Doe who lives at the same address is difficult enough within a standard CRM system, not to mention with three new associations.

For now, most social CRM initiatives are pretty nascent, and the long-term ramifications of social networks on customer data are something that companies consider a long-term issue. For example, Jill Dyche, co-founder of Baseline Consulting, said she recently sat down with a client who asked her firm for help acquiring and loading social media data. She suggested starting with customer purchase behaviors.

"The point here is that social media data is difficult and largely unstructured," Dyche said. "Companies have to walk before they can run."

Yet social media offers new ground and new and innovative methods of interacting with (or at least monitoring) customers, something organizations are eager to take advantage of.

For example, TelCentris, a cloud-based provider of hosted VoIP for SMBs and a consumer-oriented unified communications application, recently launched a social media initiative on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. It has been monitoring Twitter with ViralHeat, a social media monitoring tool, since late last year.

ViralHeat tracks mentions of TelCentris on Twitter, whether they are positive or negative, and the extended reach of their followers. But extending into the operational CRM system is not something TelCentris is ready to do.

"Social media takes time, it takes effort. To be able to do that would be great, but I don't think there's any way," said Erik Bratt, vice president of corporate communications for the San Diego-based company. "We are using it for product news, to engage people. We run a VoxOx tip of the day on how to use the product better, some customer support. But we're not replacing support. We’re not trying to solve their problems through Twitter. We'll steer them in the direction of where to find help online or where to report a bug fix."

Comcast, rather notoriously within the social media world, is solving customer service problems through Twitter via its Comcast Cares account. And Comcast does collect social media data, though not within its standard CRM system. Comcast adds it to a custom-built customer service system it calls Grand Slam.

"We built it into that because it was easy to do," said Frank Eliason, senior director, Comcast national customer service. "At the time, we had a database of social media -- Twitter handles, Facebook addresses. It could be a name in a forum somewhere. Now we can actually link it to an account in the system."

In fact, customer service agents, when working with customers, will ask for their phone number to associate to the account record, though they cannot pull up account information based on Twitter handles.

Comcast's solution, a specialized system to handle social media records, is probably how organizations embarking on this sort of initiative will have to deal with the problem of social media customer data.

"Operational CRM systems aren't really equipped to load that information into a day-to-day schema," Dyche said. "The few companies that are doing that are doing it fairly manually. They have to understand something about the social media company APIs."

It is a difficulty, Vinay Iyer, vice president of global solution marketing for SAP CRM, acknowledged. SAP recently rolled out Twitter integration for SAP CRM.

"One of the challenges is, social media communities' APIs are made available from a consumer user perspective and not an enterprise use perspective," Iyer said. "There's little to no support from these vendors in terms of customer support or guaranteeing these APIs will perform."

It's not just the CRM systems that organizations grappling with social CRM customer data need to worry about either. Of greater import are the business processes.

"There's a whole series of new business processes that need to be accounted for," said Ray Wang, partner at Altimeter Group. "You need to tie those social media monitoring and analytics tools to it."

For example, as Comcast uses customer services reps to add social media identifiers, organizations need to be creative about getting people to offer up information. Wang suggests using IVR systems to encourage people to provide that data when they are on hold or asking customers whether they've added their Facebook address to their account. Also, the more vocal and more important customers need to be addressed first or given more weight.

"It might even be more targeted for premium customers so you know when they're complaining," Wang said. "That way, you can take those conversations out of the public eye and into a private channel."

Knowing what a company wants to do with the data in the first place can be one of the biggest problems, according to Dyche.

"So you’re updating a customer’s profile with a social media score. How are you going to use that to target better offers to her or to improve ad placement?" she said. "Enhancing customer insights with social media data can move the needle. But it’s like any strategic initiative: You have to define the problem you’re solving first."

"Really, what we're missing [is] a set of social CRM use cases that can tie back to the CRM system and social media channels," Wang added. "Right now, what we have to do is understand who a customer is from MDM to social channel."

Ultimately, that's going to involve applying some of the same methods to social CRM initiatives that were applied to traditional CRM programs.

"If you really want to analyze social media data historically, and for the long term, you’ll eventually need a data steward to ensure that social media data is integrated correctly with the rest of the company’s data about customers and their activities," Dyche said. "That’s the hardest part."


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