Why Small Businesses Should Always Respond to Inquiries

Why Small Businesses Should Always Respond to InquiriesAs a consumer, one of my biggest pet peeves is the fact that most small business do not respond to inquiries. I’ve lost count, both personally and professionally, on how many times I’ve reached out to a business, only to never receive a response. We are talking anything from questions about a product or solution to direct buying questions on pricing and delivery timeframes—and yet, nothing… There is nothing that will guarantee a loss of business more than simply not following up on an inquiry.

With so many small businesses struggling to grow or keep their doors open, it still amazes us the staggering amount of businesses that ignore inquiries… The concept is not lost on us, that back in the day there was a heck of a lot less competition, and if you were truly good at what you did, there was a strong chance you were the only game in town and prospective buyers were practically knocking down your doors for business. Your brand and lack of competition essentially meant there were no real rivals. So, it would be in the best interest of a buyer to chase you down for work… But, that is no longer the case. The internet and services such as Google, Facebook, Yelp, Angie’s List, and others have all drastically changed the playing field. This means you are no longer the only game in town and that your competition is only one click of a mouse away, literally… What this really boils down to is the fact that if you are not responding to a request for information within minutes of submission, you are exponentially more likely to lose that business to a competitor. Don’t believe us? Here are a few statistics about response time in relationship to closing business:

  • 78% of customers buy from the first responder.
  • Sales conversions are 391% higher in the first minute.
  • Taking longer than 5 minutes to respond amounts to an 80% decrease in lead qualification.

Source: https://www.vendasta.com/blog/lead-response-time

  • Companies that respond within the first hour were 7x more likely to qualify that lead than companies that waited beyond an hour.
  • Prospective buyers fill out 3-5 lead forms on average.
  • Calling a lead more than 5 minutes after a lead submission has a 46% lower qualification rate than calling in less than 5 minutes.
  • More than 65% of all conversions occur on the first call.

Source: https://livecall.io/lead-response-time-makes-or-breaks-your-sales/

  • Odds of the lead entering the sales process, or becoming qualified, are 21 times greater when contacted within 5 minutes rather than 30 minutes after the lead was submitted.
  • Research from InsideSales.com shows that 35–50% of sales go to the vendor that responds first.

Source: https://blog.hubspot.com/insiders/why-your-b2b-lead-response-time-is-killing-your-business

  • A rep is 100x less likely to make contact if the first call is made 30 minutes after submission. The odds of making contact drop by 3000x if the first call is made 5 hours after lead submission.
  • Increasing response rates from 27% to 92% causes a 314% lift in results.
  • If a lead is called within five minutes versus 30 minutes after it’s submitted, that lead is 100 times more likely to be contacted and 21 times more likely to enter the sales cycle.

Source: https://www.business2community.com/sales-management/3-response-time-studies-lead-generation-wasted-sales-leads-01580290

At the fundamental base of these stats is that you have to respond to inquiries, and obviously, the faster the better… and we are not talking about just email and voicemail either. Services such as Google, Facebook, Yelp, Angie’s List and the countless other services have made it so that prospective buyers can reach out to vendors on a multitude of platforms. This really means if you are not on the proper platforms for your industry, you are losing out on more business than you really know about. Also, these services do something else that makes a prospective buyer’s life easier: they create neatly formatted lists of businesses that provide specific products and services for buyers. These lists include you and all of your competition, making the statistics above all the more dramatic… Prospective buyers will take their neatly formed lineup and just call down the list one company at a time. Unfortunately, many in that list may never respond, making the first business to speak to a buyer exponentially more likely to win that business. It’s not because they are better, cheaper, or smarter but because they were most likely the only one a prospective buyer could speak too.

Beyond responding, there is another aspect that all but guarantees someone to lose a prospective buyer’s business: lack of follow-through. Some businesses and salespeople are absolutely fantastic with responding to initial requests for information, but they fall flat on follow-through and never provide what they said they will as a follow-up from the initial discussion. Not providing a prospective buyer the information they are looking for will guarantee they will not buy from you.

At the end of the day, in order for some businesses to grow, you simply need to put a little more effort into monitoring the various mediums in which a perspective buyer could contact the business and respond to inquiries as fast as humanly possible. In many cases, it is just that simple to see measureable gains in revenue. However, if you wanted to go the extra mile, businesses need to remember that you have to put effort into your online presences to be found by these prospective buyers. We wrote an article about this not too long ago: The Importance of Having an Online Digital Presence for Local Small Businesses and you can always contact us directly for help at 3SixtySMB@3SixtySMB.com.

The Importance of Having an Online Digital Presence for Local Small Businesses

Online and Digital PresenceI was reminded the other day of exactly why it is important to have an online digital presence in this day and age… Even though online and digital mediums have been around for more than 20 years, it seems that many local small businesses are still slow to pick up on the trend. We do understand why, as it was not too long ago that all a local small business needed for marketing was a good Yellow Page advertisement, a good direct local mail flyer, and maybe a well-placed radio ad. These worked extremely well for decades… However, from a traditional marketing perspective, times have changed. For example, Yellow Pages have gone from the must have item for every home, to getting thrown in the recycling bin before even making it into the house. Why has this happened? Well, for one, Google has virtually changed the way people look for various goods and services. Looking for an electrician, carpenter, pizza, or even a restaurant? You no longer need to flip through various ads in the Yellow Pages—you can just search directly in Google. Not only will Google pull the most relevant results, but they also pull other various important details regarding these businesses including address, phone number, website, Google, Yelp and Facebook Reviews, Facebook profiles, and other endless information. These elements alone have factored into the demise of the Yellow Pages. Again, this is not a new concept, as this shift has been happening over the past 20 years… In fact, HubSpot’s founders, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, revolutionized how people look at this shift almost 10 years ago when they published their book on Inbound Marketing and founded HubSpot. They haven’t stopped preaching the word around Inbound Marketing since…

This begs the question, why haven’t local small businesses caught up to their times of creating and maintaining an online digital presence? The reasons vary from anything from ownership not accustomed to change, to lack of understanding and education around how a local small business can create and maintain an online digital presence. Regardless of the reason, if a local business wants to continue to be in business for the foreseeable future, they need to embrace going online and digital. Let me share a personal experience to why this matters so much.

Residential construction has historically been one of the industries reliant on Yellow Pages, advertisement flyers, or word of mouth to help run their businesses. Looking back maybe ten years ago, the Yellow Pages alone were enough to keep phones ringing off the hooks… but those times have come and gone. Now it is a feast or famine industry, with some businesses still maintaining a strong revenue stream, while others that have resisted change are failing. When inviting a construction company into your home, people want to ensure that they are inviting someone that they can trust to do quality work in a timely manner. As a result, they tend to do research on these companies before calling… which is what happened with me, and it reminded me why a strong online digital presence is so important. My wife and I are personally looking into having some major work done on our home. Like any household, we receive various local advertisement flyers and ValPaks in the mail. This past week, I decided to take a look and see if there were any businesses we should be considering as part to the process. Interestingly enough, in both the local flyer and ValPak, I found a construction company’s very well-made flyer, advertising the exact service we were looking into having done. However, there was an instant red flag for us: the price. The price on the flyer was too good to be true, but I’ve come to learn to never judge a book by its cover. So we did some digging… Naturally, we started with a Google search and then looked at other resources such as Facebook and Yelp. What we found was beyond a website—they had zero online digital presence. No Google or Yelp reviews, nothing on Angie’s List, not even a Facebook profile. This was a bit concerning, so we took our search one step further creating a post on both Nextdoor.com and Facebook asking if anyone in our community has ever worked with this company. We received no feedback on the business at all. When performing our search, we had been hoping to come across reviews from others who have had a great experience with this contractor, or maybe even a Facebook profile showcasing some of their latest work. We were looking for anything to give us the confidence in their business and that we could welcome them into our home—but nothing. As result, I moved on to the next candidate on the list.

Therein lies the problem for small businesses today. If you are not working on building an online digital presence, you are guaranteed to lose revenue to competition… Interestingly enough, while searching for information on this particular construction company, I stumbled upon several other businesses with fantastic online presence, and they were the ones that received a phone call.

Websites are not enough anymore, especially for local small businesses. Building an online digital presence isn’t entirely that difficult, and in most cases, has a zero-dollar investment to get started; it just takes effort and time. We’ve actually been writing about various tactics to improving one’s online digital presence… Here are a few recent articles to help you get started:

We also recognize that creating a strategy to develop or improve your online digital presence is easier said than done… 3SixtySMB is happy to help. Through our 3SixtyAssessments, we will not only evaluate your current online digital presence state, but we will also provide actionable recommendations to developing your own strategy. Feel free to contact us directly via 3sixtysmb@3sixtysmb.com if you need help. As always, we welcome comments or questions below in the comments section of this article. Again, if you have been resistant to adopting an online digital strategy, and you don’t act fast, you could be risking the future of your business.

 

The Industry and Technology are Killing the Industry, not Millennials

Millennials are killingThere is a fundamental shift in consumer-driven businesses that has been emerging over the past few years, and it’s shaking up industries and businesses that once stood as giants for decades. Almost daily, an industry giant is either declaring bankruptcy, layoffs, closing locations, or reporting yet another quarter of subpar numbers. The writing is on the wall…. Yet, most industry leaders are refusing to accept reality. Instead, they choose to blame millennials for their demise… Along with these bankruptcies, layoffs, and store closings, we also see newly published articles regarding how “millennials” are completely decimating industries, businesses, and traditions that have stood the test of time. Here’s the thing: are millennials really to blame? We think not… We are believers that the industry and businesses themselves are the cause of their ow demise—not millennials, or any age group, for that matter.

Let’s elaborate on what we mean by that… The reality is that a majority of businesses are failing to recognize the changing time and focusing on “business as usual”. Looking back on twenty years ago during downtimes, “business as usual” typically meant finding areas of cutting cost to increase margins or creating a few more marketing promotions with the hopes of increasing sales just enough to ride out the lulls in the economy. Those strategies typically worked for most businesses because, looking back at those times, there were only so many places to shop, eat, or consume entertainment. Each industry essentially had a handful of businesses that monopolized their respective industries, which lead to their economic ebbs and flows with the economy. At those times, there were only so many places consumers could spend their money… Great for businesses in those days, right? Here lies the problem—most executive leaders within long-established consumer-oriented businesses are continuing to run their businesses as if it was the 1980s or 90s. However, the market has drastically changed since then. First, in the age of technology and consumer preferences, the 80s & 90s were essentially a 100 years ago. A very millennial statement, but here’s the reality: the market is truly changing at the speed of light, and even looking five years back has shown drastic changes in both technology and consumers preferences. Technology has enabled consumers to essentially have the knowledge of the internet at their fingertips, and forward-thinking businesses have capitalized on this fact enabling an “On-Demand Economy”. Technology has also enabled almost anyone to start up their own online business with the same technological capabilities of a multimillion-dollar business. Never mind the fact that a small startup with a little knowledge of how Search Engine Marketing works can easily outrank a multimillion-dollar organization in a matter of weeks by using the right Google industry keywords. Technology and increased competition are the real reasons these consumer-facing industries are struggling, not millennials… Businesses just can’t cut cost and rely on a few promotions to ride out the lulls anymore, as competition is all too eager to steal that business away. 

While corporations are looking at their calculators, small businesses & startups are focusing on

  • Creating a digital marketing strategy to essentially make the big brands completely irrelevant online.
  • Providing consumers with exactly what they need in the easiest way possible.
  • Creating flexible pricing and packages that match what consumers really want, not finding ways to charge more for the same (or lesser) service
  • Providing value for free when others want to charge for it.
  • Increasing quality, not cutting it.
  • Working on loyalty reward programs that actually provide real value and rewards

When you begin to peel back the layers of the onion, millennials almost have nothing to do with the demise of these industries and businesses at all… Failure lies solely on their shoulders. Let’s take for example Sears… Sears was once an industry giant that had stood for more than 100 years, and for a majority of the time in business, they were the gold standard in retail. In their early days, when obtaining certain items for the general population was almost impossible, they created a first-of-its-kind catalogue of thousands of items that could be delivered to your front door. Then in the 1960s when consumer need for faster access to consumable goods became more prevalent, it led to the blossoming business of malls and Sears was quick to capitalize. Looking back to the 1980s, there probably wasn’t a mall in the country without a Sears taking up some major real-estate. As Sears grew, they made investments in Craftsman tools, DieHard batteries, Kenmore appliances, and others. All of this led to Sears being a formidable industry giant, and they enjoyed that success for decades… However, in the early 90s, Sears decided to focus more on cost-cutting metrics instead of innovation. We called attention to this in another article. As an example, in January 1993, Sears announced the closing of the catalogue, eliminating 50,000 jobs as they didn’t see a market in delivering items directly to consumers’ front doors, and keeping that business running was “too expensive”. Interestingly enough, in July of 1994, Amazon was born, which ended up being a company that could deliver items directly to consumers’ front doors. Yes, really, had Sears thought about where technology was going like Amazon did, they literally could have been the Amazon of today. However, Sears’s cost-cutting didn’t stop there, and for thirty years now Sears has been focusing on cost-saving metrics across the board… Anyone that has been at a Sears in the past few years has come across stores in disrepair, sub-par inventory levels, long lines, and employees that generally don’t seem to care. It’s no surprise that Sears is now closing stores almost daily and in bankruptcy litigation.

However, on the flip slide, you have Target, Best Buy, Walmart and others all seeing great success in today’s tough economy. The reason why is simple: they have all been focusing on innovation, bringing choices and convenience to the consumer. Best Buy, from the beginning, has strived to have a strong ecommerce presence, becoming one of the first big-box retail organizations to have a true website with online purchasing availability. They were also one of the primary innovators of ecommerce purchasing with in-store pickups. Target has focused on innovative payment methods, allowing consumers to skip the line and pay for items in the aisle instead. Target also recently launched a new program to use local stores as virtual ecommerce warehouses decreasing overhead while speeding up the entire delivery process to consumers. Walmart recently announced strong revenues directly related to curbside pickup… These are just a few areas of innovation that has allowed other big-box retailers to stay on top. In contrast, Sears has attempted nothing even remotely close to these innovative methods to save their business.

However, big companies are also not the only businesses thriving. In fact, only 53 companies have been on the Fortune 500 since 1955, including 17 newcomers to the list in 2018. Companies such as Uber, Yelp, Spotify, DoorDash, Zapos, Salesforce.com, Amazon, Facebook, Google were all startups less than twenty years ago. They are not alone; almost daily, a new startup comes from almost nowhere to be a new industry-leading giant… The reality of the whole situation is that millennials are not killing industries… The big-business thinking of yesteryear is.  We’re in a climate where most of the consumer industries that are in the midst of major shake-ups, such as Retail, Cable, General Medical Care, Transportation, Food, and Entertainment, are all struggling… Each are struggling with their own issues of conducting business as if it was still the 1980s or 90s while pointing fingers at millennials for their changing buying habits and lack of brand loyalty. Here is the reality—they are doing it to themselves for all the reasons listed earlier in this article, and it is up to them to recognize the writing on the wall. However, we are in favor of the small businesses and startups! 

The Importance of A First and Last Impression in Today’s Economy

apple-store-watch-renderWhether you sell million-dollar software implementations or you’re a local restaurant making your debut, first and last impressions matter! Let’s face it: in today’s market, competition is fierce, brand loyalty is down, and consumer attention spans are short, making it harder to win and retain business—even if you execute flawlessly… This is a primary reason why giants of yesterday are crumbling around us daily, as they have all but forgotten the fundamentals of sales and customer excellence. There used to be a time where a brand could and would hold its own, even if the sales and marketing teams “didn’t give it their all”. As an example, there was an old popular saying that “No one ever gets fired for buying IBM”. Pretty bold statement there, right? Well, there was a time when IBM was pretty much the only game in town if you wanted top notch commercial grade IT equipment. They had put together a world-class team, delivering world-class service and systems, and no one even came close to the delivery of IBM. This was how they developed the reputation of “No one ever gets fired for buying IBM,” and it held up for decades. Until slowly, but surely, they began to make changes; prices gradually increased, product quality dropped, teams became more complex, and they became a more expensive, lower quality, harder to work with organization. Had they still been the only game in town, their numbers would have held up, but they weren’t. Other world-class organizations entered into the market, and the tech world became the Wild West for startups, creating more competitive pressure for IBM…. However, IBM ignored the changing marketing dynamics and became the company that was too expensive and complicated to deal with, and they started to lose business in droves. Recent estimates put IBM down 21 straight quarters in a row, and have even gone as far as to recall all remote employees to physical local hubs to realign themselves. IBM is just one example of how the economic environment is putting a squeeze on just about every industry for retaining and winning new business. This gets us back to our point earlier: first and last impressions matter. The reason being when a customer has a bad experience with your organization in today’s market, your competition is all too eager to swoop in and take that business for their own. So, it becomes extremely important to never give a prospect or customer a reason to look for another solution, and always give them the best customer experience you possibly can.

Whether you are a B2C or a B2B business, if you want to stay in business for the foreseeable future, you need to ensure you are delivering a world class customer experience, and at the surface, it all starts with the impression your business leaves with them. Impressions mean everything, and the latest research shows that customers make a decision to purchase within seconds of walking into a business… This essentially says, regardless of how great your product or service is, they’ve already made up their mind before you even had a chance! This isn’t just a business thing, as it falls within human nature. In this article, we’ll cover some basic strategies for creating a first and lasting impression that will make customers want to buy and get them to keep coming back.

Digital and online collateral ­– Anything from your website, social media profiles, and other digital collateral needs to have a smooth look and feel, along with a design that fits in with the times, as 81 percent of all purchase decisions start with an online search…. Meaning, if your website looks like it was designed in 1999 in someone’s basement, you can essentially guarantee that potential customers are just skipping over your business and moving on to the next. Going back to an earlier statement: regardless of how good your product or service is, you never even had a chance.

Store fronts and dining rooms – Small businesses have a bit of a disadvantage here as the big businesses have millions of dollars to invest into research around what drives customer interest and design, but that’s not an excuse. When you really boil down all that expensive research and design know how, it comes down to having a clean front of house, and the same goes for dining rooms… Your store front is literally the face of the business, and you must make sure you do whatever you can to make it clean and welcoming. Anything beyond clean and welcoming is just causing paying customers to walk right past your business.

First point of contact – Beyond the digital look of your business or the look of the store front, what is the first possible human interaction with your business? Whether it is a hostess, receptionist, or a business development rep, ensure that they are always properly trained on edict and the business. Chick-Fli-A built a billion-dollar business, growing leaps and bounds over their competition, and one the key factors they contribute it to is their front of house and their ability to say please and thank you! Really, a billion-dollar business is contributing its success to simple human interaction. This is confirmed by looking at reviews on sites such as Yelp and Facebook, where you’ll find that most good or bad reviews mention their first interaction with the team.

Timeliness matters ­– In such a competitive environment, I still cannot comprehend why small businesses take forever to respond to voicemails, emails, or even at all. Quite honestly, this is a huge personal pet peeve, but also for the general consumer market as a whole… Taking it into context, if a business takes a long time to respond to an inquiry of a prospect, how do they treat their customers? There is an old-time adage that says if the shoes hurt in the store, they are still going to hurt when you take them home.

Furthermore, when most consumers are looking to make a purchase, they typically have a list of vendors they have cobbled together. This usually means that when they are reaching out to you, they are calling down a list. The vendor that actually picks up the phone and makes the first contact, has an exponentially higher chance of winning that business. Sometimes, increasing your odds of winning business simply comes down to picking up the phone or answering that inquiry email as fast as humanly possible.

Service excellence ­­– Just because someone decided to do business with your company or walk into your restaurant, it doesn’t mean you’ve won their business for the long term. The success of any business is reliant on not just winning the business once, but the amount of times you can keep them coming back. So, when you win someone’s business, service the heck out of them, and do everything you can to make them a happy customer.

Also, let’s not forget that people love to talk about their experiences. Serve up a bad experience, and you can all but guarantee they will tell their friends and co-workers

Priority #1 – This goes in line with service delivery, but it is important enough to call out on its own. We are all busy these days, but no one wants to hear about how busy you are or your problems! It is a turn-off, and depending on your business, prospects may begin to worry how much of a priority they will be when it comes to servicing them.  Instead, treat each and every customer as if they were your one and only client. It does take a bit of a fine art, but if done properly, it will ensure that customers come back time and time again!

Second chances – Ok, so first impressions matter, but not everyone can bat 1,000; mistakes can, and will, happen. Yes, there are going to be times when a mistake is so bad that you cannot recover, and the business is lost for good. However, that is not true for all situations. How you react when mistakes happen can, and will, have an impact on your business. Some might actually give you a second chance. When a mistake happens, ensure you do what you can to rectify the issue and go above and beyond to ensure they leave happy.

Review Feedback – This is a big one as your business reviews can easily make or break your business, and the same can be said for how you respond. These reviews are online and do truly give a lasting impression about your business. Positive reviews should be acknowledged, however negative reviews need to be treated with the highest amount of professionalism as possible… As an example, and from a personal experience, a few weeks back, I took my family to a restaurant that had opened up a few weeks prior but was owned by a local couple that has a series of other restaurants in the area (so not new to the game). We ended up having a very bad experience that we chalked up to “they’re still working the kinks out of the system”. With that said, I pulled up the internet and noticed that there’s a slew of reviews making very similar comments to the experience we had. Furthermore, I noticed the owners commenting on the feedback apologizing, but also combating reviews with the typical “that’s not how we typically do things”. Again, we had noticed that multiple people were having the exact same issue, so what does that have to say for the business? Additionally, in almost all the comments they made, they asked for contact information for a “gift card” to be issued in hopes of winning business back. Great, right? Well, again, we learned that these comments were really made in vain and they in fact were not reaching back out to these unhappy customers… In this situation, it would have been better for them to not respond at all, as they are doing more harm to their business than good. We see this happen all too often as small businesses are typically owner-operated and they take things personally, but how you react in these situations has an impact on your business. Again, 81% of people make decisions by starting with online searches (in 2014).

Always be thankful – This should go without saying, but there is—believe it or not—a large amount of arrogance in businesses today. Some businesses walk around as if “you,” the customer, should feel privileged to do business with them… That’s right, the “customer” should feel privileged to do business with a company because they are the best at what they do. Sound familiar? Almost everyone has dealt with a business like this. Sure, business is good for them right now, and they might even have the luxury of turning away business today, but that does not hold true for the long term. Almost every business with this type of strategy eventually starts to struggle or fail over time. Why? Because eventually all these jaded prospects and customers will find another organization for their needs that treats them properly. Eventually, they are left with a struggling business, trying to find out why they are not closing business like the used too.

Again, when it comes to first impressions, they mean everything in today’s business. Whether you’re a multi-million dollar software firm, mom-and-pop general store, or a restaurant opening its doors for the first time, always put your best foot forward… Competition is fierce in today’s market, and your competition is all too eager to scoop up your missed opportunities. So, do whatever you can to ensure customers have a happy, welcoming, and warm experience with your business… We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: when it comes to having a truly successful business, it is the little things that matter!

 

Social Media and Online Forums, Hidden Gems of Customer Insight

Social media and online forumsThere are little  that essentially go unnoticed… Consumers spend significantly more time online today than they did 10 years ago, and that amount of time is projected to keep rising in the foreseeable future. When online, consumers are spending their time across multiple activities ranging from social media to shopping, and conversing about experiences and issues regarding business and brand interaction. One way they share their experiences is via online reviews, which 3SixtySMB covered in a previous article (Landmark Case with TripAdvisor, Makes Businesses Think Twice About Reviews), but there are more ways in the form of Social Media and other online groups and forums. In this article, we’ll cover the various online communities where consumers share their insights and how businesses can create a way to adopt them as a strategy.

Consumers fill these groups and forums with critical and valuable product & organization insight in almost cult-like fashions… They use these groups to share best practices, tips, tricks, issues, or look for recommendations. However, what we find amazing is that they generally go overlooked by businesses. We’ve even seen some of the larger organizations (typically larger F500) create their own online customer forums, but then essentially ignore them as well. Generally, we find a few different reasons these groups go ignored, but there are mostly two core reasons: lack of understanding or a lack of budget…. Lack of understanding usually stems from management not recognizing the value of these groups, and the lack of budget is focused around the thinking that actively monitoring these groups as more of a cost vs profit center activity. We’ll get into the reasons behind why we find these groups so valuable and how to develop a strategy later in this article, but first, I wanted to focus on the various groups:

Facebook Groups – Facebook has put in a considerable amount of effort into enhancing these groups, and as a result, Facebook groups are becoming more prevalent and influential as of late. Typically, you’ll find these groups founded, ran, and moderated by users themselves… We also find that there could be multiple different user groups focused on similar businesses or industries which can make them difficult to find. Also, due to the nature of these groups, their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation at all. You’ll find that a majority of groups tend to be consumer-focused and can range from local businesses to nationally known brands.

LinkedIn Groups – LinkedIn groups have been around for a while in comparison to Facebook Groups. Typically, they are founded, ran, and moderated by the actual businesses themselves… However, there are several end-user generated LinkedIn Groups as well. Similar to Facebook groups, we find that their structures can vary from highly moderated to almost no moderation. We also find that due to the age of these groups, some can be significantly more active than others. These types of groups tend to be business-to-business focused, but you can and will find some consumer brands sprinkled in there as well.

Community forums – An example of this would be something similar to Nextdoor.com where the site is corporately ran, but it is independent of the content on the site with a goal to find revenue via advertising opportunities. All content is typically generated from users themselves and can be extremely active… Businesses that are local and focus on the consumer should spend a great deal of time getting to know these sites. Discussions in these sites typically revolve around individuals asking for recommendations or sharing their experiences with local businesses. Local businesses are seriously missing out if not participating in these groups.

Online forums – When thinking about online forums, naturally most think about online forums or user groups as these are some of the oldest types of forums out there. These types of organizations are usually formed by users themselves, but do have more structure than a Facebook or LinkedIn group. We’ll find that there might even be some type of advisory board with executive officers and can be highly moderated. Content within these groups is typically user generated, and in some cases, these forums have almost more of a cult-like following than any other group. They are typically funded via membership dues or advertising budget, but generally zero content would be vendor generated. These forums can focus on anything from specific products, brands, or industries.

Vendor Sponsored Forums/User Groups – These types of forums are almost 100% founded, ran, and moderated from the vendors themselves and it is mostly the larger companies that run these types of forums. There is a mixed bag of vendor interaction within these groups, as some vendors participate heavily in these groups and even go as far as having user group events. However, we also find some vendors that are almost nonexistent as well. The same can be said about the content… often most is generated via users, but you can find vendor content as well. Content can range from use cases, tips and tricks, and recommendations. However, due to the nature being focused on vendors, we do see a lot more issue related content. Again, because some vendors are better than others, some vendors groups can be extremely valuable where others not so much.

Trade or Industry Organizations – In each industry, you’ll find very specific groups dedicated to help educate their respective industries. Commonly, these groups are founded and ran by the organizations themselves but will allow vendors to participate as well… We find that these groups are geared towards industry knowledge, and as a result, you’ll have a mixed bag of users and vendors participating in them.

Again, we find these types of online/social groups and forums to be extremely valuable for any business, as topics discussed can be instrumental to understand customer usage, issues, or new strategic directions for a business, along with possible new prospects. These groups can truly help organizations strengthen their connections with customers, but also strengthen their products while bringing in new customers. This is why the thinking of these groups as a cost center is completely wrong; if done right, they can become a very valuable profit center for any business. Now that we’ve discussed the types of forums and why we find them so valuable, here are a few tips for developing a strategy of your own:

Dedicate resources – At a minimum, dedicate at least one resource to following and reviewing the various groups and forums… The bigger your company, the more resources should be dedicated. We believe most businesses think of this area as a cost vs a profit center, which is why they do not feel the need to invest into this area. Again, we find this to be a huge mistake as the insights gained from forums can be invaluable from a strategic perspective. Since prospects use groups as a sounding board for references, these forums can generate sales along with reducing support cost.

Generate reports – Topics covered in the various forums and groups are extremely valuable for any organization. It should be made a priority to set up regular reporting around various topics brought up in these groups. These reports should be directed towards executive management, product and customer service managers, along with sales leadership, as each group can benefit from these items… This is also where most companies fail because, frequently, no action items are ever taken based on knowledge gained. It should also be made a priority to select a handful of issues covered in these groups and devise a strategy for resolution weekly or monthly.

Monitor constantly – There is a reason we recommend dedicated sourcesin order to get the most out of these groups, they do require active attention. People routinely gravitate to these types of forums and groups because they know they can get fast answers. Therefore, if you want to show that you are adding value to customers and prospects that participate in these groups, ensure a fast and accurate response.

Keep experts on call – We recommend dedicated staff to actively monitor and participate in these groups, but they do not need to be experts. Experts can be very expensive for this type of activity and can be better valued elsewhere in the organization. With that said, experts should be on call to answer any questions that require knowledge that is beyond the knowledge of the team member maintaining these groups.

Keep on-call executives – The same can be said for executive support. There should always be an executive sponsor on call to address issues as they arise in these groups. Again, coming to a quick and accurate resolution can truly show your customers and prospects that you value them.

Communicate properly – There are a lot of items that fall under proper communication, from timely and accurate responses, to knowing when to pull in experts or executives into discussions. However, this also means this is not an opportunity for the hard sell or to continuously blast your marketing message to the various groups… The reason why these various groups and forums are so highly leveraged is that they are great sources for knowledge without tainted marketing messages from vendors themselves. When users are looking for recommendations, it is okay to recommend specific products or share marketing collateral, but that should be the limit of sales and marketing activity.

Take action – This goes along the lines of proper communication, however, you must ensure that your team does everything humanly possible to address all issues that come up in these various groups. Not only does this directly help a customer, unattended messages stay in these forums and are indexable via Google. So as prospective customers and active customers search their issues on Google, there is a chance they will find these forum posts… Unanswered posts show there could be a problem with your product and/or service. However, if your team properly addresses the issue, it could save needless support calls and reduce support cost.

Prioritize customer requests – This goes in line with taking action. We find that the reason a majority of customer requests go unanswered is because the vendor themselves has other priorities from a product feature and functionality perspective. This means that vendors are too involved in developing solutions to their own specifications, and what the customers actually want gets pushed aside! It’s a theme that comes up a lot in our writings–most businesses brush aside the wants and needs of their customers, as they have a belief they know what is best for their customers. Customer requests and issues, should always have a top priority in your business model.

If executed properly, social media and online forums can become essential mediums for collecting valuable customer and product intelligence, adding to the education when developing changes in products and/or corporate strategies. However, these groups can also become great sources of income, attracting net new customers or helping customers upgrade services as the need arises, all while reducing customer service support cost. Developing a strategy for the various online communities that consumers engage in is a critical area that each and every business should be focusing on as part of their business plans.