Empowering employees to be online ambassadors

At Dell, they have been training thousands of staff members to become brand ambassadors. Not just to advocate their employer in the pub, but to actively engage with customers online. On behalf of the company. A great idea indeed, but would it work for every brand?

Social media call for a personal, human touch, and I am very much in favor of that. Who can better provide authenticity than an employee who is passionate about his job? Social media call for substantive answers and transparency as well, and who else has more expertise to answer questions than the internal specialist himself? Why leave it up to Headquarters to control the message?

I am positive that this concept may work brilliantly for many companies. Especially the smaller ones, where ties are short and in principle everyone is capable of providing the right information. It works for personal brands as well, like experts and journalists. These people are supposed to have a personal opinion, and the public wants it to be expressed. But for large corporations like Dell, I’m afraid the concept is very tricky.

Although I see the potential benefits, there are several reasons for extending existing Codes of Conduct to social media, and not allowing employees to speak on behalf of their employer:

  • Some industries are full of sensitive, complex, and confidential topics. A thorough knowledge and understanding of these topics, including the broader picture, is needed to provide the right answers. This knowledge is also needed to prevent misunderstandings, or leakage of strategic information. On such topics, the use of verified storylines is vital. It is not feasible to share these storylines with a large group of staff members.
  • Employees of large corporations usually do not have access to all information, even when they have excellent enterprise social media in place. Having a dedicated social media team with a mandate and short ties with all topic owners and departments, allows companies to tackle any subject, perform checks with multiple parties and create storylines on the spot in the most efficient way.
  • Working with a small group of capable topic owners might work. But even if you’d restrict them to engage on their field of expertise only, I have learned that engaging through social media is a specialty that requires dedicated staff. A clumsy reply can rocket sentiment into the red zone, making it a challenge to de-escalate the situation, let alone turning a basher into a brand ambassador. The characteristics of an online conversation are very different from regular web content, a phone call, a press release, editorial, e-mail or letter. Social media require a unique tone of voice that, until now, few companies fully understand. It takes well trained employees that receive additional training on a regular basis.
  • A dedicated social media team can provide consistency and continuity (24/7 at some companies), something which can’t be expected from any employee. Such a team can use a CRM system to create personal profiles, keep records of conversations, add comments, and perform detailed analysis of all this data. They know who they’re talking to (influential, ambassador, basher, journalist, etc.), and so do their clients. This prevents clients from having to repeat their story over and over again to different employees. It also prevents them from getting suspicious if this employee is genuine indeed.
  • Companies must respect their staff’s privacy. They should protect them from being overwhelmed by questions and complaints directly, and getting the blame personally for things that may have gone wrong. By having corporate accounts on channels like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and maybe a forum, their clients know where to go. At the same time, these accounts help to channel public conversations about the brand, and send out relevant messages. Of course brands should monitor other blogs, forums and news sites as well, and act there when needed.

I realize all too well that this is where we are standing now. There (soon) will come a day that engaging through social media is as normal as picking up a phone. By then, companies may need to employ hundreds of people to handle all the online conversations. One difference remains: social media are very public, and your replies are there to stay. Call Centers can become Contact Centers, but whether on the phone or a keyboard; their employees will always have to be well informed and thoroughly trained. I see so many companies struggling with formulating a substantive answer in 140 characters – they are just not there yet. Social media can be very beneficial when used the right way, but can impose a huge threat if not dealt with correctly. One blunder out of thousands of good replies, can seriously damage a company’s reputation. This is a job for specialists.

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