The Customer Interaction Manifesto

I’ve been working on community/company interaction thing for a while now, and I’m continually surprised at how many people ask me what the guidelines are, the rules for working directly with consumers. Perhaps it’s time for a manifesto, something us marketing folks can use as a baseline before charging into social groups trying to meet our revenue objectives. The focus here isn’t on building online community as a company rep (Guy covers the basics of that wonderfully). Rather the focus is how, as a company rep, to interact with existing online and offline communities, social groups.

NOTE: I’ll be continually updating this as I get feedback and tweak the language. I would very much like to hear your feedback on this manifesto in order to create something larger that just my opinions and approach.

So without further ado I present:

The Customer Interaction Manifesto

Honesty is not only the best policy, it’s the only policy
As I’ve blogged about before, honesty (and openness) is the basis of your entire interaction with consumers and colleagues. It’s not just about lies or lack thereof – it’s about the free exchange of honest information. “Open and honest” should be included in your new employee handbook and should be a mantra for company culture. This doesn’t mean that you should start sharing company secrets – quite the contrary. It means that if you can’t share company secrets, simply say that. It means employees need to understand that nothing they do is hidden or secret anymore. And it means that we all need to really stop and consider what’s really a “secret” and what’s simply bothersome to discuss.

Survey the landscape.
Before you start any interaction with consumers, make absolutely sure you understand the landscape. Fire up Google. Talk to you call center/customer service folks. Pick the brains of colleagues who have been around for years. Read up on the company history. Learn about what’s going on inside your company. Learn what your colleagues think of consumers and consumer groups. Figure out what the consumers are saying about your company. The moment you start interacting with consumers, they’re going to have questions – lots and lots of questions.

Their cause is your cause. Join it.
Once you understand the landscape, you’ll should know what their higher cause is. People don’t form and interact with communities in order to support a company. They do it to serve their own emotional needs. It’s not about Apple, and it’s not about the Apple iPod. It’s about helping others find and listen to music. It’s not about helping Fox make money off of the show Firefly, it’s about ensuring that others can experience the joy of watching the great show Firefly. If consumers feel strongly about something, whatever it is, then you should feel strongly about it too.

Listen. Always.
The moment you step into any community/consumer interaction you better be ready to listen. Every single time you get in front of consumers, physically or virtually, you’d better be taking notes, engaging in active listening techniques, and overall paying complete and total attention to what the consumers are saying. For every point you make, you should be listening to 20 points they make.

Share. A lot.
As part of an open and honest relationship, you should be sharing answers to questions, company news, and anything else that consumers are asking about, or you think is important to them. Small, pointless details to you are gold to your fans. They don’t get to see all the activity inside your company like you do, don’t forget that. And if you don’t know, just say it. Saying “I don’t know, but I’m happy to look into it for you” is an amazingly powerful message.

Drive the process, but stop for directions
Your consumers are a powerful force when they link up (whether in online forums, offline groups, or personal blogs), and there’s no question about their ability to do amazing things. But after forming a relationship and interaction with them, your job as the company rep is to help drive the process forward, support the cause. You get to work all day long on things that fans only have time for in their free time. You should be seeing the entire community holistically in a way that few people do. That means you should be able to see the future, to some extent. It’s your job to help push the community forward, after all. But don’t forget that the journey you’re on requires that you stop for directions, constantly.

Walk a mile
You can’t be remotely effective as a community liaison if you’re not a community member yourself. You can’t work effectively with an iPod community if you don’t own an iPod or understand the online music scene. You can’t represent a gaming company if you don’t play games on a regular basis. Not only do you not have any street cred, you simply don’t have the information and “resources” to be at all successful in your liaison role. Go to community events, volunteer to moderate the online forum, meet the fans in person. If the community members aren’t asking “Is this a company employee or a community member?”, then you’re not integrating yourself deeply enough.

Learn to take a good beating
That’s right, you’re the lightning rod for all upset, problems, and irritations community members have for your company. Take it personally, but only as far as it drives you to solve the problem. When you complete the circle of feedback (they give you feedback, you acknowledge, you address it, you share the outcome, they give you feedback again), they’ll begin to see that you’re looking out for them, and things will get less adversarial. Stick with it, it’ll get better and easier with every passing day. Remember – you’re not only overcoming any issues that consumers have with your company, you’re working on overcoming negative consumer perception of all companies.

It’s your family – fight for it, defend it
Above all else, your role as a community liaison is one of support. Your main function is to fight for your consumers. As marketers we’ve all been taught that it’s “not personal, it’s business”. But that belief falls apart when your company starts forming real relationships with real people. Think of your role as the older brother/sister, looking out for your younger sibling.