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The case for conversational marketing

A senior executive once told me that everyone is in sales. I’d argue everyone is in marketing – conversational marketing. 

His reasoning was that we all have opportunities to identify a need and pass a lead.  What he really meant is that everyone has conversations – both at work and outside.  It could be with a customer, your neighbor, your seatmate on a plane, or someone you strike up a chat with in a shop. 

You exchange niceties, you learn a little about each other. Maybe, if it’s appropriate, if they’re relevant, you slip some snippets about your company’s products and services into the conversation.  If you’re not comfortable taking such a conversation further, you might pass the contact to someone who is.

Those lacking sales training should stay clear of anything that smells like a sales pitch. Of course, any great sales person will preach that nothing should sound like a pitch.

Conversations, sure.  But marketing?
Your employees represent your brand whenever and wherever they interact with people.  When they create positive impressions, your brand may benefit.  Even if the other party never does business with you, they may remember the experience and recommend you to others. That’s marketing.

Charlene Li, Founder of Altimeter Group

Charlene Li is the founder of Altimeter Group, a leading research-based advisory firm with a focus on disruptive technologies and the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Open Leadership.” Charlene asserts that conversational marketing will soon become as natural as breathing.

There are some big implications for business. And by “business” I mean any organization with a clientele or a constituency – public, private or non-profit.  You’ll need to understand where your customers hang out, which topics interest them, what channels or communication formats they prefer And then you’ll need interact with them – on their turf and on their terms.

You can’t intercede with the passenger in seat 3B as your employee jets off to the next conference. But you can help employees with customer interactions at work.

Think about how conversations work. They are dynamic and free-flowing.  One idea begets another. Along with ideas and experiences, people are communicating, perspectives and expectations – whether they know it or not. 

How your employees go with that flow impacts your brand. Are you confident your employee can carry on the right conversations?  Are you sure those conversations will be natural and credible? Will your employees know how to engage? Or Listen?

Facilitating the right conversations
It won’t be easy.  Your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system will be of little help.  According to Charlene, CRM systems are about managing the transaction – not the customer.

As conversational marketing becomes mainstream, your focus must switch from messaging to fine-tuning a conversation (mid-flight), adjusting to the needs of your customer as she introduces new variables or topics.  It’s all about relevancy and timing.

But don’t start scrambling yet for employees who have kissed the Blarney Stone. Remember, the art of conversation is not the same as the gift of gab.  There’s a process and a method to preparing your employees to nurture the opportunity: analytics.

The analytics behind the instincts
Ironically, the way to master the free flow of conversation is to become very structured and highly analytical.  Analytics puts all the insights your organization has collected – past, present and predicted –  into the hands of employees engaging with  customers – in real time, when they need it, in a format they can act on.   

For example, effective analytics informs your call-center rep that Fred, who is on the line, has been viewing your products online, calling other departments and asking his social network for opinions. It reveals that he is researching investments to support his daughter’s education. And it prompts your employee to ask, once Fred’s initial questions are answered, if he has plans for his own retirement –a logical next step. 

Experienced employees may understand how to do this instinctively – others won’t.  Analytics helps guide, prompt and direct conversations along the most appropriate path, using real-time decision management to ensure responses seem natural and unscripted.

First things first
It could be as simple as empowering employees to interact, at least at the outset.  Charlene Li shared an interesting story.  She was looking to buy her son a smartphone but worried about where he might wander on the web. She posted a question to Best Buy’s @Twelpforce Twitter account asking for recommendations.

Over 2,500 Best Buy employees are empowered to answer questions via Twitter.  They are not monitored by corporate.  The answers aren’t scripted by marketing.  They are simply genuine answers from employees that have volunteered to help – employees who may or may not be in sales.

One employee recommended an Android phone for its particular programs and capabilities.  And then, because her location was turned on, the writer added, “Why don’t you come down to the local Best Buy store and bring your son with you so that we can look at these phones together?  I’m available Sunday afternoon. What do you think?” Charlene was stunned – she never imagined she would receive an answer from somebody at a store nearby.

Stories like Charlene’s show how easily a human interaction can create good feelings about your brand. As a marketer, if you want to drive profitable growth and make the most of every interaction, you are going to have to focus more on the “relationship” side of CRM.  

That means more intelligent conversations and ability for everyone in your organization to join in.  Not just your best sales people or employees who have kissed the blarney stone – everyone.   Technology can help, but it starts by empowering employees to talk.  After all, relevant conversations are happening with or without your organization.  Those who don’t embrace conversational marketing risk their competitors getting there first – and taking over relationships you thought you owned.

To see the interview with Charlene Li and learn more, check out the Driving Profitable Growth series.

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