This is a column I wrote for the Institute of Directors’ Directorship magazine – Download the scanned article here: The Cluetrain to getting Cosy with your Clients. Here’s the full article.

Cluetrain ManifestoA powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” Cluetrain Manifesto

Ramon Thomas #1 online researcher in South AfricaThe term “Cluetrain” stems from a quote: “The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery” from a veteran of a firm now free-falling out of the Fortune 500. The clues are embedded in the conversations people are having in more prolific ways than ever before on the Web. And the question is – are you listening yet?

Today it is much easier to listen to your clients, and prospective clients than ever before. Thomas Friedman outlines three great eras of globalisation:

  • Globalisation 1.0: 1492-1800 a period where the world shrank from a size large to a size medium
  • Globalisation 2.0: 1800-2000 a time when multinationals were the dynamic force driving global integration
  • Globalisation 3.0: began 2000 and characterised as a time when individuals have new-found power to collaborate and compete globally.

Given this you can assume Globalisation 3.0 = Web 2.0 / Social Media. And using the tools like blogs and social networking website you can begin to monitor the online conversation that is taking place right under your nose. The real beauty is that the listening can be automated by using RSS technology to be notified whenever certain keywords of people, products, brands or company names are mentioned. You then have to respond or participate in those conversations.

You can also use services like Google Alerts to keep track of both news stories, online discussion groups and blogs. There is a growing list of companies who have shot themselves in the foot by ignoring the conversation like the Kryptonite lock fiasco from back in 2004. When online conversation are ignored you run the risk of heated debates between bloggers and readers spilling over into the mainstream media. And the authority of bloggers are growing every year vs mainstream media according the quarterly study, The State of the Live Web by Technorati, the leading blog monitoring service in the world.

In South Africa the most severe example how damaging online conversation can be is in the widely reported case of Independent Democrats’ Simon Grindrod being named on the “SA Male Prostitute” blog as an alleged client. Now if the ID party was listening to the conversation by just placing Google Alerts on all their most important people’s names, they would have found out about this – literally within minutes of the information being posted. And on the flip side you can also monitor your competition using these tools.
And so I propose a radical idea to corporate South Africa: Set-up your own blog and allow your clients to come to you and post their feedback on a platform that you control. When you do this, you start to move beyond CRM because you have entered the conversation and begun to listen. There is an old Indian proverb, “Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf”. The number of South African companies employing this technology for marketing and public relations purposes is growing, but the real value lies in the elusive obvious: customer relationships.

People complain about the service levels of the banks, the Post Office, Home Affairs or Telkom. And when dealing with the biggest organisations, consumers may indeed feel helpless. And yet a growing number of online vigilante’s are emerging. For example the Hellkom website, which has challenged the mighty Telkom, to the point where Telkom sued the owner. The publicity generated by this action has turned this website into a very popular advertising platform because of it’s new popularity. A better approach would have been to engage with this person in an online dialogue. Using your resources to counter all the objections or complaints raised. Bring customer testimonials and feedback to the front line to presents a positive image of Telkom. No, the mighty, needs to assert its power and show that it can stamp out a silly website. Think again.

As you gain access to the inner thoughts or true feelings of your clients you can begin to create products with their input. This is a revolutionary way of creating new products and services because you have in your clients, a testing team, unpaid, and eager to contribute to the creations, they want to own and posses in the future. Fiat, the Italian motor manufacturing giant has returned from the brink of bankruptcy by using social media to listen and take those suggestions and feedback to heart in the design of the new 5007 model.

So what do you do when you are not even sure of your boss will listen to you? Gather the research, study your competitors, and look outside your industry for ideas on how you can leapfrog your competition. It’s easier and easier to replicate and duplicate so you have to continue to differentiate yourself. It’s been said that attention has become the most valuable resources and not time for individuals. And certainly it is true for companies that clients, or prospective clients who are paying attention are the most valuable. And the easiest and simplest way is to allow them to participate in the creation of new products and services. The old top down approach is something of the past. You can die a slow death or you can begin to resurrect yourself, your company, your products and services. It all starts by being open and listening for the grasshopper at your feet.