Guest Blog post by Bob Violino

The Internet and social media are making collaboration easier than ever, and many companies are finding that they have an ever-increasing need to allow their employees to be more connected — using tools to share ideas in ways that boost productivity and provide more direct links to customers.

Enabling collaboration and communication using social media tools can help enterprises be more competitive by letting people work in ways that are comfortable to them, accelerating innovation through the sharing of ideas.
Social media has benefits for both external and internal collaboration, and one of the best ways companies can use online media externally is to better connect and engage with their customers.

Companies can put data from social media resources such as Facebook and Twitter into context with existing customer relationship management (CRM) information to quickly respond to new market opportunities or challenges.
From the standpoint of sales and marketing, when social media is used in conjunction with CRM, companies can link social profile data with customer purchase histories so they can learn more about the preferences and interests of particular customer segments.

According to an InformationWeek Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey of 394 business and technology professionals conducted in October 2011, nearly 40 percent of the respondents said that marketing based on branding and promotion efforts was the primary driver in their approach to external social networking.

Businesses can also use social media sites to build customer relationships in an easy, fast and cost-effective way, and harness the power of social networks to help build relationships and communities with their customers by quickly developing applications that take advantage of cloud services to deliver on emerging opportunities.

Microsoft offers a host of technologies, such as SharePoint, Lync and Dynamics CRM, that can help companies reap the benefits of better collaboration with customers as well as business partners. Microsoft is also a big user of social media to engage its own customers.

“The first 10 years of SharePoint were about connecting employees. The next 10 will be about crossing organizational boundaries and making it easier than ever before to connect with customers and partners,” says Jared Spataro, senior director of SharePoint product management.

“There are some great things you can do today in both SharePoint and Lync to connect with your customers,” Spataro says. “Many [organizations] use SharePoint, for example, to create extranets and customer-facing websites. And when you’re looking for more real-time connections, Lync allows federation between organizations and with public instant messaging services. This is an incredibly important area, so watch for more here.”

Microsoft is using social media “to engage our customers, when they want and where they are,” says Nestor Portillo, worldwide director, Community and Online Support at Microsoft. “Social Media is part of our multichannel platform to be accessible for our customers and at the same time engage with them in meaningful conversations.”

The company’s approach in the social media space goes beyond “break-fix” issues with its products, Portillo says. “We are also using social media to listen to our customers and get useful insights [on] how they are using our products and their preferences or wishes, in order to share these with our product groups to evaluate them for future or current versions.”

Social media is also an “amplifier channel” to increase the discoverability among customers of Microsoft’s multimedia content, self-help tools, diagnostic tools and how-to/product documentation, Portillo says.

“By doing this, we are also targeting how our customers want to consume our content,” Portillo says. “We have, in partnership with the product groups, presence on different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc., where we have a mix of content available for our customers.”

As a global company, Microsoft is also extending the use of social media to non-English languages and local popular platforms.

“Today, our agents are able to ‘rescue,’ for break-fix scenarios; ‘assist,’ for education and how-to scenarios; or ‘guide’ customers,” Portillo says. “In the Twitter space, we are using an internal listening tool to engage with customers that are talking about us but not talking to us. This proactive model has been recognized by journalists as a great model, and our customers have us [@Microsofthelps or the localized version of it] as their contacts.”

Social media technologies provide simple collaboration for employees and new means of understanding and interacting with customers, adds Reuben Krippner, technical product management lead at Microsoft. “However, it is important to put this technology wave in perspective,” he says. “Telephone has not replaced face-to-face meetings; email has not replaced telephone. Social technologies are simply another means for people to connect and interact. Social [media] should be used in the appropriate context. Your customers expect flexibility in the way they engage with you, whether that is via the Web, face-to-face, phone, email and now social [media]."