“Social media is a cultural asset which allows a company to be more connected to their customers.”
That’s how Richard Binhammer, senior manager, corporate affairs, Dell Computer Corp., and a key member of Dell’s social media team, defined what social media is while speaking at a Third Tuesday Vancouver event held on Nov. 11th. More commonly known online as @RichardatDELL, Binhammer was invited to share his stories and insights on social media and how Dell uses social tools to better interact with its customers and detractors.
However, Binhammer’s and Dell’s path into social media isn’t what you’d expect.
Four years ago Dell embarked on the road to social media partially in response to a blog called ‘Dell-Hell’ which was creating trouble on the web for the computer maker. That blog caught the eye of Dell’s CEO and founder Michael Dell who in turn asked his public relations/marketing team why Dell wasn’t online talking to its customers regularly. Greeted with stony silence, Mr. Dell made clear it was time to apply the company’s direct sales model to the world of web 2.0 communications.
Binhammer was assigned the task of protecting Dell’s corporate reputation on blogs and on other social networks.
“At the time, I didn’t even know what a blog was,” he said. “I was thrown into it . . . but once we got engaged in 2006, we saw negative commentary about Dell decline by about 30 percentage points.”
The company subsequently took the unique approach of inviting 15 of its biggest fans and 15 of its biggest critics to its Round Rock, Texas headquarters to listen and learn from each group.
“We didn’t invite both groups to attend on the same day,” Binhammer remarked. “We let them determine what they wanted to talk to us about. We spent the day learning from them.”
The company has since embedded what was formerly referred to as Dell’s ‘social media swat team’ into its customer support efforts for both its’ business and consumer divisions.
“We’ve moved from using social media as a point solution to using it to solve customer problems,” he explained. “It’s now embedded across the fabric of our company. It’s a major contributor to what our brand is all about which is giving our customers the power to do more with technology.”
Interestingly, whereas some companies either attempt to block employees’ access to social tools or to contain its usage to only a handful of staffers, Dell has boldly taken the opposite path.
The company hosts ‘unconferences’ (facilitated, participant-driven conferences centred on a theme or purpose) with its employees worldwide, targeting social media.
“We did this to kick-off training sessions with our employees,” he said. “In the last quarter, we trained over 3,000 Dell employees on how to use social media as a part of their job . . . the courses are very hands-on and are built in such a way that we certify our people.”
Meanwhile, on Dell.com, there are more than 177,000 ratings/reviews from customers on Dell’s products that are both good and bad. These are read daily by Dell’s product engineers that strive to respond to the criticisms by digesting the complaints and then working to improve whatever product in question.
In addition, Dell takes those customer reviews, combines the information, and pipes it into its’ primary Facebook page (look for the ‘Tag Team’ tab). “This is all user-generated content both good and bad. There’s not a stitch of marketing from Dell,” he said. “This allows our customers to connect with each other in a sense and see how others are using our products.”
Dell also established a ‘Social Media for Small Business’ Facebook page designed to help its small to midsized business (SMB) customers learn to use social tools, and a ‘Dell for Business’ Facebook page that aims to serve its business customers in general. More recently, the computer maker has initiated its presence on Chinese social networks Renren and Sina (equivalents to Facebook and Twitter respectively).
“This should tell you something about our perspective on social media,” he continued. “Social media is not just for consumers. It’s very much a business-to-business (B2B) play.”
Incidentally, Dell.ca is frequently used as beta-testing ground for new online initiatives for the company. Binhammer said to keep an eye on the site and the corporate Dell.com site in the coming weeks as each will become increasingly more social.
“If you really want to understand Dell, understand our heritage is online. We have one of the biggest e-commerce sites in the world. Also, at the root of our company’s heritage it’s all about direct relationships with customers,” he said. “What we’ve learned in four years is listening, learning, and engaging, each an important concept, are actually a value to the company and they deliver results.
“Those results can be a changed business process or improved customer relationships or sales. Fundamentally, those results will make yours a better business because you’re actually closer to your customer.”
Inevitably, he was asked how Dell measures the return-on-investment (ROI) in social tools.
“There are all kinds of things you can measure with social media. It’s probably the most measurable, most consistent, largest sample-size database business has ever had,” he replied. “Most people tend to think of the social web as being at the top of the marketing funnel when in fact our measurements so far tells us the social web is every aspect of that funnel . . . we measure ROI in a number of ways: in terms of sentiment, in terms of sales, in terms of relationships, in terms of moving through a sales process faster.”
And when asked why companies in general struggle with how to use social media, Binhammer responded by saying, “social media is probably wrongly viewed as a channel. It’s not. It’s a tool to do better business.”
If you use social media as a channel you’ll soon learn that it doesn’t scale. It will only scale when spread out across a staff so everyone has a piece of the action.
“Social media is simply a tool. Or powerfully, social media is a tool. Define a strategy (for your company) in terms of how you want to use (social tools),” he recommended. “Enable a broad swath of your employees and educate and train them, then you are in a position to scale. If you’re doing all of that, you end up with a company that’s no longer a bureaucratic organization but a human company. It is a living, breathing organism that people on the social web can touch, feel, and engage with.”