While most brands are focused on increasing social media engagement …

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the smart ones are looking beyond Likes,

towards building genuine, long-term relationships

with their customers.

I was joined in a webinar last week by Eugenie Gijsberts from Dutch bank, ABN AMRO.

it’s one of Holland’s largest financial institutions and Eugenie, sounding remarkably genial for someone at the sharp end of corporate communications, is responsible for managing the company’s social customer services.

ABN AMRO is taking the long view of social media. Like many large companies, it initially took to social media for reputation management. The company was in the middle of a merger and wanted to monitor customer feedback on Twitter, forums and Facebook closely, to pre-empt any kind of backlash, so they got a monitoring platform and started listening.

That was in 2010. Over the past three years it has developed a sophisticated social customer service set-up with a specialist team, embedded in the customer service department, which is responsible for daily monitoring, engagement and problem resolution for customers.

Their team operates 24/7, in shifts, to capture, acknowledge, log and resolve around 150 customer queries every day. These are filtered from around 1,000 relevant mentions of the brand and its products every day.

This ‘front line’ team is supported by a network of experts on mortgages, insurance and other products, so that even complex problems can be sorted out rapidly. ABN aims to respond to Tweets within 15 mins and Facebook posts within half an hour.

Quite impressive, though maybe not more than you would expect from an organization with 23,000 staff and 6m customers. 

The interesting thing for me is how it is planning for the future.

Take one example. A few weeks ago an exam paper was leaked to the Dutch media before the actual exam date, causing thousands of students have to stay on at school and cancel their holidays.

Within minutes ABN AMRO’s social media team knew that lots of their young customers were wanting to change their travel insurance dates. The company set up a special campaign and the webcare team dealt with the problem systematically and rapidly.

Again, good work, but perhaps not ground-breaking.

Building on this knowledge, ABN AMRO is now taking social media monitoring and engagement to the next level.

Eugenie gave us three clear examples:

  • Firstly, the bank isn’t just talking to customers, fixing problems and disappearing. It is using Genesys’ social customer service platform to maintain a record of each interaction associated with each social media user and mapping that to engagement across other channels – to create a 360 view of the relationship that the brand has with that customer. Having a single repository of information is essential, since from the customer perspective, you only have one relationship with a brand.
  • Secondly, for younger customers, the bank is actively engaging in social networks such as Hyves – which has 1.2m members in the Netherlands – to educate them about financial issues and prevent problems, such as getting into debt, or falling for phishing scams. This kind of outreach shows real foresight. There’s no direct ROI here, but in the long term there’s a cost saving. They are also, of course, building trust with the youngsters.
  • Thirdly, the bank is starting to look more broadly at its customers’ lives and how it can help them cope with the challenges of daily life. During the recession, for example, it started monitoring for people expressing concerns about their personal finances, to see if it could offer support or advice. This isn’t designed as sales activity – but pro-active, customer support. Or, to put it more accurately, pre-customer support.

The ABN AMRO story isn’t unique. Frank Eliason and his team at Citibank in New York are certainly working along similar lines – but its emphasis on relationship-building over one-off engagement or straight marketing is telling.

For me, the fact that this process is being driven by the Customer Service team rather than Marketing or Communications is equally important. In fact, it’s almost radical.

It worries me when our clients ask us to focus on social media engagement. Of course, in a marketing environment more engagement means more sharing and word-of-mouth, which drives reach, attracts leads and helps with conversions.

But from an organizational perspective, engagement can be a very short-term tactic. Without a longer term strategy it offers limited value and, all too often, provides the consumer with a hollow, meaningless experience.

Any social media strategy that doesn’t have relationship-building at its core is flawed – and this is where companies like ABN AMRO are shining a path for us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re ahead of them or following on behind. The crucial question is: are you on the path?

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