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This article is part of a series on social media success from Purple Stripe Productions.

Without a tangible status update and ‘friends & fans,’ it feels like there is no *proof* of our social media efforts.  The sooner we can hit ‘publish’ – the sooner management sees we are actually working and not playing around all day on FarmVille.

Taking a step back, listening, and learning are all nice in theory, but ‘lazy’ in the business world.  Action produces results.  Listening is inaction.  We define success in how quickly we rack up the number of fans, friends, status updates, ‘likes,’ and re-Tweets.  Numbers we can count and reproduce on a chart.  How can you be considered successful if you gained less fans this week than last?  How can you justify to your management that your efforts are successful if you LOST a few followers?

The listening precursor is a real sticking point in a good number of companies.  You can see the results of not listening in multiple facets of a company.  Customer Service is reactive to problems and always on the defense.  The Sales team struggles to keep up with unique product offerings until the demand of customers hits the tipping point.  Research & Development work in silos far removed from end users.  Marketing follows a safe and predictable path that fits nicely within the niche and genre of their industry.  Human Resources is seen as the ‘heavy’ in the company.  Information technology departments treat employees like teens that cannot be trusted with the Internet for fear of rampant porn viewing and personal online socializing resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue due to unproductive worker bees.

The bottom line – handing in a status report with slow-gaining numbers is perceived as a failure in Corporate America.  Fast. Quick. Instant.  NOW.  Because the technology (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.) produce instant content, the perception is that success should be instant as well.  Trust takes time.

Solutions are easy to identify, but hard to implement.  Change is hard. It’s disruptive.  It’s unproven.

What if Customer Service spoke up and talked to R&D and Sales about making changes to products that they see need work?  Would customers get better products and services faster?  Would the company save money in research and marketing by producing products that the public is already asking for?  How many customers could you keep from moving to a competitor?

What if Sales took ideas from customers and (even if it wasn’t a viable avenue to pursue) acknowledged customers as part of the product cycle and a valued member of idea generation.  My Starbucks Idea is actively soliciting and implementing ideas directly from their customers.  Imagine that! Loyal customers giving free advice geared specifically towards your product and company and giving them even better reasons to spend money with you.

What if R&D could poll customers and find out what works, what doesn’t, and maybe even find an entirely new and unique market for a product?  Fiskars & Brains on Fire comes to mind (you really need to go read the case study).  Can you imagine a company that has been making a product since 1649 and has *no idea* who uses it or for what purpose?!  There isn’t a scrapbooker alive that doesn’t own a pair of orange-handled Fiskars scissors.  Crafters are fiercely brand loyal, in this case to a product and company that didn’t even know they existed.  By taking the deep dive into the culture of the customer, not only did they gain an almost limitless idea pool for new products, but built a loyal fan base second to none in their fiercely competitive industry.  All by listening and acting on what they heard.

What if Marketing focused on developing amazing content to share with customers instead of canned broadcast messages?  What if they stopped doing what the rest of their industry does and actually did something creative and interesting?  Frenzied Waters is a perfect example of a ground-breaking concept (like most things that come out of Campfire).

How about Human Resources working with employees to find what they need, how they work and learn best, and act more like mentors and less like police?  Saying there is ‘open communication’ between departments is one thing, but when people speak up and never see results, the conversation stops.

Why talk when nothing changes?  This is why it’s important to listen first.  Your customers (or potential customers) will let you know the direction they need you to go in.  And, yes, you need to listen – and adapt.  Running head-first into social media platforms without having any clue what already exists, what people want, and how to best position yourself as a helpful resource in your field are paramount to any endeavor.

So what do you gain by listening?  The most obvious benefit is learning what your customers are talking about, what they need, what they hate, how they live, and how they need *you* to help *them* solve problems. Fiskars listened and gained product insight and an army of crafters.  Discovery Channel provided a new form of personalized, interactive entertainment with Frenzied Waters.  Where conversations used to take place between co-workers around a water cooler, or drinking coffee around a kitchen table – today’s chit-chat also takes place ONLINE.  Drug companies do not create medicine to alleviate (or cure) illness that doesn’t exist – and friends don’t recommend a product they haven’t tried and had success with.  Restaurants don’t put food on menus people won’t eat – and people don’t bring friends to dine at restaurants they haven’t been to before and loved.  Businesses exist to provide a product or service required by the consumer.  No consumer need, no product, no trust, no business.

Secondly, keeping tabs on competitors isn’t such a bad idea.  The danger here is that you get caught up in every move they make and may get drawn into mimicking their efforts online.  If it worked for them it must work for you, right?  Problem here is you don’t know what their goals are, what goes on behind the scenes, failures they have had in the past.  Sometimes it is hard to be different, stand out in a positive light, or provide a truly unique product or experience.  Regardless if you reach that goal or not – you have to try.  If you copy your competition, then you are really no different than they are, and that just made the decision for the customer more neutral.  “Them or Us” – makes no difference.  You need to make a difference.

Keeping your ear to the ground for the ‘next big thing’ gives you a competitive edge and a brain-trust of consumers that are already telling you what your next product or service should be.  If fifty people a day, every day, called your company asking for the same set of products – would you provide it?  Social media channels work the same way, only you need to “pick up the phone,” BE QUIET, and listen to the conversation.  Take notes.  Implement innovation.  Be proactive.

Moving forward requires you to be on solid foundation to start with.  If you are offering shoddy, broken, or inferior products or services no amount of good will or social outreach will save you.  There is a fear that by listening to what customers are saying about you online you open yourself up to negative feedback.  Guess what? Customers (and employees) are saying it regardless if you want to hear it or not.  Trust us, it’s better to hear it, take your lumps, fix it, and move forward.  If you don’t listen to existing and former customers, you will never know what it will take to move you from good to great in their eyes.  You know the saying – it’s easier (and less expensive) to keep a customer than gain a new one.  Listen to the customers you have and make them a true part of your product cycle, it’s one of the only ways to figure out how to gain new ones.