May 31, 2011, 4:40 PM

Listen up

(Page 2 of 2)

Forum members number in the millions, Debogovich says, and the retailer hosts a robust Twitter page (@twelpforce) that the team watches for customer service issues. Given the large number of social media conversations that mention Best Buy's name, Debogovich says her team prioritizes conversations where they can solve issues or answer questions. Her team is organized by subject matter so that questions or comments about video games, for example, are answered by the team's gaming expert.

Take action

Monitoring online communications helps alert Best Buy to problems they can act on. For example, a customer at a Best Buy retail store posted to the Best Buy forum that he was unable to buy an iPhone at a Miami store because the store had sold its entire stock to one customer. Debogovich says this struck the listening team as odd and sent it to the retailer's mobile team to investigate. Within two weeks Best Buy enacted a company-wide policy of no more bulk sales of nonactivated phones at retail stores. Another post alerted the company that a category page for refrigerators on BestBuy.com actually displayed TVs. The team informed the person responsible for the page who quickly fixed it.

Being ready to take action on what they hear is by far the most important part of the listening process for e-retailers, says Bruce Temkin, who consults with companies about how they can incorporate customer feedback into their business processes and is managing partner of The Temkin Group. 93% of senior marketers say they will use some form of user-generated content to inform their product and service decisions this year, according to a social marketing survey of 175 marketing executives conducted by Bazaarvoice. "This is not about trying to listen for the sake of listening," Temkin says. "It's what you do with that information to make things better." He says e-retailers tend to be more effective at making and testing changes based on what they hear than bricks-and-mortar retailers because they are more accustomed to applying web analytics and because online is a simpler distribution channel. For instance, changing the images on a web page is easier than moving appliances around a physical store.

E-retailers say consumers often are surprised when retailers reach out and take action. "Consumers will vent about a delivery issue on Twitter or somewhere where they don't realize we're listening to them. I'll tweet back and they are blown away that we're listening," Peapod's Merzbacher says.

In one instance, Peapod saw consumers complaining on Facebook about its use of plastic bags. Merzbacher says she was able to join the conversation and provide information about why Peapod uses plastic bags. "We were able to provide information customers weren't aware of and give them an honest answer. It turned a potential negative into a more positive situation," she says.

In another example, when a Peapod delivery truck got stuck in the snow on a residential street in Queens, N.Y., during a blizzard, an angry resident vented about it on Facebook. Peapod's listening tools picked up on it and Merzbacher convinced Peapod employees to go dig it out overnight. The e-retailer then posted an update about the freed truck on Facebook. When the resident continued to rant about it, Peapod's fans joined the fray and told him to knock it off. "If you are reasonable, people see that and appreciate that," Merzbacher says. "They'll rise to your defense."

Listen at home

Deitzel says his best listening tool is Rubbermaid.com's product ratings and review function because customers use it to directly tell the company what they like or dislike about its products. "We get a significant volume of reviews and every single one is read, and they are always specific to our product," he says.

Rubbermaid.com uses product rating and review vendor Bazaarvoice for on-site reviews and in December began syndicating its reviews so that other e-retailers that sell Rubbermaid products also display them. Rubbermaid's Bazaarvoice listening platform alerts the manufacturer when a review is posted on another site so it can see and respond to it as needed. For example, if a Walmart.com customer posts a question about a Rubbermaid product on Walmart.com, the platform funnels it to Rubbermaid so the manufacturer can answer it. The response appears next to the question on Walmart.com.

Rubbermaid takes action on the information it culls from ratings and reviews all the time, Deitzel says. Product managers and the research and development department get weekly reports of the reviews or questions posted online. Deitzel says a string of poor reviews, for example, informed the company of a manufacturing issue for a particular product, which it then fixed.

When consumers posted questions because they were confused about how to assemble a product, Rubbermaid changed the assembly instructions packaged with the product. When several consumers posted questions about the materials used in a product, Rubbermaid.com made sure to provide more information about materials on product pages. "Almost every single review we read, there's something in there that we've learned," he says.

At Peapod, Merzbacher says the feedback consumers provide online helps inform how Peapod markets itself. She says listening platforms tune Peapod into the conversations about its brand and give the e-retailer a better sense of its customers and how they view Peapod. "The way people describe what we do for them," she says, "is better than anything I could come up with on my own."

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

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