Listen Before Engaging Your Audience

An Early Job at Gateway Bears an Important Lesson for Today's Social Media Landscape

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Craig Daitch Craig Daitch also writes the blog Thought Industry.
While putting myself through school I worked part time at a Gateway Country store in the suburbs of Detroit. Every day I'd come to work and watch as the full-time sales executives would meticulously go through the upgrades attributed to the new PCs that hit the showroom floor while describing them to their wide-eyed customers-to-be.

One former colleague of mine had a voice for radio, similar to Tay Zonday's, and you could imagine the impression he'd make as his bass-infused intonations echoed off the walls, evangelizing the power of bus speeds, RAM and hard-drive space. It was akin to a Las Vegas performance -- and you could imagine the number of "ooh's and ahh's" his passionate value propositions elicited from the future Gateway owners within shouting distance. Never mind that only one out of 20 customers knew what bus speed actually was.

Yet for all the posturing and positioning in his speech only a car salesman could love, when end-of-the-month sales numbers were announced, a part-time Russian employee, whose mastery of the English language could be described as in the "transitional stage," consistently trumped him.

Cue contorted facial expressions and outright exasperation as Dmitri would lead all sales numbers by 5%, 10%, sometimes 15%, over his colleagues. All while working 20 hours less a week! Finally, after six months of second-place sales finishes, we all decided to wave the white flag and watch Dmitri in action. "What was his secret?" everybody wondered.

The observations left us confused, even a little frustrated. Dmitri's sales strategy was to bring a prospective customer to a display and remain quiet. There was no small talk, no faux excitement over monitors, game packages or peripherals. Dmitri refused to be the first to engage in conversation. A pack of us observed from afar, witnessing what we thought was a nightmare scenario -- one where Dmitri's customers seemed to be twisting in the wind. "We should save him," one colleague said.

"No. Let's see how he pulls this out," I replied.

No sooner than you could say "sale," Dmitri was off to the races. Or, more appropriately, his clients were, as they began to spill their needs to him in tremendous detail. He stood there listening, nodding and taking notes but never interrupting. A few "mmhmm's" later and Dmitri would look down at his pad of paper and repeat back to his customer:

"You are seeking a PC that can handle word processing, light e-mail and games for your daughter. You don't need a new printer, the one you have is fine. You would like a new more compact monitor, however, and you plan on eventually passing the computer on to your kids so you need something with expandable memory. Let's go over to my work station and I can print out an estimate."

There was no sales pitch. There was no "hard sell." There was just a guy we were convinced couldn't understand half the dialogue he was having with his customers. And he was closing sale after sale after sale.

Flash forward to today. The social-media landscape brings me back to my years working at Gateway. It's easy for brands to spill the same rhetoric when it comes to their attributes. But are they listening to their audience's wants and needs? The social-media listening space is still nascent, there's no question. But there are companies in the social-media ecosystem that are able to address the dimensional challenges associated with social media monitoring and measurement.

Companies such as Nielsen BuzzMetrics, Relevant Noise, Radian6, Trucast and Converseon are all able to determine different attributes of social media to varying degrees of success -- measuring tone and sentiment of conversations, the velocity of which a conversation is being discussed and level of influence from a conversation starter.

In a world where we continuously seek more efficient ways get our points across the social web (see Twitter), these tools are instrumental to both today's conversations about brands and conversations with brands.

Before we engage in any conversation of value between brands and their audiences, we need to remember that listening is our best asset in determining their needs.
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