Welcome to another in our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. Laura Thomas, Dell Senior Consultant in the small and medium-sized business space, focusing on digital marketing, spoke with Brent Leary in this interview, which has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, page down to the loudspeaker icon at the end of the post.
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Small Business Trends: How did you get started with Dell and what you do there?
Laura Thomas: In my 10 years at Dell I’ve worked in employee communications and public relations, as well as online business and marketing. In the past several years I’ve begun to focus on social media.
Small Business Trends: Can you talk about why Dell started using social media to communicate with customers?
Laura Thomas: It is best known as “Dell Hell.” [Blogger Jeff Jarvis unleashed a PR nightmare for Dell in 2005 when he vented his outrage over poor customer service on his blog BuzzMachine in a post, “Dell Sucks,” that garnered thousands of comments and links.] At that time I was working in our PR team, which was doing the initial outreach with Jeff Jarvis.
In the beginning, our approach was to listen. That’s what I recommend businesses that are just getting into social media do first: Listen to what your customers are saying about you. For us at Dell, it took on a lot of urgency, so we [quickly] went beyond listening and into conversing in social media.
Small Business Trends: How did it morph into some of the other things you’ve done using social media to connect with your customers?
Laura Thomas: We started by having Dell team members actively go out to blogs where people were talking about us. Then we expanded into Twitter and Facebook [as they arose]. Over the years, we’ve been trying to go where the audience is, so we can join in a conversation with them there.
Small Business Trends: What are the major differences between now and then with social media?
Laura Thomas: In the beginning, [social media] might have been something that the PR teams [handled]. Now we’ve integrated social media into all parts of the business.
Small Business Trends: What have you learned over the years that helped you be more successful with social media?
Laura Thomas: One of the big lessons for anyone getting involved in social media is not to look at it as a broadcast vehicle. It is a two-way street–a way to not only tell people what’s happening within your organization, but to hear what is happening in their lives. For instance, with our small and medium business customers, we really want to hear what’s important to them. What issues are they facing with their businesses?
Dell is looking beyond basic products and more into services and solutions we can offer our customers. And because those solutions are so customized, it’s hard to talk about them in traditional marketing channels. Social opens up that opportunity to get into deeper discussions with your customers so that we can have a conversation about how we can help them overcome difficulties in their business.
Small Business Trends: How did Dell measure success in the beginning and how do you measure it now?
Laura Thomas: We looked at [and continue to look at] the tone of the conversation happening about Dell. When we first came into social media, there was a lot of negative sentiment. Our goal was to see if we could turn those negative conversations to positive conversations.
It’s basic customer service. If you have an issue where your customer is unhappy, you want to address it with them directly. Often those who are very negative about the company, when they see the company making an effort, become your strongest supporters.
Small Business Trends: How has your relationship with your customers changed since you began using social media?
Laura Thomas: We have turned around a lot of that sentiment. But we’re not sitting back saying, “OK, that’s done.” Our goal is to help customers find solutions. We want to be collaborative with them. We came out with things like our Idea Storm Platform, where they could talk to Dell through Idea Storm to give us ideas about improving and, as a community, vote on those ideas.
Small Business Trends: Do you think [small businesses] are using social media as successfully as they could be?
Laura Thomas: Some are really embracing it. Part of that is, it’s in an individual person’s nature to really gravitate towards social media [or not]. [For those] that [don’t gravitate to] social media, but hear it is something they should be doing, it’s more difficult. It’s not a bad start for them to simply begin by listening. Go out and see where the customers are. Don’t just automatically jump into building a Facebook page if your audience is not on Facebook.
I hear from a lot of business owners that they don’t have time. If [somebody in their business] exhibits that natural tendency to interact in social media, let that person lead it. It doesn’t have to be the business owner who does everything, but it should definitely be somebody within the business.[An agency] might offer to run your Facebook page for you, or create a Twitter presence for you, and because businesses are strapped for time, they [are tempted to outsource]. But then you lose that connection with your customers.
Small Business Trends: How long should it take for small businesses to see tangible results? A lot of them get frustrated because they think things should happen overnight.
Laura Thomas: It’s hard to put a time frame on it without knowing exactly which results they are looking for. There are things you can do quickly. You could run some special promotion and suddenly get a ton of Twitter followers, but are they going to translate into long-term customers? It depends on your business model and how you want to connect with your customers. What is your business goal? Is it all about brand awareness, just having more people connect to you? Or is it about real strong relationships with the customers? Especially if you have a customer with a long buying cycle, a quick hit is not going to be as important as a long-term relationship.
Small Business Trends: What is Dell’s Trade Secrets Program?
Laura Thomas: Our new Trade Secrets Program is an opportunity we hope will get our customers sharing tips and tricks on how they are making their business successful. We are kicking it off right now around the V130 launch. Our Vostro V130 laptop is a beautiful business laptop. The question we are asking fans, friends and followers is, How do you make a good first impression?
We want to hear from them and we want them to share with each other, through Twitter, with the Trade Secrets hashtag, or on the Trade Secrets tab of our Dell for Business Facebook page. Keep watching that Trade Secrets hashtag or the Dell for Business Facebook page, because you’ll have an opportunity to learn from others.
Small Business Trends: Where else can folks learn more about what Dell is doing with small business?
Laura Thomas: You can get lots of news from Dell on Twitter with the Dell SMB news account. We are on Facebook, we have a special LinkedIn group, and we are on YouTube. My personal blog is at www.laurapthomas.com.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.