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How to kick-start conversations with your customers

17th May 2013
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Consumers talk about brands. While most conversations are happening offline (about 90%), the online conversations are a new dimension in marketing. Many brands are thinking on how to manage these online conversations.

Many companies are investing in online conversation management, but most are not using the full potential of conversation management.

Three dimensions to take into account in conversation management

Firstly, the modern consumer is prone to expressive behaviour. More than ever, they like to talk about brands. Even better, they like to talk to companies. Their input is positive. They want to make a contribution towards successful products and they want to give feedback about their brand experience. As soon as the consumer is given the chance to participate in the marketing of ‘their’ brand, they expect in return that the products will become more ‘personalised’ to reflect their needs (see  Salzman, Matathia & O’Reilly, Buzz, Harness the power of influence and create demand, 2003). Above all, consumers want to be listened to. The conversation intensity is high. Their expectations of companies are clear.

Secondly, it is important to realise that brands and consumers are both capable of starting a conversation. The discussions which rage in the online discussion fora, the after-dinner chat at family get-togethers, telephone calls or emails from members of the public, consumers who contact the companies direct: these are all forms of conversation in which consumers can initiate talk about brands. Examples of conversations initiated by the brand holder may include: approaching smaller groups of consumers by asking them a question in a forum; organising a competition for loyal customers; broadcasting an advert in the media. 

Brands can start the conversation as well. In most cases they start the conversation by sharing content. Content is only successful if it is conversation worthy. Content should be the start of a good conversation. In order to be a good conversation partner for consumers, it is important that the brand should initiate some discussions, but should also allow consumers to initiate some of their own. Balance rather than one-sidedness is the key.  If you find that it is always the consumers who are taking the initiative, you are under-using your conversation management possibilities.

Thirdly – and most importantly – it is vital to know exactly what we mean by ‘a conversation’. This is my definition: a conversation is an interaction which involves both talking and listening. Within a conversation, everyone has the same possibility to express his or her opinion. But learning to listen is something new – at least for advertisers. Conversation Management requires that you approach these conversations with and between consumers with an open mind. But the talent that you will undoubtedly most need to hone, practice and refine is… listening!

Manage conversations in three steps: observe - facilitate - join

To kick start conversations and to keep them going, there are three areas to invest in: observe the conversation as a manager, facilitate the conversation as a brand and join the conversation as a peer.


Observing conversations should lead to new consumer insights. For companies with limited budget, there are a large number of free tools to use. Tools like Tweetdeck, Google trends and Google alert can help you to observe conversations for free. When there is some budget available, companies can use software to monitor conversations in an automated way. It is advisable to include a market research or customer insights person in this process. The key objective of the observational part is to better understand your customer. In the end it should lead to better products and services. Which is great, because more than 50% of the online conversations are about offline product experiences. So the first path to kick start your conversations is improving your offline offering. The observation of online conversations helps you in this process. In fact, it gives your answers to questions you did not have.


Facilitate conversations is about making it easy to talk with your and making it easy to talk about you. Making it easy to talk with you implies having the right social media channels to reach out to customers. Making it easy to talk about you implies having conversation worthy content.

Here are a few basic tips to facilitate conversations:

  • Show your social media profiles everywhere you can (email signature, offline, brochures, site...).
  • Make sure your social media profiles look professional: nice lay-out, up to date bio.
  • Foresee share buttons when you create content.
  • Content is more about design than about copywriting these days. Make sure you visualise your information. Great design makes the content more shareable.

A more advanced way of facilitating conversations is building a customer community. In such a community you bring clients together to speak about topics related to your business but from a customer point of view.


The last step is to join the conversation. Listening is great, but at a certain point the customer needs a reply as well.  It is of great importance to talk to consumers naturally, in a language they can understand.  In no circumstance must the consumer feel that he is being talked to (a certainly not talked down to) by a big, impersonal company. The consumer wants to feel that he is talking to another ordinary person, someone who is prepared to listen and can give meaningful answers to his questions, someone who asks questions in return and seems to understand what the consumer is thinking and feeling. The use of language in these conversations cannot be compared with any other type of communication currently used in the business world. Advertisers are trained to write perfectly crafted texts for websites, brochures and press releases. But the language they use sounds distant and official. This must always be avoided in a conversation with a consumer.

A conversation with a consumer is based on six principles:

  1. Listen
    If a consumer starts a conversation with you, focus your attention clearly on what that person has to say.  A consumer can approach you through a number of different channels (email, face-to-face, in a community, etc.). Whichever channel he uses, if he has taken the trouble to contact you, it means that it is important to him. You must therefore listen to him patiently and attentively, even if he is saying negative things about your brand.
  2. Ask questions
    In order to understand the consumer properly, it may be necessary to ask a number of questions.  Perhaps your first instinct is to counter-attack, by showing him the weaknesses in his arguments.  This is a bad move, which only leads to frustration, and does nothing to solve the problem. By asking questions, the consumer will feel that you are showing genuine interest. You also help him to provide a more appropriate framework for his own arguments. Always make yourself ask at least five additional, open questions in every conversation with a consumer. Good questions include: “What do you mean exactly?”, “Can you give me an example of that?”, “How do you see your idea in concrete terms?”
  3. Adopt an open-minded attitude
    A consumer may bring you a good idea, but sometimes at first you only see the practical problems which make it difficult to implement.  But perhaps you were not listening closely enough. Go back and think about it again. Many successful commercial opportunities are created from suggestions generated by the market. Be open to the ideas of your consumers.
  4. Be honest
    If a conversation between an advertiser and a consumer does not reach a successful conclusion, this is nearly always because the advertiser has lied. A consumer has an inborn talent for sniffing out lies about his favourite brand. So be honest!  If there is a problem with one of your products, tell this to the consumer quickly and clearly.
  5. Be a person
    Conversations with consumers are not something you can contract out to an advertising bureau. A consumer want to talk with a representative of ‘his’ brand, and not with someone hired from outside. Speak in your own name as person X, employed by brand Y. Never speak ‘on behalf of’ brand Y. This is too impersonal.
  6. Commit yourself
    A good conversation often leads to action. Assure your consumers that their input will be used. If possible, show them at a later stage what has been done with this input. Make it a rule to use a number of ideas each year which have come from your consumers.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is author of The Conversation Company and The Conversation Manager (Kogan Page). Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe or visit:

Replies (4)

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By LinkedIn Group Member
20th May 2013 10:50

Comment on this article from the MyCustomer LinkedIn Community

I have found the best way to "kick start" is by going out into the field. Its all very well going online, but for a small business like mine, visiting and talking to small, independant traders works far better. Just dont expect to get rich quickly! All you have to do is be persistant and know your'e market.

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By LinkedIn Group Member
20th May 2013 10:53

Comment on this article from the MyCustomer LinkedIn Community

Secret shopper. Just be one of them for a few days....

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By LinkedIn Group Member
20th May 2013 10:54

Comment on this article from the MyCustomer LinkedIn Community

Ask them what they think of what you promise vs what you deliver. Simples.

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By LinkedIn Group Member
20th May 2013 16:59

Comment on this article from the MyCustomer LinkedIn Community

I have seen many different ways. Different kick-offs for different personalities. When in doubt, inquire about them and their business. Once you share things in common, it is easier to discuss most anything. Essentially build a relationship even if momentarily.

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