I'm continually amazed at how people go barreling into social media sites like a bull in a china shop and then wonder why they aren't well received. They hear social media is changing the way people do business and they make the mistake of thinking it's changing it to something "new" instead of simply changing it back to the way things used to be. (Yes, I know Twitter is new, I mean in spirit.)
I hear people focusing on what's in it for them...and how they can benefit and completely disregarding the idea of participating because they might be able to give something back. It's like the person at a networking event who only wants to size up whether or not you can advance their business before moving on to the next person. It's clear they view people as commodities and stepping stones instead of...well, people.
That's a shame, because when it comes to business, there's nothing that matters more than people and how you treat them.
Building a Business by Building Relationships
My grandfather opened up the first independent insurance agency in the small town I grew up in. Now we all know the stereotypical image of the insurance agent...in-your-face, buddy-buddy, but always trying to make the sale. My grandfather was the complete opposite of this. Oh, he was buddy-buddy...but it's because he's one of the most social people I've ever known.
Grandpa was everyone's friend and wouldn't hesitate to do anything he could to help you out. He knew his customers well. He knew if he should pull out hard candy when you came in the door, or offer you pack of Chicklets chewing gum. He knew your kids names and who they were married to. One time, he put coverage on someone's new car when he saw them drive by the office. Turns out that was a good thing because the fellow had an accident the next day and came in upset about not having coverage yet. You can imagine the word of mouth that was generated when Grandpa told him he had it taken care of.
My grandfather was due to retire in 1985, but that spring our town got hit with an F5 tornado that decimated a huge portion of the township. My grandfather put off his retirement for more than a year so he could stay in the office, working with those families until each and every claim had been processed and paid. He knew those families, knew their needs, knew who they were and didn't feel like the "company" he sold for could handle them as well as he could. More so, he viewed them as friends first and clients second. He couldn't and wouldn't walk out on a friend.
In fact, when talking to my mom this morning to verify the stories, she reminded me that back when Grandpa was an agent, there were no claims offices. That meant you called your insurance agent and they got up in the middle of the night and came to take care of things. She said one time he got a call because his neighbor had been in a bad car accident. He went to the hospital and found him laying on a gurney in the hallway with a sheet pulled over him. The doctors told my grandfather there was nothing they could do for him. My grandfather got on the phone, called an ambulance from another hospital, got him transferred for treatment and...well, the man lived a long, long time after that.
So why did I just tell you that feel good story?
The Guy Who Knew Everyone
It's to demonstrate how business "used" to be run in towns across America and throughout the world. Back before you bought your insurance online based on the lowest bid, you bought it from a friend who you knew would take care of you. Back before everyone started focusing on making a bazillion dollars, people had time to make relationships without worrying about how those relationships might "advance" their career.
My grandfather practiced the original form of "social networking."
There's a lot of talk around social media lately and how great it is to see relationships being made. Social media is giving people the tools to make those personal connections again, though how we use those tools is up to us. Sure, you can hop on Twitter or Facebook and start friending all the "famous" people or the "influentials" but is that really the best way to spend your time?
Social Media Marketing Will Kill Social Media
But I worry about this push for "social media marketing." In fact, when I spoke on the topic at Small Business Marketing Unleashed in Houston, I crossed out the word "marketing" and replaced it with "conversations." Companies that flock to social media because they think it gives them a powerful new place to sell are not only missing the boat, but are destroying the medium for those who are tapping it correctly.
My grandfather didn't go to Rotary meetings or the VFW and focus on chatting up the mayor or city council. Sure, he went to those meetings, but he also knew the guy who worked the gas station pump, the bag boy at the grocery store, the folks who came into the food pantry and pretty much anyone else he ran into.
He lived life by building connections with people, not business potential. Those connections with people paid off because no one felt like he was trying to sell them something. Because of that, he was the first person who came to mind if the topic of insurance agents came up. His business flourished and when he did retire, State Farm had to split his accounts among two agents because one couldn't handle the volume.
These days, if you think of an insurance agent, chances are good you picture someone like Ned Ryerson. You remember...the annoying old school mate of Bill Murray who hounded him relentlessly with fake enthusiasm in Groundhog Day. What happened to the insurance industry? The guys with the fake charm who were only out for the sale made everyone suspicious of even the guy who was genuine.
Smart Companies Are in it for the People
Social Media isn't some amazing new concept that's changing the way we do business. It's simply amazing new technology that's allowing us to return to the way people USED to do business. In the last fifty years we've gone from business being done the way my grandfather did it, to business being run by multi-national corporations who view you as a billing number and who you pick based on price. In the last five to ten years, the Internet has opened things back up.
You don't have to buy from Toys R Us anymore. You can buy from Brainwaves Toys, a small shop run by a woman in California who answers customer service calls even at 2am. You don't have to buy a Costco cake for your next birthday party, you can order a CUPCAKES IN A JAR(TM) from Bangerang Bake Shop, a small bakery in Illinois that puts up their inventory on Etsy each Tuesday?
Social Media gives you, as a small business owner, the tool to make and build relationships with people all over the world. The trick, is to focus on the relationship and not the sale. People are happy to buy from people they like and trust. If you have a good product, you don't need to push it. You simply need to raise awareness. Making personal connections and trusting things to flow from there worked 40 years ago for my grandfather. Chances are good it will work for you today in the social media world.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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