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If you aren’t connected with your customers now, social media isn’t going to fix that. It’s going to amplify it. So before your business launches a social media plan, be sure that you’re set up for success.

Get your customer service department in order.
While social media is often described as an extension of marketing, it really has its roots in customer service. It provides a clear path for communication between company and customer, not unlike the phone or email.

If you have kinks in your customer service mechanism, now is the time to fix that. You need to have not only a clear flow of information and a plan for how to solve issues as they arise, but you need to have the right people and mindsets in place. If the people manning the phones or the email aren’t serving the customer well now, social media will only ever highlight the shortfalls.

Take the time to ensure that your customer service department is running like a well oiled machine before you open up even more channels for dialogue. The most straightforward way to find out: ask your customers what THEY think.

Set up listening posts. Lots of them.
You need to know what’s being said about you across the web, plain and simple. Don’t be the last to know, because it puts you forever in a reactionary state.

Participating directly in social media is not for everyone – it takes time, money, resources, commitment, and careful planning. But listening and paying attention can – and should – be within every company’s reach. It can frame your existing business practices, too.

There are myriad free tools available like Google Blog Search, Twitter Search, and even Technorati. Yahoo Pipes can provide a wealth of information, too. If you’re not yet ready to participate in the dialogue, at least capture and understand how it’s happening around you, and ensure that your other business decisions are being made with this knowledge in mind.

Set aside resources.
Yep, both people and money. The misconception is often that social media is “free”, because the tools don’t cost a great deal of money to use. But there are costs associated with executing a social media plan, in terms of both human and capital resources.

Your social media endeavors will almost certainly fail unless you’re consciously dedicating people hours to stewarding them, and financial resources to customizing programs that can best capture your company’s voice and those of your customers.

Get outta dodge.
Do your research. Get out on the web, and wander. If you’ve been listening, you’ll start discovering the places where your customers are congregating. Set up profiles on these networks, and participate in the conversations that are happening. Visit the blogs that people are writing throughout your industry or focus area, and comment on them to share your perspective.

Your credibility once you launch social media efforts of your own will be increased exponentially if you are a valued, contributing member of the communities you wish to reach.

Invest behind the firewall.
Internal education cannot be underestimated. When done well, social media will seep into every area of your business, from the front office to production to communications and the corner suite. Take the time to educate your colleagues on why integrating these tools into the mix is important to your company.

Hear their concerns and hesitations. Tap them for a diverse and multi-faceted look at your customers through their eyes. Ask them how they think you should be better communicating with your customers online. Engaged team members are more likely to participate with enthusiasm and share their knowledge to better the company. What you learn may just surprise you.

Know what success means to you.
Goal setting and outlining objectives is a critical part of just about any aspect of business. You set budgetary goals, operational goals, production and customer service goals. You need to set social media goals, too, and they should be in terms of the quality of your customer relationships. If you cannot place a value on qualitative success metrics like customer satisfaction, loyalty, repeat business or referrals, or articulate the importance that your customers hold to you in terms other than the balance sheet, social media will only highlight that.

What’s missing? Are you embarking on a social media program? What are you examining to ensure that you’re starting off on the right foot?

Reposted from Amber Naslund of Marketing Profs Daily Fix