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Employees and even executives sometimes start to think about their customers with an "us vs. them" mentality, particularly in times of stress—during, say, the busy holiday season or when a customer has a complaint. That's a dangerous mindset, especially if it becomes habitual.

Competitive advantage these days demands customer-centricity. The more customers your organizations can engage meaningfully—especially those who care enough to tell you how to do things better—the better off you'll be.

social media, where you can see eye to eye and develop interactive relationships, is a terrific venue for doing that. And if you use it not just to engage but also to empower, you'll transform a customer from someone who likes your product to someone who feels like a part of your product.

That's an important shift, because the latter customer is the one who is far more likely to find every opportunity to tell people, online and off, why they think what you do is so great.

An example: Dell has a social feature called IdeaStorm, where customers can submit ideas to improve the company's products or services and vote on the ideas of others. The best ideas get implemented. A user named "Jervis961" was a prolific contributor over the years. As he wrote in his user profile, "I am a tech-aholic who spends way too much time online drooling over new tech while also complaining about how it could be improved." By 2011, he had become the top contributor on the site, and the company hired him to run it.

Here are my six best tips to empower customers and cultivate brand ambassadors:

1. Have real and personalized conversations

People are on social media to express themselves, make friends, and get attention. You can cover all three by just talking with and listening to your customers. But you need real, trained moderators, not automated systems. People don't like being managed by algorithms. They want to express themselves to you, make friends with you, get attention from you. Simple conversations that acknowledge people and address them the same way you would in-person are what build relationships—and, in turn, loyalty and sales.

2. Ask questions

Whenever you can, let customers feed your content and drive its direction, keeping the brand's priorities in mind, of course. Asking questions encourages dialogue; talking at customers gets you nowhere in social media.

3. Make it clear you take suggestions seriously

Customers don't expect you to be able to move mountains, but they want to know that you're listening and that you're going to try to implement some of their suggestions. Be clear about what you can and can't do, and hold your company accountable to any promises it makes.

4. Offer direct access

Consider offering engaged fans and followers direct access to a range of people in the organization. Doing so personalizes the brand for potential ambassadors and lets them know their contributions are valued. It's also a terrific chance for people in operational roles to get some interaction with the frontline. Imagine how you would feel if you submitted a suggestion or even a complaint to a company and got a call back from the CEO or even a VP. That's a story that gets told on Facebook pages, around the watercooler, and at the family dinner table.

Your customers are also interested in meeting the people behind the scenes. Who designed that product? Who thought of those ads? The more such connections you can help them make, the more customers think of you as real people they have relationships with, and not just another faceless company.

5. Give them responsibilities and recognition

Recognize a dedicated fan's contribution by giving that person official responsibilities or recognition, such as a featured blog post or links to their sites and pages. Find something that helps fans to build reputations that serve their broader goals.

6. Offer rewards

It is worth spending money on engaged customers who care. If treating them like VIPs turns them into active brand ambassadors, it becomes an investment with great returns. The best rewards, though, aren't even about money. They are about acknowledgement and appreciation. Often, featuring a customer on your page means more and goes farther than cash.

* * *

Meaningful relationships are two-way, and that means constantly looking for ways to improve your customers' lives. The most direct way to do that is to constantly improve on your product or service. With the help of social media, your customer can serve as your smartest consultant.

Key takeaways:

  • Use social media to create personal relationships with customers—for their benefit and for the organization's.
  • Commit to listening and taking meaningful actions in response to customer suggestions and complaints.
  • Create direct access to involve customers "behind the scenes"; when they become part of the process, they are empowered and become enthusiastic brand ambassadors.
  • Find ways for customers to contribute, then reward those contributions with recognition and status.

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Six Tips to Get Your Customers Talking About Your Brand at the Dinner Table

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image of Peter Friedman

Peter Friedman is the founder, chairman, and CEO of LiveWorld, a trusted social media partner to some of the world's largest brands. He is the author of The CMO's Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World.

Twitter: @PeterFriedman

LinkedIn: Peter Friedman