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3 Customer Engagement Lessons From the Holidays That Apply All Year Round It's not more important than ever to stay on top of customer complaints, which can quickly sink a business.

By Susan Ganeshan Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Creating a positive customer experience is paramount for small businesses and startups trying to differentiate themselves from the competition. The good news is that, in today's age of social media, businesses hear from their customers almost constantly, and this constant feedback presents an opportunity for a company to continuously engage with customers and improve the experience it offers. Then again, that's also bad news, as unhappy customers have the power to destroy a brand, large or small.

So how can a small business use engagement to build a strong brand, make customers smile and keep business growing? One great showcase of missteps and successes in this arena is the holiday shopping season, as it's unsurprisingly one of the most active times of the year for customer engagement and feedback.

Related: The 3 Biggest Sins of Customer Engagement

In fact, parsing Twitter and Facebook data from the most recent holiday shopping period sheds light on some valuable customer engagement tips that all businesses should apply year round to better engage with customers.

1. Get, and stay, integrated

This past holiday season, social-media channels lit up with complaints about product availability and frustration when shoppers were unable to apply discounts and coupons to items. One big-box retailer saw a 78 percent increase in product availability mentions compared to all brands on Black Friday, along with a 71 percent increase compared to historical percentages.

Of course, no company sets out to disappoint customers or falsely advertise products. Instead, the issue usually stems from a lack of internal communication caused by untimely data integration and sharing. Integrating a variety of data sources can help make sure different teams, such as marketing and in-store staff, are on the same page with regards to availability. Additionally, focusing on real-time updates also helps staff guide customers more accurately.

Small businesses often have an advantage in this case, as integration and communication are easier with fewer teams and data. Use that to your advantage!

Related: Why Customer Engagement Is the Future of Ecommerce

2. Always show you're listening

On top of having problems around availability, numerous brands didn't address these issues when customers complained. One retailer reached back out to less than 4 percent of the customers who were having trouble shopping and verbalizing it online. On the flipside, another retailer with website issues replied to 90 percent of the online customer complaints and engaged shoppers in conversations to guide their next best action.

When things go wrong, listening is often all it takes to get a brand back on track. Nearly half of people with bad experiences will return to do business if the company simply demonstrates it listens. That's why ignoring comments and social interactions is detrimental to a brand, and why, year round, brands must ensure there is a process in place for responding to every email and social interaction.

Taking it a step further, the savviest businesses actually prioritize the order of responses based on details such as customer influence and loyalty-program status.

3. Don't forget the basics

Last but not least, the holiday season showed us that brands can't forget the importance of face-to-face customer engagement -- it's still the cornerstone of business success. Costco, for instance, scored very high sentiment for employee attitude, helpfulness and overall quality. It's no surprise then that the retailer boasts a churn rate 56 percent lower than average.

The lesson here is clear: While being responsive to customer feedback from social media has become increasingly important for all brands, it doesn't take away from the need for friendly, properly trained, well-educated staff to help your customers along their journey. Social media should serve as one of the tools to better see where customers need help or where your staff is falling short, but it shouldn't replace the human aspect of customer engagement. If it does, your company is the one that will likely be replaced.

Related: Make a New Year's Resolution to Humanize Your Marketing for 2015

Susan Ganeshan

Chief Marketing Officer of Clarabridge

Susan Ganeshan is the chief marketing officer of Clarabridge in Reston, Va. As leader of the Clarabridge marketing team, Ganeshan defines the brand and enables both Clarabridge and its partners to promote and deliver on the promise of customer centricity. During her 25 year career, she has held diverse roles including content marketing, product marketing, lead generation, event management, product management, engineering, quality assurance, implementation consulting, training, and sales support with organizations such as newBrandAnalytics, webMethods and Software AG.

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