Having a poor website has never been excusable, if you want to have a presence online then you need to make it engaging, simple to use and easy to grok (understand). You want to have minimal barriers to conversion in your UI and you need to have easy routes to allow feedback and for your customers to talk to you.

In the past if you did screw up and disappoint a user or customer they’d generally talk to you about it through the usual channels of email or a phone call (if you’d been sensible enough to put a phone number on your website) where you could deal with the customer’s issue as best you could and at least half on your terms.

Now you’re more likely to get talked about in places where you have no control and possibly very little influence as customers vent their frustrations at a poor online experience on various social channels. A new survey by Tealeaf and Harris Interactive shows that the number of users who encounter an issue on a website and then share that experience on blogs and social networks has doubled from 6%-12% of the people they surveyed in the last year. While use of social networks as channels for letting off steam is increasing the same survey shows that the number of people who would try to contact a company through their website or call centre has dropped.

Help I hear you cry, does this mean we’re (brands) losing control of our relationship with our customers? It may well feel like it and any brand who’s experienced the power of crowd opinion on social networks when they screw up without being prepared will tell you it can be a scary experience. And preparation is what it’s all about.

Obviously you need to iron out the kinks in your web experience to try to stop complaints happening in the first place, optimise your customer care processes and make sure you have clear ways to contact you on your website.

If you really want to meet this new threat* head on and be ready to douse the flames before they get too hot, then the best way to prepare yourself for a situation like this happening is to embrace social media and make it a part of your business. Open up, interact and join the conversation so that you’re right at the hub of the discussion about your brand, ready to solve peoples problems, admit your failings and generally provide great customer service through social channels. It’s not just usability (as in making your website or product easier to use), it’s about social or brand usability (as in making your brand sociable, approachable, responsive and interactive).

*Of course this isn't a threat really. It's possibly the best opportunity you 
have ever had to really generate loyalty and brand alignment amongst your users and customers.

Altimeter Group announced an interesting fact in the last week, blogged by Charlene Li on their behalf, that their latest study shows that companies who engage more in social media perform better in the marketplace. I was drawn to this by a timely piece from Anthony Mayfield of iCrossing.

The Altimeter report finds that companies who engage and embrace social media tend to be the ones who are performing best at this moment in time. That’s great! It’s always good to be able to have cause and effect proof on company profits isn’t it?

It’s really good to look at the effect that social media may be having on performance on businesses. It gives a direct indicator of the reponse of consumers to brands that seek to engage and have a conversation with them rather than a one-way direct marketing approach.

However, where I think this falls short is in the analysis of what other activities these same brands are undertaking to ensure tighter connections with their customers and audience. If engaging in social media alone was the answer there would be much more successful major brands out there. It’s actually a question of learning to engage and communicate in the right way through whatever channel is most appropriate at that point of your customer journey. By default, a brand who has spent the time to really understand it’s customer journey and all the touchpoints along the way (no matter what channel, online and offline) is bound to benefit. Mapping out the numerous touchpoints you have with your customers and addressing each one in the most appropriate manner to optimise it and remove any pain points is the way to deal with this. That includes offline channels such as call centres and direct mail and online channels such as your website and social media.

Brands who really engage in social media are by default likely to be the same brands who really understand their customers so it’s really not at all surprising to see a correlation between social media engagement and performance. Saying that the performance boost is down to social media alone is however just not telling the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong, studies like this are important and will really help brands who haven’t yet stepped into the social media world find a reason and justification for doing so, but they really need to think cross-channel and ensure that they aren’t neglecting their whole customer base. I particularly like what Anthony calls ‘social business design’ in his post, maybe that’s a route to being really customer centric. Learning to communicate with your audience should be such a basic tenet of business but unfortunately most people just tend to broadcast in the hope that someone is listening. You’d think they’d have learnt by now?

Indeed, wouldn’t it be great if engaging in social media alone could propel your business to new heights? I think this is more about how well a company engages with it’s customers across any channel and the whole customer journey rather than just on social media.

Companies who really get being customer focused, who get the benefit of being open and honest with their audience and strive to be customer centric are most likely to also be engaged in social media. Just doing social media alone though won’t create the success the report hints at, although becoming ‘social centric’ is a good step on the way to becoming a listening, engaging, customer centric organisation. Perhaps social centric is the new customer centric?