Using the cloud to establish a social extranet with your customers and partners

By Alan Hamilton

Using cloud technologies as a way of engaging external parties and customers is one of the ways many organizations begin down the road to cloud-enablement and social business.  In many organizations both concepts may be completely alien, but combined they present a zero-touch, high impact way to immediately start becoming transparent and engaged with your customers and nimble to their requirements.

To quote Jefffrey Gitomer, author of Social Boom and The Little Red Book of Selling:

“All things being equal, people want to do business with their friends.  All things being not so equal, people STILL want to do business with their friends.”

It’s a well-known adage that people buy from people and one of the easiest places to find new sales and new work is from existing customers.  Using social business techniques you can extend your organization right up to the web browser of your customer and involve them in your operations.  Implementing such an approach using the cloud means that you offer this in a secure, managed, reliable and neutral environment.

The advantage of solutions such as IBM’s SmartCloud for Social Business is that you can utilize the benefits of social business technologies without having to implement the infrastructure around it.  You protect your own environment from requiring external access, you provide your customers with a service level of access which you might not previously have been able to provide yourselves and, most importantly, you show that you care enough about your customer to involve them in your business processes.

Who’s who in the zoo

One simple thing you can achieve with a social business solution in the cloud is to securely make available the profiles of the staff in your organization.  Securely means that every head-hunter and recruitment agent on the planet won’t immediately start trying to lure your best hires away.  Instead, it lets you build up a capability profile more than the marketing department could cook up.  By encouraging staff to profile themselves, and each other, in your cloud Social Business solution, you customers can see beyond the resume and into what they do and what they are passionate about.

Your customers can access your staff and leverage their knowledge to get a better outcome.  This enhances your relationship with the customer.  How often have customers been tied up in your red tape, trying to get the answer to a problem when, in fact, the right expert could have solved the issue very easily?  Flattening the organization and connecting the customer with your experts turns you in to a nimble and transparent business partner.

Doing this can be a daunting step, and some organizations might be worried that they would lose business by exposing the true nature of their organization to their customers!  This highlights the primary requirement of becoming a cloud based social business – culture change.

Clouds on the horizon

But why would you seek to implement a social business solution in a cloud infrastructure?  Fundamentally the advantages of cloud computing for social business are:

  • Guaranteed availability and service
  • Disaster recovery and backup
  • Flexible access model to allow staff to access the system from anywhere

Using a private cloud solution may suit some organizations which already work with a large extended network.  Where the organization has the resources to deploy, manage and maintain a private cloud solution for social business then it certainly should.  They are likely to be cheaper in the long term to run.  Remember, however, that a system such as this becomes the lifeblood of your organization and the main artery for your customers to access the heart of your company.  If the system is down – the circulation stops.

That’s why other organizations, who perhaps lack the skills or resources to run a disaster-proof system of their own, turn to a public cloud social network solution such as IBM SmartCloud for Social Business.

Public cloud solutions are managed by the provider, have guaranteed uptimes and disaster-proofing comes with compensation agreements.

Where you have existing solutions such as email or an intranet the best-of-both-worlds solution is a hybrid social network.  You use technologies such as OAuth to manage the sign-on between the systems.  With this in place your end users move seamlessly from private cloud to public and back again without realizing it.  Your customers and partners, external to your organization, access the public part of the network without you needing to worry about them accessing your internal systems.

Changing the culture

Organizations often believe that culture change is slow, difficult and painful.  In my experience, in fact, with the proliferation of online social networks, very often the current culture of the organization is holding it back.  Organizations find that the majority of staff already participate in social networking in the cloud – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – all cloud social solutions.  It has been suggested that humans are by their nature born with an urge to help each other.  Certainly, as Prof. Andrew McAfee says “without which we would have wiped ourselves out long ago”.  If we accept then that organizations contain people who are programmed to help each other, then perhaps changing the culture to provide tools which actually allow this may not be so difficult.

Putting the Benefits Together

Using social business technologies to help you drive better sales and service outcomes is becoming common practice amongst forward-thinking organizations.  The culture change it requires is often blocked by upper management rather than a grass-roots fear of adoption.  Implementing an entirely public , private or hybrid cloud solution depends on the shape, size and resources of the organization.  A solution, however does exist which can mean that you can increase your profitability and efficiency while giving your customers something they have probably long wished you would provide.

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