I can understand why outsourcing is as popular as it is among business owners. When done right, outsourcing can cut costs, help complete projects faster and even potentially level the playing field between SMBs and larger enterprise competitors. I get all that.
But what I don't understand is this: Why, in the era of the social Web, a company would outsource the management of its Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other online community to someone outside the organization. For e-commerce companies, specifically, which now rely on Facebook as a fast-growing sales portal, outsourcing the moderation of online communities is a colossal mistake.
The days of simply selling are shrinking in the rearview mirror. I'm not telling you anything new when I say companies need to engage in a two-way dialogue with customers. The digital revolution has caused a dramatic shift in consumer behavior. Customers now have access to more product and company data than ever before, and not only are they consumers of that information, they're also sources. Success in social media depends on authenticity. In parallel, success in e-commerce depends on trust and strong customer service, among other things. Hiring someone to serve as your proxy is not only lazy, it's inauthentic and potentially dangerous to your bottom line.
Think about it: When you have an outsider handling your @reply tweets, your status updates or product comments, you're essentially putting a rent-a-moderator in front of what may be your most crucial customer touch point. This person is speaking on behalf of your company, but no matter how good they may be they can't offer the same experience your in-house employees would provide.
You may be thinking, "People have been outsourcing call center operations for ages and that seems to be working just fine." Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but the customer expectation of an online interaction vs. a telephone interaction is very different. For better or worse, we've come to expect fairly poor service via the telephone (which shouldn't be the case given the immediacy and intimacy of the human voice). Online, though, we expect a higher level of service. Customers tend to be dissatisfied with the phone experience; why would we want to turn them off to another channel in the same way?
What happens if a customer asks a question in a tweet that your rent-a-moderator can't answer correctly, completely or quickly? What happens when a golden nugget of insight is shared through a customer exchange and this is completely lost on the rent-a-moderator? Your customer service reputation has taken a hit and your product marketing team might miss out on a key ingredient for market success.
Let's go back to the authenticity issue for a moment. Most likely, if you've hired an outside moderator to monitor your online communities, you don't want them to speak as candidly with customers as you might. Your fans and followers want you to be honest and forthright; the social media era demands it. But if you allow your rent-a-moderator to be completely honest, you're probably not going to like everything he/she will say. There's no happy medium here.
My advice? Keep it simple and keep your social media interactions in-house. Connect with your customers on a personal level and don't hire outside help to handle it. Think about it this way: Would you trust a hospital that brought a doctor in off the street to perform an operation on you? Would you accept a marriage proposal from your spouse's best friend because they were too busy to be there themselves? Speaking for myself, the answer is a big "No."
This isn't rocket science: Hire the right people and train your employees appropriately. Remember you are first and foremost accountable to employees and customers, and responsible for setting the tone for your online community experience. Be helpful, be engaging and, above all, be honest. Your customers -- and your business -- deserve nothing less.
Alex Blum is CEO of KickApps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.