As the CEO of Leader Networks, Vanessa DiMauro is a social business expert focusing on B2B. She recently spoke with us about B2B and social media, and how to leverage both.

What led you to found Leader Networks?

I started Leader Networks in 2006 in response to two market forces – the emerging use of online social tools for business and the need to bring business rigor and scalable best practices to those social applications. Back then, the social web was just starting to be viewed as an important business capability, but organizations were struggling – and still struggle – to understand how best to use these new tools. I had a deep background in developing online communities of practice – what we now call social business networks – as well as consulting expertise from my years at Cambridge Technology Partners, understanding the importance of strong business processes, ROI measures and change management. I saw my passion for social business and consulting could serve this emerging market need by helping leading firms understand and optimize their use of social tools for customer and business benefit.

Why is B2B such an important sector right now?

B2B has always been an important sector of the market! I love working with B2B firms because building deep relationships with customers, partners, suppliers and employees is crucial to their success. That’s what social business success is all about – using the digital environment to help organizations get closer to their stakeholders. B2B organizations take a very strategic approach to the work they do and tend to be more skilled at long-range planning, which is core to the success of social business.

What are some misconceptions about B2B that you see online?

From the outside, some people don’t understand how exciting B2B really is. The media tend to focus on consumer-facing brands when they evangelize social media, and they also like to tell stories about jazzy social campaigns because they draw readers. However, amazing and powerful social business transformations happen frequently in B2B – I would say even more frequently than with B2C – but they are not always showcased to the public because they are so strategic to the organization. Some B2B firms may hesitate to share their social insights with competitors.

How is the social nature of the internet changing business? Are there subtle things happening that we might be missing?

The social business era has empowered individual customers – consumers and businesses – as never before. They have a voice and aren’t passive recipients of products, services and one-way messaging any more. Customers are demanding greater intimacy with the firms they trust, to drop the veil, raise the shades, get close and personal, have a real conversation. Sadly, many customers get no response, no invitation, no further discussion. Many companies simply don’t know how to build a relationship with the people who matter most – their best, most engaged customers. Social business gives firms a better opportunity to learn what customers really want and need from the organization.

What do you see as the future of B2B? How is technology going to change it?

Companies often get confused about social customer care because their business was built on the high-touch model. When they seek to supplement their customer care program with online, they think it’s a technology project. It’s not. It’s creating a relationship channel. To understand what that means, let’s climb into the “way back” machine and examine another kind of relationship channel and a simpler kind of sale – a peddler, his horse and cart – to explore what social customer care means.

In those far-away times, the peddler who drove his horse and cart from neighborhood to neighborhood learned about individual buyers and developed a genuine interest in his customers. He learned about them as people, about their lives and businesses and families, so he could serve them better. Mrs. Smith was expecting guests next week, so he needed to have party goods for sale. Mrs. Donovan was not feeling well, so ingredients for a remedy or a balm might be helpful. Our peddler might even know that Mr. Tracy across town was looking for someone like Mrs. Lamberti’s husband, a man with specific skills and his own tools.

The peddler created both a commercial and a social relationship with his customers. They looked forward to his visit each week. He had what they wanted, and the interactions were usually pleasant and sometimes very valuable – just ask Mrs. Lamberti! Many a grandparent has waxed poetic about these good old days, believing they are gone forever. But they are not. Today’s social customer care strategies offer a tremendous opportunity to re-introduce these values and use digital tools to provide better customer care, building relationships that lead to stronger customer loyalty, increased purchases and higher profits.

Creating social customer care requires both a change in mindset and in day-to-day operations. Business processes such as product fulfillment and customer service may need modifications to be more responsive to new customers – and newly-empowered staff. The power of new technologies will enable more dynamic, interactive approaches, encouraging repeat sales and cross-selling along with a broader landscape of relationship and support opportunities. This will also require new levels of rapid, efficient response.

Social business tools such as online communities, social media, collaboration platforms and in-depth customer analytics can help accomplish these goals. But it will take knowledgeable staff – real people – to carry out these tasks and move customer care relationships forward.

If you could go back to 2006 and tell yourself one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Buckle your seatbelt, it’s going to be a wild ride! As social was just starting to take root – people were just getting comfortable with having a website back then – it was hard to predict how fast (and awkwardly) the industry would change. It has taken a wandering path; first there was the tool obsession, then everyone used social tools to shout their messages at prospects and customers, then measuring all the wrong metrics in an effort to justify expenditures. Now the industry is beginning to use good business sense, with an eye to the importance of strategy, planning and alignment with operations. My view is that social business must be carefully integrated into the fabric of the business, not just a slap-dash marketing campaign run by interns.

For more insights from Vanessa and the Leader Networks team, follow them on LinkedIn!