Can You Really Let Employees Loose on Social Media?

At Mitel, the only rule for employees on social media is to use their best judgment.

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The Ontario business communications company Mitel is a $1.2 billion business, but you’re excused if you’re not familiar with it — yet!

“Although we’ve been around for 41 years, our brand is not well known,” says Martyn Etherington, the company’s chief marketing officer and chief of staff. Mitel offers services in business communications, voice-video collaborations, business phones and the like, and its website boasts, “We are the business communications experts behind 2 billion calls, chats and social messages every day.”

It has gotten big fast: In the past two years, Mitel has acquired four companies and doubled its revenues. “We want to be the consolidator versus the consolidated of our market space,” Etherington says, “but most importantly we want to grow by being relevant to our customers and the markets we serve.”

Etherington is out to boost the company’s profile. “We’re really starting to transform the brand from what was considered a very old, telephone [-oriented] PBX company to where our market is today and where our focus is — that of a customer-centric software company positioned in the cloud and contact center markets.”

In a conversation with Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and guest editor for MIT Sloan Management Review’s Social Business Big Idea Initiative, Etherington explains how he thinks social media will help the company with customer engagement, and why he considers the company’s current efforts to be “a massive trystorming exercise” with the end goal of helping Mitel understand its customers better.

Your bio says that you’re responsible for Mitel’s digital, social and mobile programs. Clearly, you’re out to move this business into the spotlight.

Absolutely. We have low brand awareness, and we have very low brand preference. That’s both a challenge and tremendous opportunity for us.

I’ve been passionate for digital for many, many years, and one of the things that I saw when I first came to Mitel was that we’re competing with the likes of Cisco and Avaya. These guys have have very, very strong brands.

I knew that with a David and Goliath story, we could punch way above our weight if we started to invest in digital and started to leverage digital and social. I wanted us to really transform the way we leverage digital and social in order to understand our customers better, provide a great customer experience and to amplify our brand message.

You’ve moved Mitel into a new direction with how employees use Twitter and other social media. Tell us about that.

In March of this year, we had probably 30 people in our company actively engaged in social in one form or another.

Also at that time, I picked up a book called The Social Employee. It was written by Cheryl Burgess and Mark Burgess. I read it in one weekend, and it resonated with me.

It’s all about social selling, prospecting, listening. It said that if we were to really transform a brand to be outside-in and put the customer at the center of our business, we’ve got to have the engagement of our employees and ensure that our employees understand and embrace that we are all stewards of our brand.

So, after I read that book, I phoned up a very good friend of mine, Jill Rowley, who was responsible for training all of the 23,000 Oracle sales reps in social media. Working with Jill, we developed and ran a series of social training sessions for our employees. We had close to 1,300 employees go through that training. Since then we have put through almost 400 of our sales personnel and 800 of our business through social training also delivered by Jill.

Are all those people now on Twitter on behalf of the company?

Yes. Fast-forward, and we’ve gone from the 30 users to 1,600 people who are actively engaged in social.

We make it very easy for our employees to use social. Whenever we put out an announcement, we put out a whole series of canned tweets that our employees can cut and paste or edit. We’ve tried to take away the fear. Our first goal towards becoming a social enterprise is to empower employee engagement, and then we would refine over time.

Our social policy is simply at all times use your best judgment. There are no other rules. We expanded that a little by saying don’t put anything on social you would not say to someone in person. Be respectful of our competitors and really focus on understanding and serving our customers better.

No other rules? That’s something I don’t usually hear. So now you’ve got over a thousand people on Twitter. How is that going?

It’s going very well. I have worked in large companies, and these companies try to do their best to inhibit and restrict employee participation in social or major brand initiatives. We, on the other hand, have tremendous faith and trust in our employees and partners to uphold our brand promise and to use their best juedgment. Instead of writing a social policy for the few who may get it wrong, we leaned toward writing a social policy for the majority. It was not without risk, but a risk I was willing to take.

Another way we have proactively engaged our employees in social is through “gamification,” a word I dislike but cannot find another well-understood term. We implemented Influitive, which is a gamification platform. We launched an internal program we called “Mitel Champions” based on this gamification platform. We issue social communications challenges for our employees, and in return those employees or Mitel Champions who publish via social or complete a challenge get points. Those points get higher the more important the message or challenge is.

We publish leader boards, and every month we have an award for the winner for that month. And guess what? Everyone wants to be on the top of the list. And in the process, we now have over 1,600 employees and partners active on our behalf in social that are amplifying our messages out to the marketplace.

What kinds of awards do people get for being on the leader board?

We wanted to make the rewards impactful and easy to administer. We use Best Buy and Amazon gift cards worth $100 — we’re not talking thousands of dollars here. What we’re finding is it’s the status of being a social maven or a person out there most active in the social environment that’s driving this. There’s also an opportunity for employees to use their points towards giving money to charity.

Here’s an example of how well it works for us. We were at a Microsoft event called the Worldwide Partner Conference where we had a very small booth. We were late to the game on this show. Microsoft is not only a competitor but represents great opportunity for us; we have great products and offerings that really integrate tightly with Microsoft Lync and Dynamics. In order to cast a larger shadow and maximize our presence at the show on a limited budget, we marshaled all of those 1,600 employees, and we leveraged the hashtags for Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference — #WPC and #Microsoft — and we ended up being in the top five social brands for that show. We did the same for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, where our business communications solutions were chosen to run this major event.

So getting people to use Twitter to send out company tweets and to use our hashtags is a way of creating engagement, but more important for us, it’s also a way of promoting and establishing us as a relevant brand. Exposure from just those two examples would have cost us millions of dollars in traditional media. Net effect was not only great brand recognition, but an engaged and informed workforce willing to proactively help promote our brand.

Just to make sure I understand: You have found this approach to be far more cost effective than, say, more traditional avenues of advertising.

Oh, absolutely. There is no way we would ever get anywhere near the amount of brand awareness from paid search for the same money …

I am very cognizant that we have been pushing messages out and [all but] broadcasting versus creating a dialogue. I am okay with that for a number of reasons. One, it’s about getting employee and partner engagement. We have that now. We recently implemented Little Bird, a social tool that has enabled us to find out who our influencers are so we can direct some of our employees and technical thought leaders to where those influencers are, for mostly listening purposes, so that we are learning more about the market and our customer’s challenges.

The big picture is that our new branding and company repositioning launched October 1st. We’re taking Mitel from its heritage of being a 41-year-old PBX telephone [-oriented] company, very old school, to a whole new brand promise built around the voice of the customer. It includes a new visual identity, a whole new logo, a whole new brand advertising campaign. And we have used this social engagement with our employees to educate them on what brand means. We coordinated our brand launch and shared brand programs with employees from around the world. Our employees have not only become our best advocates but this engagement, I firmly believe, was a major contributor to being prepared, informed and educated prior to the branch launch and culminating in a hugely successful launch.

When you say people are more engaged with your brand now, are you speaking about employees or customers?

I’m speaking of both. From an employee perspective, employees are now starting to realize that every one of them can either have a positive, neutral or negative brand interaction with their customers. They now realize that their behaviors will transfer into the minds of our customers, and that the sum total of that, those experiences, make up our brand. Plus the importance of consistently delivering our brand promise in everything we do from the physical to digital interactions.

On the customer side, we’ve been doing a lot more communications with our end-user customers. For too long, we were too reliant on our partners to be that conduit to our customers to create market pull. Eighty percent of our business comes through our partner channel. However, we abdicated any role with the end-user customer in order to create that market pull. So, what we have done in the last two years is really start to understand more to talk and educate those customers.

Our brand transformation began and ended with our customers. Our customers were part of every part of our brand repositioning process from the brand audit, to brand strategy and brand expressing. We tested and validated with customers at every step of the way. We also make sure that the end-user customer’s voice is heard on the front-end part of our innovation process. Now we use them at the front end of that process to validate that we are developing products and solutions that they need to solve their business communications challenges versus products we think up in our engineer labs.

Can you give an example of that?

Sure. We started out with a design concept, and I was at one of the “voice of the customer” groups that we’ve used to think about business phones, particularly tethering up mobile devices with our desk phones. And one customer said, “yeah, great aesthetics, but one screen on this desk phone is way too small; this is how we use it, and we don’t use a touch screen because we’ve got it at arm’s distance.” We went through almost a kind of ethnography. We actually saw our customers using it.

That hasn’t happened before. It’s those kinds of steps that will take us to being a real customer-driven, customer-centric culture. One of many stories of shifting our brand to being more customer-centric that bodes well for the future.

Are you using social to help listen to customers better? Can you give some examples of how you do that?

Let me go back a step to talk about this. One of the things I noticed when I came to Mitel was we were very much an inside-out company versus an outside-in. What I mean by that is, we would produce parts that we thought were great from our engineering function up here in Kanata, Ontario, versus really understanding the wants and needs of our customers.

So we set about changing the whole notion of our culture to being outside-in and putting the customer at the center of our business. Prior to that, we put everything else in the center of our business. We put ourselves, our channel product partners, our products and even our brand at the center of our business. I was aghast when I first turned up at Mitel that we rarely used the C word: “Customer.”

So we went back to basics to understand who our customers were, just basic marketing 101, segmentation, and from that we’ve developed a series of customer personas. Those personas are people that buy or use our equipment. They are either a technical buyer, a financial buyer, a principal CEO or an executive buyer, and a contact center manager.

We developed personas for these four types of buyers down to knowing some of their KPIs, their key performance indicators, their potential objections, where they go to consume information, who do they follow, the key words and phrases that they use when they’re embarking upon their buyers journey.

That’s helping us really understand them better, and some of that is coming from looking at how they use social media. One of the other things we’ve done is make it much more easy for our customers to contact us either via the web, social or contact centers. We had six contact centers when I first joined. We now have one. We had … a lot of 1-800 numbers, and we’re now down to a couple.

How did you find the 1,600 employees? Were they volunteers?

They were volunteers. We have been very inclusive in everything we’ve done through changing the culture to help us reposition the company and launch our new brand. We opened this up to every employee and we told them, “You’re a steward of our brand. You own our brand! Not marketing, not the leadership team, but everyone at Mitel is a steward of our brand.”

And kudos to our employees. They’re in all functions, from customer support to administrative staff. The only people I don’t see engaged are the legal people, probably for very good reasons. But other than that, we have had outstanding employee engagement.

Do employees have to do the training before they’re allowed to join this effort?

No. We prefer it, and we have developed a social primer backgrounder with self-learning content. We encourage people to read that. But we don’t force it. Again, the whole thing is we want to take away the fear. We want to enable and empower our employees and they are responding in the positive sense.

We are not IBM or Apple but certainly have aspirations to be in that class. This project has been an experience in human behavior and trust, and to date we have been proven right

How do you measure the impact of your social initiatives? I’m thinking both how do you measure it in terms of at the enterprise level, and then how do you measure it at these leader boards?

Currently not well, is probably the phrase I would say. For now, that’s okay. Again, it was all about getting engagement, first of all. What we have seen, and I think I can safely say this is a proxy for interest, we’ve seen our own social traffic to the website probably jump up about 80 or 90%. A lead indicator, and we are unable to monetize at this point, but we will get there. We measure our effectiveness in every other part of marketing, so I am okay with getting engagement first and metrics second. For now!

The other area that we have not put in place, that we will get in place 2015, is more systematic Net Promoter Score, NPS scoring. And that’s the ultimate metric or lead indicator of growth.

Can we tie our social program back to revenue? Today, no. Will we? We absolutely will do in the future. We are passionate on measuring, and yet I am contradicting myself with social, saying, “this is really about a massive trystorming exercise. We’re going to try it, we’re going to size it; if it works, we’re going to double down. If it doesn’t, we’ll cut it.”

I oftentimes get a little bit of pushback from B2B companies, saying social is really for B2C companies. Clearly, you don’t think that’s the case. Are there differences about using social in B2B versus B2C settings?

I don’t think so. I think it’s actually a major copout for my peers, and I think my peers need to actually take a leaf out of the B2C — our colleagues who I think do marketing way better than B2B marketers, period. I think really it’s about the consumer, understanding who they are, how they buy and how we serve them better than the competition

How can you abdicate mediums, mechanisms, that either make you more engaged with, more relevant to and listening to your number one consumer, your customers? I think that’s just a big copout. I would encourage them to worry less about trying to get a seat at the “leadership table” and worrying about budgets and start to become more relevant to their customers and relevant to their business. Then they will absolutely get a seat at “the table.”

That’s going to be a great sound bite. Thank you for that.

Oh, and please put my name on it, because I’ve been manifestly critical of marketers in B2B for many years, and they’re saying that they don’t get a seat at the table. It is for a good reason.

The final point I want to make is that we don’t want to be perceived as having got it all right. We’re not there yet. We’re in the infancy here, crawl, walk then run. And I don’t want to paint a picture where we’ve got total engagement. We’re in the early part of the journey. We’re practitioners, we’re learning as we’re going, and we’re experimenting. But from what I have seen, learned and experienced with our social program, we are moving in the right direction and this is really the beginning of a company on the move, #NewMitel.


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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Comment (1)
Mark Burgess

I enjoyed reading your story about the power and impact of social employees at Mitel.  Great to see that our book has had such a positive impact on Mitel's business.   As the co-author of The Social Employee, with Cheryl Burgess, we believe that our message and the success stories we wrote based on interviews with several great brands: IBM, AT&T, Dell, Cisco, Southwest and Adobe, signal a new era in employee engagement.  We call this 'branding from the inside out.'  I would like other companies who read your impressive story, to know that not only did we write the book on creating and activating social employees, but we offer the training, content marketing, and the social leadership expertise to help companies to succeed.  

Mark Burgess
President, Blue Focus Marketing
Co-Author:  The Social Employee, McGraw-Hill, 2013.  
@mnburgess   |   @SocialEmployee