Here we are in 2010, looking back on the first full decade of the new millennium and facing business and technology challenges that were science fiction when I started working for the family business in the early 1970s. Looking back, almost 40 years later, I recognize that my father's obsession with customer satisfaction was driven by his intuitive understanding that "reputation is everything." A Yellow Pages advertisement (in a giant, softbound directory made with real paper) was a necessity for people to find your business, but a strong, customer-focused reputation, passed along through word-of-mouth, the core concept of social networking, was and remains the key to success.

At one point, I took on a second job delivering pizza for a small parlor in the Chicago area. Charlie, the deeply-accented, swarthy owner and master baker, pulled me aside one day when business was slow. In his clipped, Italian accent, he said to me, "No matter what you put on someone's pizza, if you no put it on enough or use the cheap stuff, or you get it to them cold because your delivery guy can no find their house, you gonna lose that customer and all their friends because people are gonna say to each another, 'That Charlie, he make a lousy, cold pizza,' and they no call anymore."

For Charlie, and for my dad, channel management was a fairly simple and one-dimensional task: Focus on each individual customer to manage the message as it spreads across their social and business networks. Their networks were relatively small, and they interacted personally with each patron, so channel management and damage control were fairly simple processes. Good word spread quickly through the small business community, and a disappointed customer could easily be turned into a happy asset with the right pitch, a well-placed concession and a firm handshake.

For today's businesses, social networking is only one part of a complex channel management strategy, but it is one that no business can afford to neglect. Social networks as a viable business channel are here to stay. A quick search on Facebook reveals a "who's who" of large businesses: Dominos, McDonalds, Walmart and Coca-Cola, to name a few. More and more companies are getting on board with Facebook, Twitter and other business-focused networking services like LinkedIn and Plaxo. Each of these sites has the requisite discussion channel, where the value — and the danger — lies. Companies can get a snapshot of consumer opinion instantly, and consumers can share those opinions faster and more effectively than ever before. Where my father and Charlie could manage each customer individually, a social networking presence enables a vast, international customer base to interact almost instantly. Without careful monitoring and management, unfavorable discussion threads can quickly become damaging to reputation and revenue.

While the illusion of a virtual corporate community can present a positive, customer-focused impression on consumers, a mismanaged or unmanaged presence could wreak havoc on a business. Dedicated resources to update and maintain the corporate presence are essential, but consideration needs to be given to additional skilled resources to identify trends and feedback, interact with the consumers and tactfully monitor and manage the discussion.

My dad and Charlie understood the impact that the word-of-mouth channel had on their businesses, and they did an admirable job of managing it with the tools available to them. In 2010, we have massive social networks, enabling instant communication and feedback and impacting revenue for business entities at every level. Yet, despite all that, the basic tenet that my dad and Charlie espoused still rings true: "Reputation is everything."

DAVID MARTINA [] is the vice president of systems integration for NEPS, LLC of Salem, New Hampshire, a firm that provides solutions for the automation of document-intensive business processes.


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