Now don’t get paranoid, but as you sit there reading this, someone, somewhere in the world is probably talking about you. If you are in business – and particularly if you run a big business – there’s little doubt that people are mentioning your name, or your products, in pubs, clubs, hotel lobbies, airport lounges and on social networking sites. Indeed, it has always been the case; people talk about businesses behind their backs.

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A few years ago that didn’t matter too much. Half a dozen people criticising one of your products in an isolated pub in the middle of the Mendips was not going to make a major difference to your bottom line. But now, those six people are extending their conversation from the pub to the likes of Facebook, or to review sites that exist for almost every sector. Instead of people talking about you behind your back and having little impact on you, they are now talking behind your back in conversation with millions of people. And that can be damaging.

A new study from customer experience specialists Tealeaf shows that 56% of people avoid companies if they read negative information about them on social networking sites. And 74% of people say that what they read in social networking sites influences their likelihood of doing business with an organisation.

In other words, the pub chat that might have influenced a handful of people and turned them against you, is now taking place in the full glare of the Internet spotlights and reaching millions as a result. The impact on your sales potential is enormous.

If you ignore this – or don’t even know what people are saying about you – then you can’t react or change things. Monitoring what people say about you is now essential. Indeed, even if you don’t sell stuff online, even if your business does not have a website (half of British businesses don’t) people will still talk about you and will affect your sales. You need to listen to what they are saying.

In the past you couldn’t do this – unless you had spies in every pub in the land. But it wasn’t that important then because the impact was minimal. Now, thanks to review sites and social networks, the impact is potentially catastrophic. If you don’t listen to the chatter, your business could be harmed before you even know it. So important is online listening that Kodak is seeking a “Chief Listening Officer”. How important is listening in your business?

Far too many companies that I meet don’t listen. Indeed, I was with a bunch of senior executives today who all worked for medium sized firms. They agreed they needed to know more about their customers; they felt they didn’t know enough about them. Actually, the information they need is available, it’s just that like many other businesses they are not listening hard enough.

So, how much time do you devote to listening to what your customers and potential customers are saying about you and your marketplace? Monitoring the discussions on social networks is a good place to start – plus it will help you deal with any negatives so that you can minimise the impact of those negative comments and reviews. Saying you don’t have time to listen like this is not an option any more. It’s essential to the future of your business.

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