Marks & Spencer is starting to engage with its customers online, analysing their feedback to help make commercial decisions. Joanna Perry finds out what this insight is teaching it

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Marks & Spencer has always had a reputation for listening to customer feedback; it is famous for its Women’s Institute customer panels.

But the web provides an alternative public platform for consumers to air opinions and vent frustrations, and the retailer is taking notice. Sienne Veit, who works in ecommerce development for M&S, says the retailer’s social media journey began with looking at how it could recognise consumers in communities on the web.

Conversations on the web

Before social media, customers would phone M&S, or email and write to executive chairman Sir Stuart Rose. Many now have their conversations on the web. This had been happening away from M&S’s site and Veit says it decided it wanted a more direct relationship.

“We started with product reviews to bring conversations onto our website,” says Veit, explaining that reviews are just part of the conversation M&S wants to have with customers over the web.

The retailer is analysing reviews about its top 10 returned products for clues as to what it is that makes customers bring them back. Veit says it is hard to measure the value of this, but it is intuitively clear that there is a value.

M&S has a weekly report on product reviews and trend reporting that feeds into trading and merchandising meetings. Veit says the retailer is not far off delivering this kind of insight to staff at head office as a matter of course.

To take it further on its journey, M&S worked with digital marketing agency iCrossing, which conducted a social media audit on its behalf. This happened at an interesting time for M&S. One finding was about the Busts 4 Justice online campaign to end the price difference between different sized bras. Veit says it is clear that this would have been raised between individual customers and staff members, but the social media spotlight showed it was a wider issue. The result was that M&S scrapped differential pricing and launched a “We boobed” campaign apologising to customers.

Expect to be surprised

Antony Mayfield, global head of social media at iCrossing, adds that if there is one thing social media has changed, it is that companies expect to be surprised by what it shows. He says this makes people more willing to admit they don’t know what customers think, rather than be caught out.

Marks & Spencer has 90,000 followers on Facebook, and it has asked them what they think of the new version of the website that it launched in mid-October. Responses are flooding in from what Veit describes as “a live community of people who want to have a conversation with us”.

“We are moving into a phase of constant listening,” she adds. “We used iGoogle at first, and set up alerts.”

Now M&S has moved on and is looking to measure sentiment, allow response where appropriate and let comments by customers be managed and escalated.

About 50 M&S staff have been signed to a key stakeholder group. Two people are dedicated to social media and they escalate issues to departments such as customer service. Centralising social media with the key stakeholders is being done because M&S recognises it can’t sit within marketing or customer services. Different questions need responses from different people in the organisation.

When M&S has thought about whether it should bring in people for social media, or train existing staff with new skills, it has come to the conclusion that as “this is how everyone interacts now”, this is how it needs to do business, concludes Veit.