Since founding the Tampa-based transportation and logistics company, BlueGrace Logistics, three years ago, Bobby Harris has made Twitter an integral factor in his firm’s interactions with customers and vendors. In fact, Harris has become such an ardent social media evangelist that he now conducts frequent Twitter “boot camp” sessions for his staff and has also given numerous speeches discussing best practices for businesses using social media. Recently, Harris talked with business writer Iris Dorbian about how small businesses (which account for 50 percent of his clientele) can leverage Twitter to improve ROI. The secret, he says, is treating every customer, prospect, and employee like a human being—not a disembodied dollar sign.
ID: What propelled you to use Twitter at the ground level of your business?
BH: We bring in a lot of people who are real go-getters and found that they were gravitating to social media quite a bit. We weren’t intimidated by it at all because we saw its value on many fronts. We adopted it very early on.
ID: How do you use it specifically in your business? Do you use it to build brand equity, drive sales, increase ROI, etc.?
BH: A lot of business owners will first say, “What’s in it for me?” They’ll think it’s good for SEO or that customers will only engage with them because they see them on Twitter. But that’s not how to go about it—although you do get more online visibility with Twitter. That’s the secondary effect. The primary effect is that it’s a great way to connect with your entire culture, which includes customers and especially employees and vendors.
For instance, I have about 140 [employees] here. I started as a small business and now we’re much bigger. Early on, everybody knew everybody because there were 10 people working here. But when you get this big, you can’t do that. So what happens now is that I can get onto my Twitter feed and check what’s going on with everybody’s life in just five minutes. I’ll see that Sally’s son hit a home run and Tim’s dad is going to go into surgery tomorrow. It starts a very interesting dynamic where people are much closer.
Conversely, they can know a little more about me as a CEO. Sometimes you’re behind a door and it’s very hard to do that because you don’t have time for everybody or you’re traveling a lot. But with Twitter, they know where I am. We all know each other a lot more. And if you get a customer on Twitter and you engage them through social media, you don’t lose them. There are statistics that will prove that with the customers [you cultivate] on social media, you have a much higher satisfaction and success rate with them.
ID: Do you have an example of that?
BH: Our single largest client is very engaged with us on Twitter. He knows everybody here and most of them know him. And he directs the business of the largest account we have! His being on Twitter helps us understand what he needs and what he’s doing. We even know where he’s at and what’s going on with his week. It’s a way to bring the world a lot closer to you.
BH: We absolutely do. Sometimes we promote various sports events or contests or we’ll use Twitter to put out information about our latest technology. A lot of times we’ll get people who’ll engage with us on that. We’ll also get customers who’ll call and say, “I was looking for a freight company to get some shipping done and I came across you on Twitter. How do I set up an account?”
But I don’t believe you get there until you start generating content and creating the culture and making sure that everyone in your company is engaged because you need a lot of interaction to make that happen. But when you do, it’s extremely powerful.
ID: How do you determine if Twitter is right for your small business?
BH: It’s pretty much across the board that it’s going to be good for your business—I don’t care what industry you’re in or what size your business. The other thing you have to remember is you also follow your own market. So it’s an information source. If you’re a cleaning company, what you’re going to want to know in your local market is news, such as what your competitors, customers, prospective customers, and vendors are doing. With us, we’re very tied to the shipping industry so we know what’s going on with diesel fuel in parts of the country and in the world as well as the new legislation that’s going to affect us. There’s no way [that being on Twitter] is not going to help you improve your business.
The other thing is that it takes very little time. It streamlines your world because you’re going to be looking for data. If you’re a small business and you choose not to be in social media, that doesn’t mean a disgruntled customer won’t be talking about you. But by going on Twitter, you can monitor the conversation about your company, respond to complaints, and engage with customers.
ID: Based on your experience and insight, what best practices should small business owners employ when using Twitter to drive sales, increase ROI, etc?
BH: Number one: don’t be restrictive and govern what your people tweet to a large extent. You have to embrace it. Don’t fear it. Number two: it’s not a marketing function; it’s a company function. If you [assign it] to just one marketing person, it will fail. You can have someone lead or champion it, but everybody needs to be involved. And number three: be social. It’s social media. Step out of your comfort zone and let others know you. People do business with people.
ID: And what should they not do?
BH: Constantly throw sales pitches out. People like to buy but no one likes to be sold to. Nobody likes spam on Twitter. And if you think maybe it’s spam, it’s spam.