When David van Toor of Sage Software took over the position of senior vice president and general manager for the company’s CRM solutions in North America, he wasn’t aware he’d be taking on Amazon.com too.Van Toor found that users of the Act! by Sage product line were posting not only negative comments about the product on Amazon, but vicious ones as well, creating a domino effect among reviewers. In response, van Toor posted a note on the online shopping site, directing customers to Sage’s own Web site, which then led them to van Toor’s e-mail address.

“Whenever you have products selling online with the review section that Amazon provided, it’s only opening yourself up for public comment,” van Toor said. “You can pull your product off the site, look to legal recourse or you can say we are on the Internet to embrace this [and] we need to change how we interact with our customers.”

Choosing the latter, van Toor started to receive e-mails, averaging 10 a day, mainly from those users — surprisingly — who were spending in the $100-to-$200 range annually. “I can have a customer who spends millions of dollars with us a year. If they’ve got a problem, they’ll go through the channels of the respective process,” he explained. “A customer that spends $100 a year will have no problem at all phoning a CEO. It’s fantastic. We’ve had a very passionate dialogue.”

That passionate dialogue led to a turnaround from those Sage customers — ultimately transforming the negative commentary to a more positive experience.

“Social networking I think is challenging for business because it forces you to have one-on-one relationships with your customers whether you’re ready to or not, and if you’ve got millions of customers, that can feel quite daunting,” explained van Toor. He said that he was initially apprehensive that he would be bombarded with millions of e-mails if he posted his contact information. “There was certainly a concern, but we find it’s not really the case. It’s manageable. The fact is, if you do get millions of e-mails, that’s a message. The challenge is we need to become a different organization to respond to this one-on-one communication as it occurs.”

UNTANGLING THE WEB

Social networking may be the latest phrase buzzing through conversations these days, but be aware that it describes just one element of the socialization taking place on the Web. Interacting with sites like Amazon.com can be described as “social shopping,” according to Kira Wampler, marketing leader for Intuit’s Jumpup.com, a Web site dedicated to starting and operating a business. Social shopping is a method of e-commerce in which users communicate, aggregate and share information about products, prices and deals.

Social media, however, is illustrated in Web phenomena such as YouTube, blogs and Wikipedia, according to Wampler, while social networks come into play through platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Yahoo! Groups and Meetup, online infrastructures that facilitate discussion, can be described as “social groups.”

Eighty-seven percent of individuals in the U.S. are using social networking sites, and that number is growing, according to data in an IDC U.S. consumer online behavior study supplied by Intuit.

“Being involved and participating in these conversations isn’t something that we’ve been doing because it’s the latest trend, but we’ve been doing it because it’s really deeply important to us to listen and communicate with our customers,” Wampler said. “As the ways that our customers are communicating with each other are changing, we’re staying in line with that.”

Following that growth is Wampler and her colleague Scott Wilder, group manager for Intuit’s small business online communities. Two-and-a-half years ago, the company launched its QuickBooks online community (www.quickbooksgroup.com) and has seen subcommittees or “neighborhoods” stem out of the original site. Intuit offers other communities as well, including Intuitaccountant.com, Taxalmanac.com, SBDC Community.com (for small business development centers), Quickencommunity. com and Turbo Tax Live.

“In listening to customer calls, it was clear that our users are a wealth of knowledge and every small business is different,” Wilder said. “It’s a real challenge to address every little nuance a small business goes through. So that’s when it occurred to us that we should launch, in the QuickBooks space, an online community that was completely user-driven. Our job was to really make sure the right infrastructure was there to facilitate interaction.”

Doing that, however, is a work in progress. Like van Toor, Wilder agreed that Web sites beyond a company’s sponsorship can go two ways: They can instill fear from loss of control, or they can be seen as an opportunity to engage the customer differently.

“We realized discussion was going on beyond borders so to speak,” Wilder said. “You can either ignore that or be part of it, and I think it’s in every company’s benefit to be part of it.”

THE WATER’S FINE

Companies are not the only ones catching the social networking buzz. Slowly, CPA firms are starting to see the benefits of the social Web and how it can improve business.

Victoria Rimasse, director of marketing and business development at Eisner & Lubin LLP in New York recently surveyed firm employees about their knowledge of LinkedIn, a popular professional networking site with more than 17 million worldwide users representing 150 industries.

“It’s not surprising: The Millennials, most of them had heard of it, but not all of them have used it,” Rimasse said, adding that though the older generation was a little more resistant to embracing this new style, her goal is to combine both new and traditional methods. “Some of the responses I got to the open-ended questions were, ‘I don’t need to use social networking sites, I like to network the old-school way.’ That told me that they really didn’t understand that it’s not meant to be a replacement for, but an enhancement of, the traditional ways.”

Her firm is also dabbling in the blogosphere with Jim Rockwitz, one of the firm’s partners, who writes about his international travels. The blog has already caught on, and the goal, as Rimasse described it, is to illustrate the “balanced” executive life to the younger generation.

Networking in and of itself is challenging for accounting professionals, according to Nancy Fox, president of Fox Coaching Associates, a business, coaching and training organization specializing in generating business development for accountants, lawyers and professional service providers, but now with the popularity of the Internet, there is a whole new medium to learn, often with very little instruction.

“Right now, it’s a tool that has a lot of potential, but it takes a lot of energy and work,” Fox said. “So if you’ve got talent available to do it, that’s great, but if you don’t, it’s not an easy tool yet. When you get a whole population that can land in a site, it’s great because you know there’s a gold mine there, but how do you extract it? You have to mine it.”

New York-based Citrin Cooperman is taking a wait-and-see approach to which social networking sites will shake out within the professional arena. They’ve started their foray into the social Web by recently creating an alumni group within LinkedIn in an effort to connect the firm’s current and former employees

Since its formation in early February, more than 50 people have signed up for the group, according to Tracey Segarra, Citrin Cooperman’s director of marketing. Segarra had her own profile up on the site for about a year, reconnecting with former co-workers and friends from college when she decided to take the idea to the firm. “I just felt, wow, there’s so many people I know on LinkedIn,” she said. “It’s kind of become a business meeting place.”

For Segarra, who encouraged Citrin Cooperman alumni interested in joining to contact her, one of the benefits of the site is being able to see a person’s contacts once you become connected to them. “I firmly believe social networks are here to stay,” she said. “It’s going to be a really impressive networking tool going forward. We don’t want to be followers, we’re leaders. We know that people are on LinkedIn, people are using it and it’s becoming more and more popular. We want to be a part of it.”

Big Four firm Ernst & Young is at the forefront of the social networking endeavor via a site originally intended for college students — Facebook.

Though staff involved in the Ernst & Young Careers “profile,” which boasts more than 13,000 members, stress that the goal of the site is not recruiting, the firm’s recruiters can be found posting comments on the site, directing interested parties through the appropriate corporate channels.

“The No. 1 goal was to be able to get our message to students via a medium that they are very comfortable with,” said Dan Black, Ernst & Young’s director of campus recruiting for the Americas. “As a secondary goal, but as important as well, is to connect students who are interested in the profession with Ernst & Young and with each other. This was not intended to be a recruitment site and we have not specifically recruited candidates or hired candidates as a result of being on Facebook. However, it’s more about expanding our talent pool and our access to students, so that by the time they do get to the recruitment process they know a lot more about us.”

Facebook hosts more than 64 million users, according to statistics posted on the site, with an average of 250,000 new registrations per day since January 2007. There are more than 55,000 regional, work-related, collegiate and high school networks, and more than half of Facebook users are outside of college.

YouTube, an online video-sharing network, has been the medium of choice at the California Society of CPAs. Last spring, after the society’s Young and Emerging Professionals Conference, the staff posted a video clip from the event on YouTube. Other videos were also posted, including one called “Bring It On,” illustrating the benefits and “hipness” factor of entering into the accounting profession.

“We post a clip from the YEP Conference, and then a young professional who attended the conference says, ‘Hey, I was at this event, it was great, you should check it out,’” said Clar Rosso, division director of programs and communications for CalCPA. “That’s a real credible pitch for our conference, rather than us saying, ‘Come to our conference, it’s a great conference.’”

Since the launch, CalCPA also has created a private networking page connected to their Web site for up-and-coming professionals. With almost 100 members and growing, Rosso described the site as hosting blogs, polls, a discussion forum and links to videos. All members have profiles, and the site is directed more at those entering into the profession, rather than at a particular age demographic.

“We’ve been very careful of who we’ve let into it,” Rosso explained, adding that the society is setting up a similar page for those in the estate-planning area. “It’s meant for young and emerging professionals; not their employers, not recruiters, but the YEPs.”

Rosso said that CalCPA also is exploring different arenas as well: They are listed on Wikipedia and intend to venture into Facebook. New technology, she said, is rapidly changing the way state societies can do business.

“Traditionally, we engaged members by attracting them to live events,” Rosso said. “We now understand that while live meetings are still tremendously important, people can, and in many cases prefer to, interact with other professionals virtually, as it provides them access to a much broader cross-section of professionals. This really opens up the doors for us. By leveraging online meetings and professional networking platforms, we’re going to be able to engage a greater diversity of CPAs compared to before. It’s going to be significant.”

NAVIGATING THE WAVES

Today, the Ernst & Young Careers Facebook page is bustling with young people’s energy and activity. But initially, coordinators of the site were questioned by students, who told them that the platform might not be the appropriate place for a corporation.

“The way I like to say it is, we were in their space, we are going to play by their rules,” Black said. “It’s still up there today, you will find our policy with respect to student profiles, and that is, we are not interested at all in looking at their profiles or in any way using them as part of the recruitment process. Once the students started to believe that, we’ve seen what has really transformed to what we have today, which is a really open forum where students can get and give information from a very credible source — each other.”

This virtually “hands-off” strategy is one that works for Intuit as well, but as the Internet’s popularity has increased, the company’s employees were curious about how best to interact with customers online. As a result, Intuit created an internal training program that taught employees how to think about navigating the web.

Employees were taught a series of guidelines, which included looking at the company’s own community Web sites and being aware of the different ways to participate, whether it was through blogging or responding to a post; and learning about legal issues surrounding product information and promotions, as well as privacy and the reality that’s it’s not a good idea for an employee to put their cell phone number online for customer support.

“Whenever you’re out there, indicate who you are,” Wilder said, referring to transparency during the interaction. “I think it’s really important when you speak to somebody on the Web you let them know who you represent.”

Encouraging customer intimacy is just one of the reasons why Sage’s van Toor launched an Act! online community site in late January.

While he admits that his issue with Amazon was one factor, it was by far not the most important, he maintains. He said that he found that Act! users have “overall passion that was completely un-channeled,” and a willingness among those customers to engage with each other.

“The only real publicly available content about the opinion of customers about the product was mainly negative, not because that was the overall mood of the customers, but because the nature of some sites, such as Amazon, did not encourage positive exchange of ideas,” explained van Toor, adding that the site logged more than 1,200 registered members at the end of its first week, with approximately 800 messages from customers. “The anonymous nature of those sites also gave rise to concerns about who was actually posting that I had no way of answering. Better to let the customers tell me of any concerns directly.”

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access