Three smiling people stand in a hardware/home improvement store. The woman on the left holds a tablet, which the man and woman on the right examine..
Customer engagement is no longer as easy as approaching shoppers in a brick-and-mortar store. Digital engagement is a must in an increasingly online market. — Getty Images/Hispanolistic

Customer engagement for small merchants often meant interacting face-to-face. But in the new reality of social distancing, customer engagement has become much more difficult—and important. Accenture found that each year, American businesses lose $1.6 trillion due to poor customer service.

Now that customer engagement is primarily online, many business owners recognize the need for a more robust strategy for providing an excellent customer experience, virtually. CO一 spoke to D'Shawn Russell, CEO of Southern Elegance Candle Company in North Carolina. Russell and her team increased their sales from $20,000 to $30,000 a month to well over $100,000 a month simply by engaging with people on social media. Here’s how she did it—and how you can replicate her success at your business.

Get the right tools

To start, Russell and her team systemized their approach to customer engagement by implementing Buffer, a social media management tool. Before Buffer, the team worked ad hoc across numerous social media platforms, including Facebook (both a Facebook Business page and a Facebook Group), Twitter and Instagram. “We would go to each channel to post and to try to answer questions,” said Russell.

Mike Eckstein, Product Marketer at Buffer, says this somewhat scattershot approach is one of the biggest mistakes that small business owners make when trying to engage customers online.

“Small business owners have a lot on the go, so it’s common for us to see them posting only when they have time, maybe sending out a flurry of posts over one or two days, instead of posting consistently over time and building up trust with their audience,” said Eckstein.

Adding a tool like Buffer, Hubspot or Hootsuite can help streamline all your social media posts and comments into one platform, giving your team a way to respond to feedback and questions easily. Integrate a tool like Shop Grid or Linktree to make it easy for followers to get from your Instagram page to your online store—and boost sales.

Respond regularly and consistently

Before you launch a new content strategy, make sure you’re getting engagement basics right—and start by responding to every customer. “We respond to every comment and DM. This has dramatically improved the engagement of our posts,” said Russell. “I think this is the most important change we made to increase our engagement.”

Eckstein agrees. “We know a lot of small business owners have a lot on the go and comments on social media can often go unanswered; however, that is a huge missed opportunity,” he said. “Every comment is an opportunity to build a relationship that could ultimately turn into a sale. If someone is willing to take the time to engage with your content, they’ll be delighted to get a response.”

Bottom line: Dedicate time each day to check your social media feeds, respond to direct messages and engage in the comments.

[Read more: Managing Online Reviews: How to Handle Customer Feedback]

Be authentic and human

There are many big companies that rely on algorithms to respond to customer feedback on social media. This can feel impersonal at best; at worst, the algorithm can misunderstand a customer’s comment and create a public relations nightmare for bigger brands.

Russell’s customers have said they value her team’s personal touch. “In this digital age of chatbots and robocalls, the human touch of having a thoughtful response to their comments is often rare. This sets us apart from other companies with canned responses that are often automated,” she said.

Rather than create a formal customer service script, stick to a few guidelines and let your personality shine through.

“Don’t worry about sounding overly professional to the point of looking like a robot runs your social media accounts,” said Eckstein. “Speak on social media in your authentic voice as though you were speaking to a customer who is sitting right in front of you.”

Mix up your content

After Russell and her team mastered responding to comments, she started to build out a more thoughtful and engaging content strategy. “We try to focus on content that is informative and engaging. We mix that with sales and call-to-action posts to ensure a variety of content,” said Russell.

“We also use contests, quizzes and polls to get our followers’ opinions on new product development and special requests. We also really try to encourage engagement by promoting our discounts, loyalty points, memberships, giveaways and more.”

Adding quizzes and polls to your Instagram Stories or Facebook posts, as well as giveaways (that adhere to platform rules) are great ways to encourage more engagement. Mixing up your content keeps customers coming back for more.

Eckstein recommends featuring customers in your posts as much as possible. “Share user-generated content, which is just content that your audience takes with your product or store that you can repost (with permission),” he said. “This kind of content is coming from existing customers and will be wonderful for speaking to potential customers as well.”

As you expand the type of content that you’re posting, make sure to pay attention to metrics to see what’s working. Comments and clicks to your website are more important to growing sales than likes. Experimenting with different strategies will help you optimize your social media content to improve your sales.

[Read more: 6 Tools for Selling on Social Media]

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