In Search Of Social Business Excellence

Vala Afshar, chief customer officer of Enterasys Networks, celebrates his firm's social business success story, from Chatter to Twitter, in "The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence."
The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
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As chief customer officer of Enterasys Networks, Vala Afshar embraced social collaboration within his business before he was ever tempted by public social media.

As a shop, Enterasys was an early adopter of Salesforce's Chatter social collaboration tool, which Afshar came to see as a key enabler for making customer service everyone's job within the company. He also used Chatter to evangelize his ideas about management and how to win against better-known networking equipment companies such as Cisco. However, he was surprised to get a notification one day that appeared to come from a Twitter account in his name, @ValaAfshar. He knew that had to be spam because he wasn't on Twitter. Instead, it turned out his CIO had created an account in his name without asking.

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"He pulled up an IT dashboard and showed that half the company was following me," Afshar recalled in an interview. "Vala, I don't even find you interesting, he told me." But something was working. "I was sharing just as aggressively as I do on Twitter, things that I read. He said, give me 30 days and take some fraction of what you post on Chatter and tweet it."

Afshar complied as an experiment, "and then one day Tom Peters responds to something I said, and I just about fell out of my chair. I'd read In Search of Excellence in grad school. I started to realize this was a way to connect with analysts and thought leaders, folks I so admire. By the end of that month, I was hooked."

In The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence, co-authored with Enterasys VP of quality and engineering operations Brad Martin, Afshar tells the story of why Enterasys embraced the concept of social business and how it has made the company more competitive. The book really is an extended case study on one company's experience, although it contains some passing references to the successes of other firms such as IBM.

"We're not analysts, not pundits," Afshar said. "But we've leveraged technology in a way to help our business grow, where success has come from culture, people, process and technology."

Afshar and Martin try to derive some general principles from their experience. In one case, I thought they pushed this too far. A claim to fame for the Chatter implementation at Enterasys is that it's also used for some machine-to-machine communications, allowing network devices to phone home to the manufacturer. Enterasys has automated the process of creating support cases in, where appropriate, Afshar explains, so the software can "parse the chat, look at the serial number and the MAC address, and then chat back to the customer, 'your fan just failed – here's the Fedex number to get a replacement.' "

That kind of proactive technical support, combined with Chatter-based person-to-person connections with customers, are making a real competitive difference for Enterasys, Afshar said. "Our number-one method of understanding the delivery of service and an optimal experience is social."

The part I thought was a stretch was the book's assertion that you can't be a social network without the sort of machine-to-machine connection Enterasys uses. Can a machine-to-machine application really be considered "social," regardless of its integration with social software? Having smarter network devices talking amongst themselves in the background might make for smarter social networks, but to my mind there's nothing social about it until people get involved. And I can't see that machine-to-machine communications will be as important for every company as for Enterasys.

That quibble aside, there is plenty here for other companies to learn from. In general, Afshar and Martin argue social business is less about technology than adopting a new mindset about how to use the technologies that are available today.

"I don't think it's a technology play," Afshar said. "To me, social collaboration is a mindset. I look at our company, and it's a vibrant community where the lines of business are blurred." He talks about technical support and customer support "migrating from a department to a process," where it becomes everyone's responsibility.

The pattern of engagement with customers through social media is not as prevalent yet among business-to-business organizations as business-to-consumer ones, but "ultimately it's not BtoB or BtoC but PtoP" -- person-to-person, he said. "You need to customize content and service with the right context. That's what Radian6 [the social media monitoring tool] brings to you." Tight integration between Chatter and Salesforce CRM has also served the company well, supporting automated alerts to managers on events related to large sales opportunities.

Although the internal and external uses of social media are different, they are also part of something larger, Afshar said. "If you can delight your internal customers, you're well on your way to delighting your external customers."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)