Sherri Maxson

Title: Head of social business
Company: W. W. Grainger
Size: $16.75bn market capitalisation; 23,700 employees

HUB AND SPOKE: How a business-to-business company got social

Sherri Maxson heads social business at W. W. Grainger. But when she joined the Chicago-based supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products in January 2013, she faced an interesting challenge.

How would social tools and principles born from the consumer web apply in a company that provides other businesses with such everyday products as janitorial supplies, teabags and toilet paper? “When you think about doing social for this brand, that was my first question,” she said in a webinar last year. “Can I do this, and how can I do it for B2B? Is it really different?”

Ms Maxson, who is 49, came early to the social revolution. “For me, it started in 2005 and 2006, when blogging was a new medium for companies,” she says. She had built her career on being Internet savvy, first building websites for fine art photographers and then moving into digital marketing. “I came to life when the Internet was born,” she said at a conference a few years ago.

It soon became clear that the practice of social business in a business-to-business environment is not so different from the business-to-consumer world. In both contexts, “it’s about relationships”, Ms Maxson says.

So she set about establishing relationships at Grainger, creating a “hub-and-spoke” model for social business that would help Grainger stay in touch with what customers were saying and respond to them in a timely manner. Her team is the hub and monitors networks such as Facebook and Twitter and shares customer concerns and issues with the relevant departments—spokes like marketing, corporate communications and customer service—using monthly “listening reports” and social technologies.

“My team resides in the centre and provides all the training and technology for social business.”

Today, many companies have an internal network, where employees communicate with one another, and use external networks like Facebook and Twitter to interact with customers. But Ms Maxson says that a more mature social business combines the two. This integration allows employees to interact with customers and use customer input to improve the company’s products and services—all to the ultimate benefit of customers.

“Very few companies are in the converged state,” Ms Maxson says. “It requires the right kind of culture. Companies have to be ready for that.”

Ms Maxson thinks that more companies will become social businesses as they begin to better understand the importance of customer input for business success. She cautions, however, that companies cannot listen to social media and ignore all else. To be truly useful, material gleaned from social networks must be filtered and compared with more traditional data such as consumer research.

“Social is just one customer signal,” Ms Maxson explains. “It’s important to take that data and marry it with other data.”

Putting the customer at the centre is still the key to success; in the 21st century, this requires listening to them on social networks. “My goal is helping companies understand the value of social media and how it can help your business.”




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