In a world where social networking is key, I was glad to be involved in the Engaging Times summit in Chicago last week.

According to Engage chairman Stan Rapp, ‘today’s consumers are the most narcissistic in history. We’re all looking after brand I.’, while Don Peppers, head of Peppers & Rogers thinks that companies  should not ‘waste money on social media until your organisation can competently handle a customer phone call or email.’

The event was thought-provoking for a number of different reasons but the stand-out message is summed up nicely in these two quotes.

The first quote is a succinct observation on the fact that millions, hundreds of millions in fact, now manage our own I brand, primarily
through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

The second is a warning to those who think this funky
stuff looks ultra cool but jump straight into the deep end without
paddling through the basics first.

The link between the two is not just that they are from two of the most important thinkers in marketing in the last 25 years, it’s that those of us with I brands are all too willing to trip companies up when they let us down, don’t deliver and disappoint us.

And this negativity can be devastating. Just ask doomed UK phone and internet providers Tiscali and Talk Talk and embattled US airline SouthWest.

Here’s another poignant quote from Bob Knorpp of The Beancast: “Customers wouldn’t feel the need to embarrass us en masse, if our customer service channels weren’t so completely broken.”

The marketing buzz in the US right now is about two things: listening and engaging.

By connecting the two, businesses and organisations can respond to the conversations their current and prospective customers are having. But while that’s great in itself, the real winners are those who stepped back to build or mend the crucial first step: accepting that the world has irrevocably changed forever and that they no longer control the message.

It’s not a comfortable thing for businesses and marketers to acknowledge. But those who think they are in control are doomed.

Maggie thinks that by turning her toy steering wheel in the back seat while Marge is in the front, she is driving the car. Some marketers are labouring under the same illusion as little Maggie Simpson, and she never grows up!

The good news is that those who get it, really get it and are prepared to accept that in the act of letting go, they can win and win big.

While @ThatKevinSmith (of Jay and Silent Bob, Mallrats and Dogma fame) and his 1.6m Twitter followers are destroying SouthWest Airlines because he was too fat to fit, United Airlines are issuing bonus airmiles to passengers who Tweet about delayed flights from the departure lounge.

The thousands of employees that make up Best Buy’s Twelpforce (professional tech help in Tweet form) are answering customer service issues minute by minute under common sense and open ended guidelines.

They have wiped out Circuit City and made Radioshack a virtual irrelevance in the US and now Best Buy are in the UK: Comet, Dixons be afraid!

So whilst there are huge opportunities to grow sales, increase web traffic, develop new products, carry out research or nail your objectives whatever they are through social channels, the first place to look is your own backyard.

Are all of your customers happy all of the time? Of course not. What aren’t they happy about? Address these things first. Turn negativity to positivity without asking for proof of purchase first!

Don’t get carried away and make sure your house is in order before you dive in.

As Stan Rapp also said this week:

Doing to is bad. Doing with is good. Doing for is great.”