The opening story in my business-to-business chapter will be about IBM and how over 1000 of its 370,000 or its employees in about 150 countries are tweeting to get closer with customers and each other. The story that will follow it is the case of @UnitedLinen, a regional professional uniform and linen laundry service located in Bartlesville Okla., a town located northeast of Tulsa, not far from the Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas borders. It's population is less than one-tenth the number of IBM's employees.
United Linen was founded during tougher times than these. Gerald Saddoris started in back in 1936, during the Great Depression when Oklahoma was extremely hard hit. He and his wife started taking in laundry from neighbors to get by. Today United Linen is owned and operated by Mat Saddoris, grandnephew to the founder. They have about 140 employees and clean about 15 million pounds of napkins, tablecloths, uniforms and even welcome mats each year. Many of the senior team members started at entry level jobs. The bookkeeper began press shorts. Scott Townsend, the marketing director interview here, began as a route driver.
The company blog is filled with little nuggets such as, if you laid all the napkins the company launders in a single day end-to-end, they would stretch for 24 miles. There are videos on how to fold table napkins into swans, crowns and lilies.
What I think makes this interview not just interest, but valuable is this. If a little regional professional laundry service can benefit from using Twitter, than a great number of companies who do not quite see it, are likely to get there.
1. In so many ways, United Linen is an old-fashioned, family-owned Heartlands business. How, when and why did you choose to use social media?
There is one word that comes to mind when trying to answer your question: “relationships.” Among the many qualities I can point to that have served us well through the last 73 years, developing strong relationships with our customer is one of our strongest attributes. We see social media as a great way to supplement the relationships our customer service reps [CSRs] already enjoy.
We started looking at social media tools several years ago. Once we decided that we wanted to enhance the relationships our CSRs had with their customers, then we started looking for ways to do that. We started listening to podcasts, watching videos, sitting in on webinars and reading marketing books. Along the way, we kept hearing the message about old marketing practices being a monologue and new marketing practices being a dialog. I have to hand it to our President/Owner of United Linen Mat Saddoris and Catherine Smith, VP of Sales/Service/Marketing for allowing the company to explore all the new possibilities in marketing, try new things and make some mistakes.
One of the first things we did was explore Twitter to post the scores of the local baseball team we sponsored. But our cellphone provider did not support the short code necessary to post Twitter messages. So that didn’t work-- but the idea stayed with us.
Next, we started looking at blogging and created the one you see today.
We also looked at social networking sites such as LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook. Ultimately we started with Facebook because it fit our personality and the numbers pointed to the demographics we wanted to reach.We also developed a Youtube channel and a Viddler account because of the “show and tell” aspect.
We also realized it was important for us to start using and protecting our brand name before someone else grabbed it. . I know of an instance where local business was locked out of using their name in Facebook or MySpace because someone else had started a “fan” page using the business’s name. [NOTE: There are worse cases. In Twitterville, I'll discuss Mayo Clinic whose name was poached on MySpace and the logo tweaked to show someone being executed in an electric chair]
Another reason we looked at social media was, we realized what helped us reach our customers today, will not necessarily be what helps us reach our customers--and our customers reach us--tomorrow. OK, so we’ve been in business for 73 years. The question we need to ask ourselves is where will we be in another 73 years? We have to keep up-to-date with our marketing efforts to stay relevant in our marketplace.
2. Has your thinking about Twitter changed or evolved since you first started using it? How so?
When I first heard about Twitter two years ago, I thought it sounded cool from a geeky perspective, but couldn’t imagine how we could use it. Who cared what we were doing?! Then the idea for sending baseball scores came up and we started to see how we might be able to use this microblogging tool to the benefit or our customers and our community. We’ve gone from thinking “Why should we Twitter?” to “What should we Twitter?”
3. How do you coordinate your blog with your Twitter account? How is Twitter different in your experience from the blog? What other social media platforms do you use or have considered using?
We try to use one in conjunction with the other. What I’ll usually do is write a post and then send a tweet about the blog post or something about it that I hope the reader will find interesting. I read somewhere that Twitter is like a fast moving stream of information that flows by. I see a blog as a something much slower and deeper.
4. Has Twitter changed United Linen? How so?
Twitter has helped United Linen gain tremendous exposure. Because of Twitter, we have made some great contacts and have followers from all over the country.
Twitter has helped change United Linen because of the people we follow. There have been countless times I’ve read a tweet pointing to article or blog post that I’ll then go read and learn from. And because of that, Twitter, I guess you could say, has helped shape the way we market to our customers because of what we have learned from other marketers posting on Twitter. Twitter is a great educational tool. If you want to learn more about marketing, start following some marketing professionals. If you want to learn more about stay-at-home moms, start following them…you get my point.
5. United Linen is privately held, but it posts its monthly P&L for employees to see and this of course means it gets around. What was the thinking behind doing that? Do you think United Linen's culture of transparency had something to do with blogging and Twittering?
We work at being transparent. That’s one of our core values. And so it just seemed natural that we let our employees know what’s going on from a corporate and bottom-line perspective. They work hard to improve the P+L every day so why not let them see what the score is. And you are right, the desire to be transparent and authentic helped us decide to start a blog and send out tweets to our customer, followers and fans. Using social media is a way to increase the opportunity for a conversation to take place between us and our customers and fans.
Twitter and all the other tools we use help United Linen be more proactive. For example, with the most recent ice storm, because of the channels we have to our customers, we were able to:
- Be transparent. We let customers known that there would be a problem with getting to them with their deliveries and that there would be delays due to the hazardous road conditions.
- Be proactive. We put a plan in place to reach our customers as soon and as safely as possible. Then we posted what that plan looked like through our website, our blog and our Facebook page. We tweeted the delivery updates and we called and/or left messages for all of our customers.
This is a great example of using all the social media and networking tools in concert with each other to affect a positive customer experience.
7. How is tweeting for a regional businesses services company different than a global company, or a consumer sales organization?
A global consumer sales organization can have customers anywhere in the world. Then you have a regional business such as United Linen where our geographic footprint is defined by a specific service area.
In our case, we serve all the major markets in Oklahoma, NW Arkansas and SE Kansas. Although Twitter is far-reaching, we started using it so we could get a feel on how to use it and develop an understanding of its potential. Now we are working on letting our customer base know we are on Twitter, that we have a Facebook page and that we have a blog, etc. Over the next year I see more and more opportunities for us to hear from our customers through these various channels as well as our customers finding out about our products and services through Twitter and other social media outlets.
8. What advice do you have for a B2B company considering Twitter?
Start off nice and easy, but start. Just a couple of suggestions:
- Start following some people on Twitter based on your profession or area of business. Follow other B2B Twitterers.
- Read an article on using Twitter. There are numerous articles so just Google the topic and you’ll find plenty.
- Contribute to the education of others. Don’t just lurk or limit your posts to your “sale of the day”.
- Once comfortable, integrate Twitter into your marketing strategy.
9. Can you tell me a great story that happened at r because of @United Linen?
Two great stories…one is of a guy, Joseph Zuccaro of the Marketing Consigliere blog. We had been using Twitter for some time and one day he calls me up and tells me he appointed United Linen as the B2B Twitterer of the Year through his blog. That was crazy, but fun. We were just doing what any other self-respecting B2B twitterer would be doing, but he felt compelled to choose us. He did tell me not to expect any cash or prizes. I kidded him and told him I was expecting an interview on Good Morning America.
The other story is this interview. If it wasn’t for Twitter, we probably would never have had the chance to be a part of a cool project like Twitterville. I’m not even sure how you found us, but one day I’m getting a tweet from Shel Israel asking us if we would be willing to talk about our experiences with Twitter from a B2B standpoint. It was at that moment that I was shaking my head and thinking “WOW! Shel Israel of Naked Conversations, wants to include us in this major, major topic. That’s blowing my mind, man!!” That’s a great story.
10. Additional comments?
Twitter is a great way for companies to listen to their customers. It’s not just about sending a tweet to your customers to let them know what you are doing. It’s also about increasing your ability to hear what your customers are already saying and giving them another opportunity to tell you what’s going on with your products and service.