Newswise — AMES, Iowa – Networking with clients over dinner and drinks or out on the golf course is not an option for many companies during the pandemic. A new Iowa State University study illustrates how businesses can still maintain and build those relationships using online social networks.

Raj Agnihotri, Dean's Fellow in Marketing in ISU’s Ivy College of Business, says the concept is not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more relevant. Agnihotri works with businesses as director of the Ivy Sales Forum and says many are looking for guidance in the world of social networking.

“The single most critical question businesses have from a revenue perspective is – how do we maintain relationships with our existing customers or how do we reach new customers in this new world,” Agnihotri said. “For years, they have conducted business with a good old handshake, but now there’s a new way with likes and comments. Things have changed.”

In a paper, published by the journal Decision Sciences, Agnihotri and Patricia Daugherty, Debbie and Jerry Ivy Chair in Business, along with colleagues at Monash University, Louisiana State University and State University of New York, examined how employees in frontline sales or service roles use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to develop and maintain social capital.

Agnihotri says the research provides three cautionary notes for businesses:

  • Time management is key. Time employees spend on social media must be focused on customer relationships and not items of personal interest.
  • Managers need to trust employees and not watch their online activity minute-by-minute.
  • Being responsive is critical when customers post a comment or question. If businesses do not intend to respond, they should reconsider using social networks.

While the study did not focus on establishing social media boundaries, Agnihotri says an innovative work environment is vital. “It’s very hard to impose strict guidelines for social media,” he said. “Companies need to provide training and a support structure for employees to properly, ethically use social media.”

The researchers say the need to grow social networks is not specific to any one area, but really a business-wide issue. Daugherty says expectations of business clients have changed and the immediacy of social networks is critical.

“Business customers' expectations have escalated in recent years. They expect even more in the current pandemic situation,” Daugherty said. “Updates and information related to orders – including potential delays or substitutions – are essential to supporting supply chain operations. Immediate communication allows customers to adjust plans as necessary.”

Sudha Mani, Monash University in Australia; Nawar N. Chaker, Louisiana State University; and Prabakar Kothandaraman, State University of New York, all contributed to this research.

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