• March 1, 2007
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

Community Activism

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It seems like everyone in the industry is all over the customer experience like white on rice, like a junk yard dog, like a cheap suit. Of course, there's nothing wrong with caring about the customer experience, as long as an enterprise does it well. However, too many industry pros are throwing around customer experience as lingo these days without backing it up by offering process solutions. Three strategies that address winning customers are product enhancement, product line extension, and good old marketing. They all have one thing in common with the customer experience: None of them can be done particularly well without first asking customers what they think, feel, like--and hate. Using the phrase customer experience is just a ploy in an ever-escalating gambit to win customers and their money, and it's not even the only good one. There are loads of competitive products and services in the market today, and vendors are having trouble creating the necessary differentiation between themselves and the competition on product features and functions. At this point price is the lever that many vendors pull, but doing that--especially if everyone else does--erodes a market and initiates a race to the bottom, where most companies crash. The survivor gets to take over a marketplace in which customers have been trained to expect everything for nothing. The big trick is to get CRM out of its silos and make it more relevant to customers. So, create a customer experience as a means of differentiating your company's offerings from others by getting a feel for the real world. My favorite idea is the customer community--a great improvement over one-off surveys and focus groups that borrows heavily from social networking. Start an authentic dialogue with a customer--there are millions of them out there, and there are very good tools on the market and ideas about how to use them that take the risk out of listening to a customer. Three unique characteristics enable communities to provide valuable feedback to companies and to deliver innovative ideas: trust, freely revealed ideas, and authentic communication. Trust is provided by a secure, democratic online forum where between 300 and 500 customers get to know each other and the company well, and have the ability to initiate and respond to communication around the clock. A trusting community encourages members to talk about perceptions and needs, and to float creative ideas and solutions. Authentic communication is bidirectional--it involves equal parts listening and talking. This is delivered when sponsoring companies acknowledge both the good and the bad that customers want to disclose and demonstrate they will act on the ideas generated. I have seen the power that an online community has to provide important feedback to the sponsoring organization in a variety of areas including finance, manufacturing, consumer goods, and food products. Perhaps the best part of this approach is its immediacy. Rather than waiting for weeks or months for a survey to be completed or to consolidate the findings of a focus group, a community can provide near-real-time customer input. Most important, like everything else that happens on the Internet, a community is nearly frictionless, meaning that the costs associated with asking customers what they think have never been lower. Everyone likes to be listened to, and that in itself is enough to start you on the road to a positive customer experience. The customer community is how you do it. Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.
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