Remove the Barriers to Customer Participation
Wouldn't you like customers who are so keen on your products and services that they not only pay for them, but also actively work to improve their experience with your company? Customers who cheerfully contribute to your company's success? Customers who actively participate in managing their relationship with you? All this is possible. A key to active customer participation lies in removing the barriers that prevent customer participation, and one important method to do so is to break apart your company's infrastructure.
By breaking apart I don't mean divesting assets. The business, organizational, and technological infrastructure that supports your business can be broken apart in specific ways to accomplish specific customer-oriented goals.
Authority and Trust
To build trust, look for ways to break up the old structures of authority. Some hospitals and doctors did exactly that to rebuild the bonds of trust that had been frayed in our era of managed health care. They established a trusted third party: ethics boards, which included members of the medical community, specialists in ethics, and community representatives. As patients and their families gained a more active role in deciding ethical issues, hospitals and doctors began to regain patient trust.
Businesses can build trust by delegating as much authority as possible to their customers. When I ship a valuable package I use a package delivery service, because it lets me log in to my account at any time and see the tracking information. I trust the company to deliver the package, at least in part, because it has given me the authority to check up on my deliveries to help manage my logistics. Large customers can integrate their internal software with the delivery company's software, which goes even farther in sharing authority over how deliveries work.
Mechanics and Flexibility
Careful attention to mechanical, electrical, and software design gives customers flexibility that helps make their interaction with your company easier to manage. A good everyday example comes from leading edge Web portals like Google and Yahoo!, which offer personal pages for their customers. The portals carefully break apart the infrastructure that supports these personal pages into small, flexible modules. Yahoo!, for example, allows users to customize almost everything they see, from news sources to a page's color scheme. As a result, customers can get exactly the information they need; and they can improve, on their own initiative, how they experience a Web site.
Space and Time--and Convenience
If you abolish existing relationships of space and time, you can offer tremendous convenience to your customers.
Financial institutions, probably more than any other business, continue to implement new ways to break the relationships of space and time. Their most visible success was the ATM, which freed banks from the confines of their building and put bank functions onto street corners around the world, without the restrictions of bankers' hours. Now banks have seized on the World Wide Web to push bank functions into homes and offices--and online check writing means that a function that was once carried out solely with ink and paper in the customers' checkbook has become a customer-bank interaction. Account information that was once grudgingly released on a monthly basis is now available 24 hours a day. Customers can actively manage the flow of cash between accounts and track the progress of loan applications.
Ownership: A Culture of Sharing
Some companies are in a truly enviable position: They have hundreds of talented engineers working around the globe. The engineers make improvements, test software products in a wide variety of different environments, and fix problems. And the best part is that the companies don't even pay these engineers; as far as the companies are concerned these engineers work for free--well, actually, it's even better. These hardworking engineers are actually paying customers
Sounds like a sweet deal, right? These companies decided to break the bonds of ownership; they share, to a greater or lesser extent, the secrets of their software by making the source code available as open source software. The result has been quite remarkable, because the move freed their customers--engineers--to not just find and report problems, but also to fix problems and offer improvements, something engineers love to do. By breaking the bonds of ownership, open source companies gain something more precious than ownership--sharing, plus improved products and loyal customers.
The bottom line is, by breaking your infrastructure apart along the lines of authority, mechanics, space and time, and ownership, you can increase customer involvement in managing the company-customer relationship.
About the Author
Moshe Yudkowsky, president of consulting firm Disaggregate, is the author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions
(Berrett Koehler, 2005), has 20 years' experience in creating high-technology products and is the author of several patents. He is chair of the Midwest Speech Technology Association, has worked at Bell Laboratories, and was a senior system architect at Dialogic and at Intel. He received his Ph.D. in condensed matter physics from Northwestern University. Dr. Yudkwosky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org