If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. - Natan Sharansky
Ok, this dramatic opening for a blog post about the benefits of software but this analogy makes a point about how companies sometimes treat customers. The squares you see in old European towns surrounded by buildings housing city hall, banks, shops and restaurant make for a good model of how companies should view their customer communities.
The buildings housing institutions are like your big enterprise software packages: CRM, accounting, CMS, etc. These systems contain customer data and might allow customer interaction but they are typically closed and very controlled. The customer community is like the town square, an open public space where customers can come together and engage.
If you believe that customers are the most important company stakeholders, then your customer community should be central, in both the technological and organizational sense. A town square set outside the city walls doesn’t make much sense.
From a technology perspective, your customer community (your forum and interactions on social media) can be integrated to CRM and marketing automation and e-commerce systems to help track issues and generate sales opportunities. From an organizational perspective, the community should be seen as an enterprise-wide asset benefiting not just the customer support team but all functions that can benefit from hearing the ‘voice of the customer’.
As consumers move en masse to the open Internet, a customer community at the center of town makes good business sense.
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