Recently, one of our customers made a difficult change to their business model. Despite being strategically sound, the transition drew criticism from both customers and industry observers, whose comments made their way into industry blogs and news sites.
Sounds like a bad situation. It could have been, but this company had built a strong community of engaged customers through its forums, blog and social media.
Instead of issuing a carefully drafted statement, we saw open and honest dialog between customers (customer-to-customer) and between customers and employees. Thanks to their commitment to engagement and transparency, the company was able to address a few misconceptions and expand on the logic behind their decision, to the satisfaction of most of their clients.
In this case, the effort put into community building paid a big dividend. Today, successful businesses understand the benefits of nurturing their customer communities. But it wasn’t always so.
The Faceless Corporation No Longer
How would this have played out ten years ago? A press release, some negative headlines and a bunch of unhappy customers who felt their only recourse against the faceless corporation was to vote with their wallets and find another vendor.
As business managers, we are often faced with difficult decisions that will upset some of our customers. This could be a price increase, the killing off of a product line, or perhaps even just bad news, such as a missed deadline or product defect.
So how can an engaged customer community help implement change?
Better Decision Making
Understanding your customers and what they value about your product helps you make better decisions in the first place. Tapping into the constant feedback provided by customers through community is like participating in a Vulcan mind meld; providing an almost telepathic link between the customer and business managers. Alright, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but it definitely gives you a unique and intimate approach to exchanging thoughts.
Many years ago I worked at a B2B software company with hundreds of thousands of customers. As senior product manager, I received a surprisingly small amount of customer feedback; only that which eventually bubbled up through our support and sales teams. We had to resort to a massive annual customer survey which took about 300 person hours to parse and then countless hours performing callbacks to customers who requested follow up.
I’m not discounting the value of surveys; I’m saying that there’s a faster, more transparent way of hearing what’s on the minds and hearts of your customers.
Better yet, it lets you tell your customers what’s on your heart and mind.
A Platform to Explain Yourself
Your community is a gathering place for customers, but it’s also your soapbox. This is especially true of the owned and branded parts of your community: the blog and forums. This is where you can have those long-format, back and forth conversations that aren’t possible through press articles or 140 character messages.
Take advantage of the opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with your customers. There’s no better way to create a brand advocate that will defend your product or service to the end.
That said, it all depends on the nature of the dialogue. One thing to consider ahead of time is how much discussion to allow. Letting it go on endlessly is probably not a good idea, but disabling comments and ignoring forum threads on the topic shows a lack of compassion. So consider your options on a case by case basis.
When Google shut down its popular RSS reader, it was communicated via a bullet point in a blog post that itemized a bunch of services being turned off. It was authored by a Google SVP who was too important, no doubt, to engage with lowly users about his decision. At least, that’s how he appeared.
Don’t be that Google SVP. Treat your community with respect and they will return the favor, hopefully when you need it most.
A Helping Hand from Customer Advocates
It’s amazing how the atmosphere surrounding a customer complaint changes when other customers get involved. It’s just like in real life: when a disgruntled customer realizes they’re in a social setting, they suddenly become more considerate and rational.
Not everyone embraces change easily. Even we aren’t immune to it: we experience it first hand whenever one of our new customers sets up Vanilla to replace an older legacy platform. In just about any case of transition you can imagine, there will always be an anti-change minority that complains loudly about even the smallest modifications.
If you’ve done your legwork and established solid relationships with many of your customers, however, you needn’t be in a constant state of defense. Simply head off these rabble rousers with some of your top customer advocates before even making a public announcement.
If you make your case clearly, and early, they’ll have your back.
But to do this successfully, you must commit to your community. Remember, a customer community is a strategic asset when embraced by the entire organization. Delivering a product or service must therefore be a collaborative effort, with transparency creating trust. Then success will become a mutual objective.