Senior roles with “customer” in the title are on trend right now; a quick trawl through LinkedIn reveals there are over 28,000 chief customer officers and over 50,000 chief experience officers.
In the press, you can’t move for how-to articles on optimising the customer journey, or delivering a frictionless customer experience.
Yet for all this focus on the customer, how many companies are radically re-thinking the role of their customers beyond an essentially passive, purchasing role? Could customers play a much more active part in research and development, CSR, or customer support? Should they help the businesses to save money, solve problems, develop better products? Do they have a role in fundamentally reshaping the way a business sees itself or is valued?
MasterCard is a good example of a business that is viewing its customers in a different light. Its Launchpad initiative sees the company work with customers and partners to help them solve an ongoing issue.
MasterCard then brings in a team from its Innovation Labs to brainstorm the problem and come up with a solution and a working prototype in just one week.
Similarly DHL invites customers and business partners to specially created innovation centres in Bonn and Singapore, to explore trends and discuss specific logistics solutions in the context of fast-moving tech, cultural and social trends.
For its part, professional tool manufacturer De WALT encourages its B2B customers, who are professional tradespeople, to submit ideas for new product lines.
The company also has an insight community featuring over 10,000 end users which it uses to keep track of emerging trends and changing consumer needs.
Meanwhile Microsoft’s use of customer co-creation workshops has been credited with contributing to more user-friendly designs such as the Windows Phone 8.1’s interface which in turn helped towards a leap in brand value for the company.
Outside R&D, Microsoft customers also play a role in customer product and service support via the Microsoft Community.
There is also a move to recruit brand fans into sales and marketing efforts, such as US shoe brand Sperry’s work with amateur photographers or micro-influencers who post popular images of Sperry footwear on Instagram.
If re-thinking the role of the customer seem like a glorified PR exercise, it’s worth bearing in mind that companies with some of the highest valuations such as Airbnb, Facebook, and eBay see their customers and their businesses as interchangeable.
In the case of Facebook, the customer is the business. These “network orchestrator” businesses are essentially platforms that allow consumers to connect and sell, share and even co-create and in so doing generate value for the core operation.
One study suggested that network orchestrators on average receive valuations up to four times higher than companies with more conventional business models.
Far from being a PR stunt, giving your customers a bigger role in the organisation could change the way your company is valued.
So how should companies considering giving customers a bigger role in their organisation, proceed? There are four key questions to ask:
1. What are our business drivers?
Given the potential for customer participation to change how a business is valued, businesses need to think strategically about the overall business goals and how customers can contribute to achieving them.
This involves assessing your business drivers. As a business, what are you trying to achieve: is it to increase the top line, improve products or reduce costs?
2. How close are businesses to their customers?
For companies that regularly interact and engage with their customers through social media or other digital channels, inviting them to play a more active role in the business – in line with their business drivers – is unlikely to represent a big step either culturally or structurally.
It’s worth bearing in mind that comparatively few customers will have the time or motivation to participate. If you are already close to them, it should be relatively easy to identify the 5-10% of customers who will want to be more actively involved in the business.
Consumer forums relevant to your sector – such as MoneySavingExpert.com forums for finance brands – are a good place to start.
Businesses in sectors such as banking or airlines that have traditionally kept customers at arm’s length, will have greater barriers to overcome both in terms of internal resistance to giving customers a bigger role and in terms of bridging the gap with customers.
In these cases, it’s important to start with smaller, low risk projects such as co-creating marketing material, or joining forces on CSR efforts.
Lloyds’ Digital Ambassadors programme – where other organisations are invited to partner the bank’s efforts in improving levels of basic digital skills in the UK – is a good example here.
3. Is there a role businesses could give our customers that would benefit everyone?
It’s important to visualise in detail how your customers could contribute to different business functions. What would it look like if you were to use your customers in a sales type role, what sort of job would they do? How could they contribute to research and development?
Ensuring that customers are rewarded for or benefit from their contribution is key.
DHL’s B2B customers who take part in innovation workshops benefit from shared learning around new sector trends and access to design and innovation thinking they might not already have.
Meanwhile global software company SAP rewards developers who answer each other’s questions on its developers’ network with points that go to the developer’s company account.
Once a certain number of points has been reached, SAP makes a “generous” contribution to the charity of that company’s choice.
4. Can businesses co-create the future role of our customers with them?
Forward-facing companies who are already close to their customers, are well positioned to involve their customers in co-creating a bigger role for them within the organisation.
There are few more powerful ways of rewarding customers than not only asking them to play a role in your organisation but also inviting them to help shape that role.
Reinventing your customers’ role to make them more active participants is a big step and one that’s not without risk.
However, a combination of digitally enabled consumers who are motivated to participate, and internal business drivers, mean there is no going back.
Companies which embrace this new trend and involve customers in defining their role are likely to be more innovative and future-capable than those that don’t.
Sourced by Tuomas Syrjänen, CEO of Futurice