Amid Digital Disruption, Brands Need to 'Hire' Their Customers

Five Reasons Why Brands Need to Collaborate More Closely with Customers

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A decade ago, research from Bain & Co. pointed to a customer experience chasm: 80% of companies thought they were delivering a superior customer experience, yet only 8% of customers agreed. Today, the gap remains. A new IBM/Econsultancy study reveals that 80% of consumers believe the average brand doesn't get them as individuals.

It's clear -- businesses haven't changed much in the past few decades, and they need to. Amid digitized disruption, competitive pressures, quarterly reporting, data overload and the constant flux of customers' needs and wants, some may argue that change is too threatening, too costly or too difficult. But those that conduct business as usual will be relegated to the irrelevance zone, unable to make necessary and authentic changes quickly enough to survive and thrive. So, what's a company to do?

Essentially, "hire" your customers. Make them part of your team. Move beyond capturing their feedback and promising better service in return. Beyond evaluating the business through the customer "lens," bring them inside your company walls and partner with them, treating them as ongoing strategic business consultants. They don't demand an annual salary or performance bonuses. All they ask for is what they already have -- an inherent interest in getting the best product, service or experience possible.

Here are five reasons why you need to collaborate more closely with your customers to drive innovation:

1. They're expert consultants

Nobody knows your brand better than your customers. Whether designing or refining a new product or experience, working with customers from the beginning -- and over the long-term -- guarantees a detailed roadmap of their needs and a compass to navigate it at every turn.

A good example is National Car Rental (a Communispace client). Before acting on decisions directly affecting customers, the company consults with a community of Emerald Club loyalty program members. A user-friendly mobile app, new perks for Emerald Club members and better communications that streamline the car-rental process are just a few of the many services customers helped National ideate, design and implement. This consultative partnership has upgraded National to a customer experience leader in an industry not typically lauded for customer love.

2. They're creative innovators

As companies struggle to operate at the dizzying pace of global volatility, a vacuum-sealed, insular approach to innovation creates nothing but inertia. For large companies, competing with smaller, more agile startups like Airbnb demands fresh ideas, broader perspectives and a steady stream of customer ingenuity. MIT's Eric Von Hippel put it best: "Consumers themselves are a major source of product innovations."

For example, product innovators at Lego tap into Lego Ideas -- an online forum where people unleash their design skills and submit original Lego set concepts -- forging one-on-one customer engagement, not to mention actual sales.

3. They're change agents

Customers will never let you get too comfortable. They'll always push you to evolve. Tangibly folding customers' voices into an organization is the most powerful and effective way to prime a company for making necessary changes, fast and with minimal risk.

Consider the urgency for change in the context of Generation Z. At 2 billion strong worldwide, Gen Zers (basically anyone born after 1995) are a new, confident customer breed changing at a rate faster than any of their predecessors. For brands, it's wise to get to know -- and change -- with them.

4. They're hard workers

Customers will do amazing things for a brand if there is trust and if they see the value in it for themselves. I love the story of Madeline Messer, a precocious 12-year-old who inspired change in mobile gaming after she noticed -- and proved through her own research -- that most mobile games unfairly make users pay-to-play as a female character. When the makers of Temple Run and even Disney read her op-ed in The Washington Post, they dropped the charges for female characters.

5. They're powerful ralliers

Organizations -- especially big ones -- are inherently siloed. But customers aren't. Sharing what customers have to say with every department, at every level, creates empathy, facilitates buy-in, and gets people to start thinking, and acting, differently.

One-off engagements, rapid feedback and social "listening" from respondents who have no vested interest in -- or commitment to -- the outcome will perpetuate stagnation in business. But if you have ongoing relationships with your customers -- digitally or in-person -- they will work even harder for you to make your brand better, more relevant and more resilient. If you "hire" your customers as strategic partners, they will give you access to their entire lives, not just the moments where your brand intersects. A culture rooted in customer inspiration is the company that grows -- quickly and confidently -- with customers by its side.

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