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Customer communities: A two-way street

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25th Jun 2007
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By Matt Henkes, staff writer

Companies are beginning to wake up to the fact that their customer base has a lot more to offer than just the ability to consume products and services. Customer communities are now being milked for ideas and feedback by a number of forward thinking firms who have found that the benefits are numerous.

John Drummond, chief executive of corporate social responsibility consultancy Corporate Culture, is among those who believe more firms should take sit up and take notice of this trend, soaking up product development suggestions from the people who know best: the customers; treating them as a sprawling, unpaid brainstorming machine.

"Customers are coming up with new product ideas and technology is enabling them to connect in a way that previously was not happening,” he says. "Increasingly, companies are going to have to involve and engage customers in a way that gives them much more control within a framework."

There is a certain beauty in the thought of selling customers’ ideas back to them, though the benefits extend beyond this pleasing irony. Nurturing a close relationship with your customers and making them feel like a valued part of the creative process should increase their levels of brand loyalty as well as, ultimately, providing a greater understanding of what their needs are. The cost of product development and level of market research required decreases, while the breadth of available ideas and suggestions increases. Everyone, it would seem, is a winner.

"Increasingly, companies are going to have to involve and engage customers in a way that gives them much more control within a framework." John Drummond, chief executive, Corporate Culture

Communities in action

In 2002, "following a growing demand from clients", IDS Scheer France, supplier of the ARIS business process platform software, gathered a number of its clients together to form Club Utilisateurs ARIS. Initial members included its larger customers such as Air France and Sagem, and the aim was an exchange of ideas and suggestions regarding the ARIS product.

Participants seemed to appreciate the opportunity to converse with other users and IDS found that the club generated useful feedback in terms of product improvement requests from club members. "No doubt that some key evolutions of the latest software version are due in a good part to official demands sent by the French User Group," it says.

Now in its sixth year, the club’s recent annual conference at the Paris Stock Exchange was attended by around 160 delegates. Air France executive Christian Duparcq says that everyone – customer and provider – is better off. "While the users are interested to state their demands and learn about new developments, the providers also benefit," he explains. "The demands of the users show them what future demands should be covered and thus hint at their own strategic planning and vision for the market."

Phil Rothwell, MD of internet software firm Actinic, has been putting his customer community to good use for years. From the beginning, he says, it was important to channel customer feedback into both product development and improved customer service.

Five years ago Actinic set up an online customer forum to actively farm feedback and reduce some of the load on its technical support team. On a good day, the site receives over 100 posts, with employees actively monitoring and trying to respond to any technical queries that don’t otherwise get an answer. But as well as being an important resource for users, it also reduces the load on the support team. "It is very important to us that we maintain it well," says Rothwell.

Technical questions regarding Actinic products are often posed and answered by customers on the forum. "Some of our users and many of our partners have more hands-on experience with our products than we do," he adds. "A number of them are very active on the forum, answering questions and posing useful hints and tips. For example, there are two threads explaining how to use Google Analytics with different versions of our products, both posted by customers."

"The most amazing thing is that people are getting involved and collaborating with us and with each other in a very active way. It’s like a two way street. In that respect, I think it’s a great benefit for us because it’s making our customers happier with our tools." Eduardo Martinez, manager of field engineering, Empirix

It takes two

US web performance management firm Empirix set up their online customer community QAZone in February to ‘encourage the exchange of ideas’ among experts in their field and was immediately surprised by the level of participation. The company had a number of different information sources it wished to centralise in a manner that its customers would find easy to access. The result was a hosted platform that required just two people to act as moderators. The forum has now snowballed, with around 20,000 users.

Eduardo Martinez, manager of field engineering at Empirix, says the system was more or less designed by the customer for the customer, as their feedback played a key role in its implementation. "I would advise anyone thinking of implementing something similar to listen to your customers first and foremost," he says. "Ask them what they want from a forum like this."

Something that Empirix forum users have found particularly pleasing is the fact that specialists and technical support people are constantly responding to their product enquiries. In fact, Empirix employees have begun to use the forum internally to communicate and discuss ideas with each other.

Martinez, who was instrumental in the site’s implementation, highlights that his firm has received a massive number of messages from customers expressing their happiness that a forum for their industry has finally been established. "They tell us it’s setting us apart from our competitors," he says.

"The most amazing thing is that people are getting involved and collaborating with us and with each other in a very active way. It’s like a two way street. In that respect, I think it’s a great benefit for us because it’s making our customers happier with our tools."

Rothwell agrees that the provision of a forum has resulted in happier, more loyal customers. Concerns are occasionally posted about different aspects of their products – for instance, a number of customers have suggested that as the product has become more sophisticated, it has become more difficult to use. But even the negative can be turned to a positive. "This, along with input from other sources, has led us to put a major effort into improving usability for the next release of the software," he says.

Read more features, practical case studies and white papers about voice of the customer.

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