Making Your Customers Your Partners

When businesses connect their employees with customers, partners and other external stakeholders, they accelerate their business with many-to-many conversations. But what happens when we start doing work together, not just talking about it? We’d be leaving money on the table if we don’t; in fact, this collaborative opportunity was quantified by McKinsey as 1.3 Trillion dollars. What does it look like when a business works together with its community  to create products, go-to-market strategies, content and marketing?

Something happened the other day in our customer community, which is an example of such collaboration and a direct result of a participatory relationship. It started when a customer posted a link to this McKinsey article on Leadership 2.0. This happens often in our community, because the environment allows participants’ minds to wander, explore the bigger picture, question and challenge the status quo. This post prompted an interesting discussion across several participants, around the role of leadership and culture in a social organization, and whether this sweeping change is a revolution (which is what it often feels like) or a more subtle and graduate evolution. As a “host,” our role in this conversation was to draw people in, ask questions and promote deeper thinking. Customer and thought leader Simon Terry posted some brilliant thoughts that I thought merited a public blogpost (I’m hoping that he will write a book one day! :).  After a few simple messages back and forth, he created this post. The whole thing took just a couple of days and one revision.

Why does this matter? This very simple act is actually more profound than it seems on the surface, as it manifests a shift in action, marked by a shift in thinking. To the participants it felt really natural; however, it can be anything but natural if you don’t think of your customers this way. Working this way requires a fundamental shift in how companies view their external stakeholders and a comfort with ambiguity, unstructured thought and action. Your customers and partners are no longer idle consumers of your information; rather, they are active participants in the future of your field and your company’s role as part of this future.

In the above example, the conversation didn’t start with the purpose of creating a piece of content. It fluidly and naturally evolved through the unstructured, yet committed interchange, and there was room for it to do so. There were no preconceived notions, just the commitment to challenge ourselves and each other and come up with a solution. Participants were invested in the conversation, and the blogpost became an extension of it, not a method to reach it. The final result was thus inspired and not forced, and writing this blogpost wasn’t a dreaded responsibility on Simon’s part. It just happened, and we moved in its direction together. Everyone benefitted as a result. We as a company furthered an advocacy relationship with Simon that goes beyond signing the check and got powerful “social proof” via Simon’s own words. Simon got an opportunity to share his thoughts with a broader set of people via a thought leadership platform. The entire community benefitted by getting involved in a mind-expanding dialogue. We didn’t market to the community, but we created artifacts together; the community was part of the message, not an idle spectator.

While the above line of thinking can be abstracted to any group of stakeholders, let’s focus on customers for now. If the purpose of a business is to create a customer (per Peter Drucker), then the purpose of marketing is to help your customers to create new customers, and customer communities offer an unprecedented way to do so — and at scale! The purpose of customer communities then is to inspire and connect customers to each other and to the original intent of their purchase and loyalty. Your customers don’t buy your product for the sake of buying your product; they buy it because it makes them feel or be a certain way. Find out what that intent is, help them build a community around it, and help channel their passion for the cause into working with each other and you. What can they do together that they can’t do alone? What is your role in all this?

For example… Our customer community exists to help our customers actively shape their own and each others’ experiences and successes with Yammer. Yammer is not about being social for the sake of being social; it’s about enabling the behavior change that helps companies become more adaptable. When they buy Yammer, customers buy transformation and adaptability. Being part of the community helps them realize this value, as well as help all of us shape how we think about the future. They have truly become our partners, thought leaders and collaborators, not just success stories we talk about.

Of course, as a business, you aren’t always going to be able to leave things to chance and just move in the direction of the conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. You still need process, official messaging, and you need to have a goal to move towards. There’s still room there to involve your customers and other stakeholders deeply, and from the beginning. In addition to involving them in your process, try to expand how you see each other and move in the direction of their thought and action.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc