Putting Customers to Work

Gain insights by putting customers to work in your business.

agilityGetting customers involved in your business by “putting them to work” enhances your organizational agility by increasing visibility into your customers’ ever-changing needs, behaviors and preferences.

Putting customers to work not only gives employees more opportunities to observe and mix with customers on a daily basis, it provides a motivating force – and direction – to your innovation efforts.

Salesforce.com involves customers in product innovation and service. An e-commerce website called Threadless enlists customers as designers, and makers of everything from toilets to laptops get customers to post homemade product demos on YouTube.

Thousands of companies rely on user-generated content for technical support and troubleshooting – and the continued growth of social media essentially guarantees that this trend will continue to expand in reach for the foreseeable future.

One reason why smart companies like Salesforce.com and Threadless are making it easy for customers to pitch in on product development, technical support, sales, and marketing is that customers can often perform these roles in a lower-cost, higher-quality way than can employees.

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Putting customers to work provides a motivating force – and direction – to your innovation efforts.

However, an even more important reason is that doing so expands the interface between the companies and their customers. When you get your customers involved in the work of your business, you rub shoulders with them more often.

As a result, you gain new ideas and get excited about those ideas – you become personally invested in seeing them through. You hear about customer frustrations more frequently – and those frustrations seem real and pressing.

As employees observe and interact with customers who help in these ways, they often encounter energizing surprises. Customers solve product problems in unexpected ways and develop new uses for products – and ideas for enhancing and improving them that company insiders never imagined.

You might assume that customer research is an equally effective way to gain these insights. However, the trouble with research is that you often find only what you are specifically looking for.

In reality, you don’t know what you don’t know – and true insights are often obscured as a result. Actually putting customers to work yields insights you are not seeking, that you did not expect – and that you can capitalize on to spur growth and improve company performance.

Customers are willing to pitch in – if you make it easy for them to get involved. To draw customers into your business, think about the answers to these questions:

What role could customers play in doing your business’s work?

  • Could they help drive innovation by suggesting or testing new materials, designs, or services? Dell and others rely heavily on user suggestions to guide their innovation priorities and to beta-test new features.
  • Could they play a role in producing your product or performing your service? Consider how IKEA enlists customers to select, pull from the warehouse, transport, and then assemble their own furniture.
  • What role could customers play in marketing – qualifying and referring customers, spreading the word about your product, or helping other customers choose the best model for their needs? Home Depot provides an online community in which DIYers can share design, renovation, and lawn-and-garden ideas. Armed with this information and inspired by others who have solved a similar problem, customers gain confidence to take on more, larger – and therefore, more expensive – DIY projects.
  • How can they help other users use and maintain your product? For example, Google, Microsoft, and Livescribe customers provide technical support to others through forums, and Salesforce.com customers regularly create customized applications and enhancements that other companies can adopt.
  • How would customers like to sell, give, or dispose of your product when they have finished using it? Best Buy makes it very easy to trade in a used phone. Customers simply find the model they want to trade in on the company website; if they like the price Best Buy offers, they can ship the phone to the company and receive a gift card in exchange. A 16GB iPhone 4, for example, is worth $75 using this system. Even if the trade-in value is small, it does help customers feel that their used equipment is going “to a good home,” or at least being recycled responsibly.

What are your objectives in getting customers involved in each of these activities? Will it reduce cost, increase market share, or improve your brand image? For example, Coca-Cola engages customers in designing new beverage can graphics as a way to enhance brand awareness and affinity; IKEA asks customers to assemble their own furniture not just to reduce cost but to increase the customers’ affinity for the product.

What might the customer’s objectives be for getting involved? What are the benefits for customers? Some might be seeking to enhance their public profile or reputation (and there’s nothing wrong with that). But many get involved out of the simple desire to collaborate and interact with like-minded people who use and love the same product.

What structure or processes should you put in place to make it easy for the customer to get involved? Find out where, how, when, and with whom customers wish to interact, then build the systems or programs to enable them to do so. These could take the form of a physical workshop, a conference or meeting, an online tool or community, or a one-on-one outreach to business-to-business customers.

Answer these questions, and you’ll be well on your way to reaping the benefits of involving customers in the work of your business. You’ll become more agile as an organization. You’ll spot more opportunities for business growth, and you’ll be more capable in capturing those opportunities. goldbrown2

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World by Amanda Setili. Copyright (c) 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. Click here to learn more.

Amanda Setili is managing partner of the strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates, whose clients include Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and Walmart. She previously held positions with Global Food Exchange, McKinsey & Company, Asia Connect in Malaysia, and Kimberly-Clark.

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