This article was originally published in the Houston Business Journal.
Most companies have a vision statement. It typically underscores the business’s mission to solve a client problem or provide value in unique ways. But too often, organizations make assumptions about the pain points they’re solving, how their customers’ needs are evolving, and what their customers’ priorities are.
These assumptions don’t just ruin the customer experience — they compromise business success. So, what should your company be doing instead? Rather than having an assumed perception of your customer needs and wants, give your clients a seat at the table and let them tell you.
Client communities are the lifeblood of a business
Knowing what your customers really want can give you a huge business advantage. You can chase the competition all you want, but you win when you solve real-world problems. The most efficient and immersive way to do this is to build and nurture a client community program.
In my career, I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact that engaging with these communities can have, and I feel strongly that most companies could benefit from doing the same. I’d go as far as to say that it’s an important lifeblood of our company.
If you’re using events to interact with your customers, you’re halfway there — but there are many more opportunities for creating consistently engaged client communities.
Communities that can make a difference
Any executive can get a sense of where the market is going by reading industry publications, but it’s the small, nuanced details that emerge from client conversations that provide real value. When you gather these clients into communities, the value can be magnified as you hear their collective conversation. These communities give my team and me a level of insight into the market that is hard to come by in more traditional ways.
Consider user groups. These forums provide an opportunity for business leaders and marketers to connect with customers to share feedback on products and services. But the format is also invaluable for understanding the challenges that impede client success. Where are they getting stuck? What business challenges are they trying to address? What are their short- and long-term business objectives? How are they using your products compared to other products? What would they like your company to do differently?
You can then take those broad, one-to-many insights and use them to map and prioritize future product and business strategies — with the active influence, participation, and validation of your clients.
My team and I regularly convene both product- and industry-focused user groups to improve our understanding of our customers and the market. This past year, we held over 30 user groups, planning sessions, and industry focus groups that provided valuable input on the pulse of our clients as they navigated the pandemic.
While a user group can help you understand how to make your products and services better, if you have the time and resources, another valuable client community initiative to consider is an executive board. Composed of a hand-picked set of customers, these communities gather regularly — in our case, once a quarter — to provide companies with strategic insight and guidance into industry direction, product initiatives, business objectives. and more.
For companies with a large and diverse customer base — particularly in the technology sector — user conferences are a critical forum for inviting customer participation. In addition to showcasing products, we’ve found them to be a worthwhile venue for discussing trends and innovations and gleaning insights into shifting customer needs. Conferences also nurture enlightening cross-collaboration between customers.
As an example, the insight we gained in multiple customer communities helped us apply artificial intelligence (AI) to our platform for the first time. AI is an amazing innovation, but rolling out AI-based products can be disruptive to an organization. We were able to learn in advance of the potential roadblocks and cultural shifts clients may face in bringing AI to their users and devise ways to mitigate or avoid these issues
Become a customer-centric organization
Building better products and streamlining workflows are key objectives of these communities, but customer delight is an important goal, too. Community feedback can play a vital role in shaping and enhancing each touchpoint a client has with your brand — from marketing through customer support — because it lets you see your product or business from the perspective of those you’re selling to. It’s a simple yet often-overlooked investment that can improve your company’s interaction with customers, enhance the feedback process, and elevate your ability to anticipate customers’ needs.
Continually connecting and communicating with your customers will also improve trust and community participation. When customers run into issues or have ideas, they’re more likely to demonstrate longer-term engagement and keep coming back for a seat at the table and an opportunity to tangibly define the future of your business. When customers are involved in the process, they feel more invested in your product and business, which helps to reduce churn. My marketing team would call that turning a customer into a raving fan.
Reaping the benefits
Ultimately, the goal for any client community is to gather innovative and forward-looking ideas, from small product updates to major initiatives, that you co-create with the help of your customers.
It won’t happen overnight; it took us a few years to really hit our stride. But the payoff is worth it. With robust client communities, you’ll gain insights and ideas and nurture trust, loyalty, and advocacy for your brand. Our business wouldn’t be where it is today without them.