17th May 2008

Community Strategy: Are you company-centric or customer-centric?

Is your corporate culture really ready to drive success with online communities? 

One pillar of every community strategy I work on (particularly with larger companies) is assessing and driving organizational readiness.  There are a number of components to this (training, staffing, policy, sponsorship, etc…).  One challenge is that many companies (and consultants I expect) treat culture change like a journey.  We can describe what is problematic about the current state and we can describe what the desired state looks like - but when it comes time to drive change it starts to look like internal road shows (speeches), policy adjustments and training.  This isn’t bad, and in most cases it’s needed, but it often lacks the fundamental change in ethos that is big enough, clear enough and actionable enough to really be certain you did something completely different. 

I’m not going to dive into a big discussion (already had a few million times on blogs) about the opportunities and challenges that user intimacy brings through more socially driven design and user communities.  Instead, I want to hit on what I see as a very clear (but addressable thru culture change) disconnect between how companies behave and there ambitions for customer-centricity.  Almost no companies will stand up and deny that they are customer-centric (and they truly believe it!!).  They will list the advisory boards, feedback systems, usability testing, research, customer conferences…all the things they do to listen, listen, listen.  I even believe them (that they believe it)! 

They think they are customer-centric. 

So, let’s take a simple test all you “customer-centric” brands!  Be honest and ask yourself the following question:

“Within our company, what is the #1 thing we celebrate?”

Quick…what’s the answer?

Ship Day!!  Launch!! 

Right!  If you are a big product company and this isn’t the #1 answer - I’d love to know about it and what your answer was!!  If this was your answer, guess what, you are NOT yet firing on all your customer-centric cylinders!  In fact, you are re-enforcing a set of organizational behaviors in direct conflict with achieving success long term - particularly with your community strategy. 

Let’s look at this a second.  First off, this is nothing new and if you said yes, you are hardly alone.  This is what “we taught” ourselves to celebrate for decades.  We finished the task.  Time for a launch party!  We worked hard, we deserve it!  Heck, most of us are task centric individuals, so no wonder we have task centric companies.  But aren’t we rewarding an activity and not a result here?  Particularly when we are trying to build strong word of mouth brands. 

Here’s the problem:

  • What have you really accomplished?  No one is using it yet (beta customers don’t count!!!)
  • You’ve left your customers out of the party (at least in a meaningful way)
  • You just let a huge percentage of your employees “off the hook” on achieving the results.  Heck, now its sales, marketing and supports job to do the rest!
    • Ever heard a product developer say “I’m not a marketer or I’m not in sales” - no wonder we have organizational silos.  Companies with legendary brands “hide these seams” brilliantly. 

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate all the amazing work that goes into building a product…but tone it down.  Find the real day worthy of celebration.  Decide what that day looks like for your brand, product and or service.  And hint hint…it’s NOT a sales target either!!  I know, I’m taking away all our favorite milestones.  In terms of long term brand value, revenue is a KPI, not a metric!  It’s a great indicator, but can hide problems and is a poor predictor of future performance.  Look for engagement metrics!  Customer to customer conversation.  Brand sentiment.  Net promoter.  You get the idea.  Celebrate when your users are starting to celebrate that they like the product!  And better yet…find those influencers, and party with them.  After all, if you’re now customer centric, don’t you want to pull those key users inside and begin preparing for the next wave of innovation!

That’s all for now…what do you think?  What do you celebrate!  And can’t you make this suggestion extremely actionable!  This would be real change and evidence of culture change … much better than “85% of employees complete the mandatory “customer advocacy” online training module!”


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