Active and Passive CRM
There is a big difference between active and passive customer communities. For an example of a passive community, take a look at Starbucks' new MyStarbucksIdea.com community site. These sites are useful ways to gather customer input, and I have referred to them as automating the suggestion box. There's nothing wrong with that, but a suggestion box is not a community.
Active is much better than passive in most things, not just CRM. In writing, I am constantly reminded to write in the active voice because active voice is terse, to the point and more intelligible.
Passive voice takes perfectly good sentences and turns them into gobbledygook. For example, the actively voiced, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" becomes the slightly unintelligible, "Why was the road crossed by the chicken?" in the passive voice. As you can see, in this case the main actor in the first sentence, and its subject, becomes the object of a preposition in the next, greatly degrading its meaning. It sounds like something from another country -- Washington, DC, maybe.
The same kind of thing happens in CRM when good, active ideas become perverted into passive programs of dubious yield and questionable value. Take the overused and misunderstood idea of the customer experience for instance.
The Active Customer Experience
If you have read this space before you may have encountered an interview with Joe Pine a few weeks back. Pine and his frequent writing partner, Jim Gilmore, penned The Experience Economy in the late 1990's -- the book from which much of the seminal thinking about customer experience comes.
Pine and Gilmore's point was that active customization of an economic good produced another economic good of higher value. Thus a product was a commodity which had been customized, and following that line of reasoning, a service is a customized product, and an experience is a customized service.
The pair's conclusion was that vendors needed to consider actively staging experiences for customers, but that proved to be too difficult and costly in many situations, so a passive form of customer experience came to prominence. Today when we talk about the customer experience, we usually refer to the after-the-fact assessment of whatever took place. We have substituted the value of a good customer experience, defined as one where the customer leaves a transaction without bad feelings, for a unique customer experience which was the original idea.
In Pine's own words, "... so many folks who claim to have read The Experience Economy missed -- or act and talk as if they missed -- the main thesis: that ... experiences are a distinct economic offering, as distinct from services as services are from goods. So many glom onto the language of 'customer experience' or 'experiential marketing' rather than truly design and stage experience output."
A Suggestion Box Is Not a Community
Passivity is not limited to the customer experience, and the same degradation we saw with customer experience appears to be taking shape now with the idea of community. There is a big difference between active and passive communities, and the passive side took another step forward last week when Starbucks announced its MyStarbucksIdea.com community site. I believe the site is powered by Salesforce.com and their IdeaExchange technology, which also powers a similar site for Dell.
These sites are useful ways to gather customer input, and I have referred to them as automating the suggestion box. There's nothing wrong with that at all, but a suggestion box is not a community. In fact, when Salesforce.com started telling me about IdeaExchange, they never used the word "community."
Beyond Stat Analysis
A community is an active thing, and it requires the vendor or sponsor to do some things other than collect ideas and apply statistical analysis to figure out the most popular. Here are a couple of things that are imperative for operating an active community:
- Select your community members. Let's be clear about this: A community is a group of people who will actively contribute ideas and respond to inquiries made by the community leader. Active participation is essential, and for the information to have validity, you should know who your members are by measures that are important to you. That doesn't mean stuffing the ballot box, but it does mean ensuring relevancy. For example, a community giving feedback about a drug ought to include members who are either using the drug or doctors, pharmacists and other professionals administering it. Since a community is a subset of your customer population, ensuring that you have a cross section makes it possible to extrapolate from any information you gather.
- Ask direct questions with the expectation of logical answers. Opening a Web site and asking anyone off the street to "tell us what you think" is an invitation to chaos. A good company can still care what its customers think without getting all Dr. Phil on us. The range of things that a company cares about is presumably small or at least a subset of what its customers think about, so don't ask customers to "tell us what you think" unless you really, really want to know. Ask about products, services and messaging as well as about needs, desires and even biases, but keep it relevant to your business.
If you do these two things, you will have an active community and you will gather reliable information which will help you identify product and service innovations as well as help you understand your core customer. Your active input will be worthwhile.
Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales , marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.