Social Learning and Customer Engagement

One of the approaches to improving Customer Engagement and Experiences I’d like to explore is the potential to include customers, partners and suppliers in the Social Learning process. One of the drawbacks of an customer ideation platform/community is that more than 99% of the ideas are never looked at or implemented because they do not take into account the business context and constraints.

Whilst ideation may be a good source for innovation for companies, they can be a source of dissatisfaction for those customers who submitted ideas if they do not receive any acknowledgement for the effort they put into it. So rather than feeling closer to your brand and becoming advocates for it, the quite opposite may occur.

The approach that I would advocate is to educate the customer about your brand and its environment, even let them actively get involved in your internal Social Learning processes of continously striving to gain new knowledge and insights. By infusing ideas from outside of the silos of your organisation, you may discover innovative ideas that will give your company a competitive advantage.

Crowdsourcing has lost favour a little due to the number of uninformed suggestions that bubble up and which generate a lot of overhead to percolate into useful innovations. Smartsourcing has been put forward as a better approach, relying on the ‘better elements’ in your community to exchange with for customer insights. As such I agree with this, but I believe there is an even greater opportunity for informed innovation through the education and deeper implication of those we wish to engage with for smartsourcing by implicating them in collaborative learning.

Education and customer collaboration has the potential to create a real and very deep level of engagement, and thus the germination of fervent customer advocates, who in turn entice others to join this process (and increase the smartsourcing base for qualified innovation).

As Harold Jarche points out in the comments below, I herewith add that the objective of this type of collaborative learning would be to close the loop, not only take the feedback but reinjecting it back into the customer communitites and so on with insights so that we get a virtuous learning cycle. And by being open with your social learning approach, you will lower the barrier for new entrants and thus new points of view and sources for innovation, as well as sending a clear signal to the rest of the customer base that you are listening and collaborating to take their needs into account.

There is of course the (perceived?) risks of competitors glaning information and using it to their advantage, but examples have shown that this risk can actually be a driver for more rapid innovation integration such as Sage has shown with its ACT! community.

To summarize, I believe there is an opportunity to create a collaborative community learning platform that will ultimately lead to informed ideation and nurture more fervent customer advocates.

Let me know your thoughts, am I completely off-track, or is this the TGV to Customer Engagement?

23 thoughts on “Social Learning and Customer Engagement”

  1. Mark,

    This is a very interesting idea, but I think you are missing the killer reason for doing it this way (actually you mention the most important one: getting the custoemr involved into the context – the reason most ideations fail).

    This is the best way for customers to see how the organization closes the loop – and to provide feedback and affect the outcome of implementation of the idea after it was adopted. If I recommend you — don’t know, clean your bathrooms more often, and you do something about it I can both see and comment on how you did it, so you can improve it and fine-tune it as it becomes reality. That would be very cool.

    I think you are onto something here, but what do you think companies would think of the idea of “educating” the customer into the issues of the organization, how they work, their goals and strategies, etc. to provide them sufficient context? will they actually go for it?

    Nice post, really interesting concept… gets me thinking.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, I much appreciate it!

      Like you say Esteban, I feel like I’m onto something here but couldn’t put my finger on it. Your insight has allowed me to complete mine and has given me a new axis of thought. And this is exactly the beauty of Social Learning! Even though you’re half-way around the world, our minds meet on the subject of Social CRM and together we explore, discover and learn new insights that alone we would not have arrived at (or it would’ve taken much longer to at least).

      Someone recently posted a tweet that said “Conversation in King. Content just gives us something to talk about”. This could be a strategy for engaging customers, by feeding them information about the company’s context, drawing them into a discussion and then into a collaborative learning process.

      But I think you’re right, showing customers how the loop is closed within the organisation and how decisions are made regarding how ideas are transformed collaboratively into reality can be a strong motivator for deeper engagement, more request to be educated in order to collaborate even more effectively and ultimately lead to more fervent and numerous advocates.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for proposing this idea so we can open it to discussion. Strip it down and you can say your idea is centered on finding effective ways to engage with customers.

    Maybe I’m an idealistic but I don’t think customers expect every idea to be accepted by a company. Rather they want to be a part of the innovation process to help ensure their product needs are covered.

    Which brings me around to favoring Esteban’s view.

    It seems to me the effort a company would need to invest in educating customers could be put to use in understanding why customers are suggesting the ideas they are.

    It starts, though, with a company gaining an understanding why a customer is suggesting certain product innovations. And what they say they want may not be reflected in what they suggest. Not saying that to dis the customer but because they may need help articulating the real, underlying need.

    If a company is simply going through the motions, then it’s understandable for its crowdsourcing efforts to gain tarnish.

    Still having discussions for effective ways to engage customers is much needed so go you!

    1. Kathy,

      I think you’re right, not every customer expects that their ideas will be adopted, but the simple fact that they have gone to the effort to actively suggest one already is very significant – a signal that the brand could do better. And this meets with your “why?” question. By drawing them into a collaborative learning process so that they are better able to articulate their ‘gripes’, all stand to gain.

      I have been wondering a lot lately about what it takes to entice people to become one of the 1% of superusers in brand communities, answering others’ questions and guiding them through the meanders of the brand environment. What motivates them to spend (an incredible!) amount of time and effort to become supersharers, and what do they (hope to) get out of it? The answers you will now get from Customer Community Software Vendors is that they get peer appreciation and recognition through ranking systems and kudo distribution.

      Some businesses give out goodies, organise company visits and the likes, but in general do not give monetary incentives. So this is where I think the ‘enriching experience’ of collaborative learning may be a way to provide some return, for all participants. And I believe it may also be a good way to change the 90-9-1 statistic to something less skewed, and furthermore allow the community to grow to critical mass much faster.

      I think the problem though that we have here is one of definitions again: what do you consider to be education? If it is the creation of materials which are then dispersed through a classic top-down approach, then this is not what I would suggest as most appropriate. I would rather go through seeding and feeding Social Media (such as communities, blogs, wikis…) with relevant informational/educational content, destined to arouse the curiosity of the customers and draws them into Social Learning platforms where they can deepen their understanding before engaging and contributing to the collaborative learning effort.

      This of course is just one idea on how to create a more profound level of engagement, let’s think together about what else could be done :)

      1. Kudo distribution is my new favorite idea. I was surprised to see contributors, from tech sector, respond favorably to things like “stars” awarded on a bulletin board. I was shocked in fact how competitive it can become. It always seemed like one of those things that begins out of necessity, like free miles from airlines, and then becomes a nightmare to manage. Love to hear some new approaches on this though.

        1. Thanks for your comment Robert :)

          Lithium Technologies actually has something like that built into their community platform, and it is the members themselves that can attribute them (self-regulation, so low admin overhead :))

  3. Hi Mark,

    I very much like the concept of customer education.. As you know I believe companies should invest more in helping their Customers create value, just because they do not always understand how you as a company see it.. or as you put it: Customers do not always have the context.. very true. At the same time, learning collaboratively is also providing great context for the company.. And I like Esteban’s angle too..

    The one question now of course is: how to organize?

    In my own SME B2B world (as consultant) I’m currently developing several products/services and we’re testing them together with a group of Customers and Partners at the same time. To collect feedback to improve the product/service and value proposition, but also to give them that special feeling of getting to see/experience something first as a reward for their loyalty and to further strengthen the relationship..

    In my environment this is easy.. but how will this work at P&G or Toyota or Nokia?

    1. How to organize is and where to put the limits on how open you should be are the essential questions. How transparent do you want to be? Is there a correlation between transparency and innovation? Is there a correlation between transparency and customer engagement? Difficult questions with no easy answers as this has not been tried yet insofar as I know, so there is no basis for comparison. (If some company wants to hire me to start an initiative, I can be contacted through LinkedIn ;) ).

      Your experience has shown there is certainly value for all in collaborating and learning from each other in order to create a product/service and value proposition, and in turn they feel they have a high level of involvement in brining about.

      For companies like Toyota it might be just that as well. They are doing millions of continous incremental innovations through internal sourcing, if they would now ‘enable’ their customers through collaborative learning to drive external or open innovation, imagine what would come out of that! They would get a massive competitive advantage by being even closer to the preoccupations of their people that actually buy their products!

      1. Isn’t that always trial and error? Since all our customers are tech companies, there is always reticence, as the situation can change rapidly. We recently tried to get a company in a discussion about how its appliance affected the price of bandwidth. We know it’s part of their value proposition and it is what sales guys pitch to their prospects. Yet, they did not intend to discuss it in a blog, and reversed course immediately as it demonstrated that they were not equipped to anticipate where a discussion might go and how quickly.

  4. Mark,

    You make several excellent points in your post. My favorite is “Whilst ideation may be a good source for innovation for companies, they can be a source of dissatisfaction for those customers who submitted ideas if they do not receive any acknowledgement for the effort they put into it.” I have seen companies lose long time loyal customers by failing to recognize contributions. So many jump in without a clearly defined strategy or implementation plan, then abandon the customers who join in. Thank you for calling attention to the challenges.

  5. Isn’t facebook a good example here – where they had to withdraw some new policies, rethink, seek general consensus and then re launch them.

    I’m all for including customers, that’s the reason for focus groups, voice of the customer initiatives and so much more – but we also must not forget, there is two very distinct objectives here and they wont always agree. If you asked your customer should you put up or down your prices – what do you think they say?

    These objectives aren’t always aligned or can be communicated in advanced.

    Finally, the last factor to consider here is size/scale. When you are a small startup its imperative to engage and understand what your customers need. When you reach larger scale, its harder to stay in touch – again, facebook – 300m users – you are not going to please everyone all the time.

    just my 2c…

  6. Mark,

    I’m catching up on the smartsourcing topic. If relationship marketers determine what to say, when to say it and who to say it to (not everyone), is smartsourcing the flipside for ideas where you detemine, what to ask, when to ask it and who to ask?

  7. I like this Mark. When I think of engaging customers, I can think of three areas I’d want:

    1. General idea submission with crowdsourced feedback and refinement
    2. A separate community for working with a small set of “trusted” core customers, both with my company’s ideas and theirs
    3. A place to collect feedback on what Clayton Christensen describes as “the job your product is employed to do”

    Your smartsourcing fits #2 above.

    The one thing I might caution is having customers “actively get involved in your internal Social Learning processes.” The concept is solid, but I don’t expect companies to offer login credentials to customers for internal, private environments. The mode of involvement needs to be considered.

    Overall, I’m digging this.

    1. Hi Hutch, thanks for your comment!

      So basically you’re saying that you want to funnel potential participants for collaborative ecosystem learning to select those that show promise, much like is currently the case in Higher Education for when you try to get into a University…

      What I’m exploring here is the idea that you should be ‘enabling’ these potential potential participants to provide qualified feedback and refinement, and maybe then invite them to go a step further to a more ‘intense’ social learning experience. The objective would be to close the loop,not only take the feedback but reinjecting it back into the customer communitites and so on with insights so that we get a virtuous learning cycle. And by being open with your social learning approach, you will lower the barrier for new entrants and thus new points of view and sources for innovation, as well as sending a clear signal to the rest of the customer base that you are listening and collaborating to take their needs into account.

      I agree that companies would be hesitant about taking such an approach as traditionally your competitive advantage came from the knowledge you hide behind the membrame that separates you from your customers (and partners, and suppliers, and competitors…), but nowadays your competitve advantage is more likely to come from your ability (and rapidity) to innovate to provide products and services to get the Customer Job done. It is a trade-off and requires a change in mentality, but engaging the customers in such a manner will improve the likelihood that you’ll meet the desired outcomes more so that through panels and focus groups in my opinion.

      Again, this will require a complete change in mindset, but this is something that can be worked towards (albeit that it’ll probably take a lot of time…). Moreover,as well as potentially affecting customer loyalty and satisfaction, this may actually also be beneficial to employee job satisfaction levels – which according to Time Magazine (1/18/10, p4) is now at an all time low of 45%…

  8. Hi Mark,

    Just read this post and really agree with much of what you say. If your customers don’t understand the way your business processes work then they really can’t add much to enhancing your products and services since their competence level is not developed enough for effective collaboration or co-creation. You might find a post I wrote on the learnability of business processes useful in developing this line of thought.

    http://skilfulminds.com/2009/02/23/elearning-and-experience-design-for-learnable-services/

    Larry

  9. Mark, I was concerned about this approach, especially the idea of educating customers, as that has the connotation of a directive, paternalistic model. However, your recent comment clarifies that, and I think it should be a core part of the original post. It’s about enabling learning together.

    Re:

    “The objective would be to close the loop,not only take the feedback but reinjecting it back into the customer communitites and so on with insights so that we get a virtuous learning cycle. And by being open with your social learning approach, you will lower the barrier for new entrants and thus new points of view and sources for innovation, as well as sending a clear signal to the rest of the customer base that you are listening and collaborating to take their needs into account.”

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