February 20, 2013

The Circle of Life: Customer Engagement as a Cycle

BY Shirley Robinson IN Small Business 0 Comment

Back in January, we wrote a post about developing tools and processes geared toward “listening” to your customers.  We established some main areas of need for companies wanting to establish a culture of proactive engagement:

  1. Well-crafted listening tools
  2. An efficient process for dealing with communications and turning over solutions
  3. People who care about building relationships

However, we didn’t go into great detail on any of these principles.  This post will go into detail about our own journey in one of these principles–#2, An efficient process for dealing with communications and turning over solutions. We’re calling this a “customer engagement cycle,” with the implied goal of maintaining the customer’s engagement beyond one-off customer service experiences.

As a company grows, this becomes more and more difficult.  These processes can quickly become bloated, unsustainable monsters that fail to serve even the most basic of purposes:  keeping customers happy and in the loop with relevant information.

If this wasn’t daunting enough, we also think an excellent customer engagement cycle goes a step further:  when interactions with customers reveal problems or gaps in the product, we should reward them for their input and let them know how their ideas have been implemented.  This is a great way of maintaining and developing their engagement.

So how do we decide on a course of action?  Start by thinking through what customer engagement is actually supposed to accomplish, and design your system around that.

The information is out there--but do you have the right tools to pick up on it?
The information is out there--but do you have the right tools to pick up on it?

What are the goals of a customer engagement cycle?

For us, proactive listening has several different functions that directly affect the health of the company.  We can choose solutions by considering each function specifically:

  1. To remain in contact with customers–following through on issues is part of the customer service process, even outside of any concrete gains to the system
  2. To improve the system in ways that we wouldn’t think to
  3. As system-level quality control–giving us an idea of where problems tend to cluster tells us how robust the system is in general.  We can then target those areas more heavily for improvement.
  4. To gauge the popularity of suggestions; this helps us figure out how to deliver a product a lot of people want.

A really good listening system will be able to accomplish all of these.  It’s a tall order, but there are some simple steps that can be taken toward creating a robust, productive, and sustainable system.  One of the most popular is simply establishing a dedicated public page where users can offer feedback.  Even this has its foibles, however…

The Problems with User Feedback Pages

Virtually every company has an intake mechanism for user problems and suggestions.  But simply having a system doesn’t mean that it’s working in the best interest of everyone concerned.  Consider the following real-life example:

A large and reputable software company has a Uservoice page for feedback on one of its popular products.  There are several strict rules for participation (restrictive word limits, complex guidelines for assigning votes, removing suggestions that don’t become features).  Although this is perfectly understandable from a logistical perspective–the company doesn’t want the page to become a sprawling, repetitive gripe-fest–it works against the intended purpose.  Systems like Uservoice aren’t just supposed to be a passive information-gathering tool; they’re also supposed to be a mechanism for public accountability.  Worse yet, having so many rules for participation can discourage a lot of potentially helpful customers from contributing.

At karma, we do make use of Uservoice to discover new ideas, as well as to find out how interested our users are in them.  But we don’t rely on it exclusively; many of our greatest ideas come from phone calls with users, support tickets, training sessions, and sales emails.  Only the most opinionated usually gravitate to a feedback page, so many of our users with great ideas wouldn’t be captured this way.  This is why employing a range of customer interactions for product discovery has been so useful.  Once we get the ideas, we can develop them right away–or we can post them on Uservoice ourselves!  The main idea is that these different interactions work in tandem.

Another process we’re experimenting with–with great results so far–is combining our internal changelog with notifications to users about their suggestions that have been implemented.  When we mark changes, we simply note whether a user suggested the change, then email the user(s) and change the status of the issue.  We hope one day to bring this into a public forum.  Sharing credit does us no harm, and gives customers something to feel proud of.  We don’t want to hide the fact that a customer has given us an idea–quite the contrary.  We hope that she will share it publicly!

Passively Agile via Active Engagement

Here’s another way to think of it, for those of you who are fans of Agile-type development.  Agile conceives of programmers, testers, and participating customers as a single development team.  Everyone is valuable and accountable.  Agile usually has to do with software that’s being custom built, but even proprietary software like ours can use this model.

When we involve our broad base of users, they’re giving us use cases; they use the system in ways we can’t even imagine.  We try to be really broad minded and creative, but any time you’re really entrenched in a system, you get a little myopic.  Involved customers keep us honest, and that in turn makes us more effective as a company.

Share your own strategies for growing customer engagement in the comments below!

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