By Dr. Philippe Duverger, Assistant Professor at Towson University
I agree with Tom Quinn’s recent post on the SMM Magazine blog—By Invitation Only: Letting Your Customers in Behind the Velvet Rope—where he advocates for a by-invitation-only brand community that leverages customer engagement in a private and exclusive environment. Facebook Pages and other initiatives that inform and lead your consumer base (customers and potential customers alike) to follow your brand and try your services and products is a different strategy than listening to your most valuable customers. Both strategies are valuable and have their place in the social media environment.
A social media strategy using Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other open-to-the-public environments will raise awareness, trial, and traffic. But it will also allow competitors to listen in on the conversation. If you are in need of radical service ideas and want to mine your customer base or test new ideas, you should create a secluded environment where only trusted and creative clients can participate.
This is where the dilemma exists. Should you invite only your loyal customers to participate in idea generation through online brainstorming sessions? Or should you invite your most dissatisfied customers? I advocate for the latter strategy.
Your most dissatisfied customers are probably thinking about switching providers. They are more likely to feel underappreciated or have experienced sub-standard service from you. They might have logged a complaint, only to receive an unhelpful administrative response, which further enraged them, thereby increasing their dissatisfaction. So it is more likely that they can tell you what is wrong with your business.
You might not want to hear it, or you might dismiss the complaint as a rare occurrence or subjective to the customer’s unrealistic expectations. And you might be wrong. That customer could be a visionary who will feel compelled to find a service provider that will satisfy her needs. If none of your competitors provide it, the customer might decide to provide it herself (assuming she has what it takes), become your competitor, and drive you out of business. Too far, you think? Take entrepreneurs like Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Kemmons Wilson (Holiday Inn), or Howard Schultz (Starbucks). They all have a common characteristic: they did not like what was available in the market and went on to create it for themselves.
Interestingly, Starbucks recently engaged in a Web-based brainstorming exercise where anyone—including its competitors—could participate and watch. Starbucks collected thousands of ideas. Great… except that only one radical idea would suffice to make a winter-coffee company an all-season coffee and smoothies company. The Frappuccino, according to Schultz’s memoirs, was a customer’s idea and now accounts for almost half of Starbucks’ revenue.
Certainly, among the tens of thousands of participants, there are bound to be creative consumers, satisfied or not. But the most dissatisfied and creative ones either won’t participate or will be outnumbered by the conservative, happy, and loyal customers.
Cyberbullying is explained by the balance theory where a customer posting a radical idea might preface it with a complaint, leading others to defend the brand by bullying the culprit out of participating. The solution? Segregate your behind-the-velvet-rope communities between radical thinkers and those who only have improvement ideas. Or, more practically, have a radical-thinking community composed of your most dissatisfied customers. And then listen.