Customer relationship and the end of online communities

communaute-en-ligneWhile shown as the future of customer relationship as recently as yesterday, customer communities seem to get out of breath and die out. That’s the matter Dion Hinchcliffe discussed a couple of weeks ago, reaction to a study showing that only 4% of people significantly engage with companies online. Should we deduce that businesses have nothing to win in investing in customer communities anymore ?

Asking the question introduces a bias that has already been fatal to many initiatives. Businesses can invest in their relationship with communities but can’t create them. If people don’t care about them, the most beautiful Facebook page even won’t change it, the problem being elsewhere and deeper. If they do, they’re there. The question is to address them the right way.

Moreover, taking for granted that communities are customer communities is a too easy and misleading shortcut. Customers are not always a community. Communities are not made of customers only and businesses seldom own these communities but share them with their competitors.


Customer communities vs customer relationship individualization

The value of customer communities is undisputable but, and that’s my main take from the study, they’re not the only way to handle customer relationship. They meet some needs but once these needs have been addressed businesses realize the amount of things left to be done. The individualization of customer relationship is a major topic today and, oddly, communities may not be the best way to tackle the matter if businesses don’t understand that if communities are good at gathering people they can’t be managed uniformly. Each member has specific expectations and that’s what businesses have to deal with.

If businesses try to satisfy a community as the whole there’s an obvious risk to fail to satisfy each member as an individual. That’s as simple as that.

Maybe we should also be clearer about what we mean by significant engagement ? Do we believe that customers need continuously in touch, involved in conversations with the business ? That reminds me once again of this IBM study showing the gap between customer’s expectations and what businesses think they are.


IBV customer ranking


If only 22% of customers want to be part of a community, having 4% significantly engaged is quite logical.

Unreasonable expectations on customer relationships ?

Truth is the increasing expectations on services and customer experience turn sustainable engagement into on-demand engagement. Except a few very passionate ones, people engage when they want something, have a need, need service or want to have a problem fixed. For the rest they have other things to do than having a continuous relationship.

Considering this matter, not all businesses are create equal. If your an Hotel, a trendy and fashionable clothing brand or an airline, things will be easier than if you’re selling cleaning products.

So 4% may be a very small number in the absolute but a very good one once put in perspective. Maybe the problem is just about expectations that are unreasonable.

Last point is the need for a more quantitative measure of engagement. If most exchanges between a brand and its customers are about service, maybe it’s good to see their number decrease, what means happier customers. If the main reason for engagement is quality issues, it would be better to improve quality and applaud when engagement decreases. And as for ambassadors, businesses may only stop dreaming  : except a few passionate – and once again depending on the industry – believing that it’s possible to turn 30% of one’s audience into men with sandwich boards is nothing but a dream.

More, something has changed over the years : businesses can now learn from customers despite of their passiveness. That’s the raise of cognitive computing, social analytics and big data that makes it possible to learn from them without having them participating in an organized and formal way.

Businesses want engagement, customers want results

No. Customers communities are not dead. But they don’t solve everything and are only one step towards the individualization of customer relation, an on-demand engagement. The marriage of customers and businesses is more likely to be based on reason than passion. It’s time to acknowledge this and understand that the only ones that want engagement are the businesses themselves. Customers want results and don’t want to be seen as community members but as individuals. Brian Solis recently wrote that customers were the owner of their experiencee. So let’s empower customers instead of managing them through systems that will consider them as objects.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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