A smiling man talking on an office telephone while seated at a desk.

Brands that use customer co-creation are able to collaborate with clients to improve products.

Customers. Don’t you just love them? They’re the people who (ultimately) pay your bills, drive your processes, and give you something to do around the office all day. And that’s not all! As evidenced by practices such as co-creation, their input can lead businesses everywhere to improved products and better practices, and all a business must do to tap into this wealth of valuable information is listen.

Okay, so it’s probably not “just” that easy in practice. However, customer co-creation generally doesn’t happen by accident, and it takes more than a passive ear to derive the most possible value from the practice. That’s not to say an elevated relationship with your customers isn’t worth pursuing — if anything, finding novel (yet practical) ways to engage with your clientele is an important part of finding continued success, relevance, and even survival in your industry. Here are a few takes on how to make it happen:

Service-Level Everything

To understand customer co-creation, you must understand that everything you provide your clientele is a service, philosophically speaking. People who eat at a restaurant are buying a service that gives them a full belly. A guy who trades his jalopy in for a current-year sedan is buying a service that lets him go places and provides a better experience along the way.

Knowing this is important, because it helps you shape everything about your co-creation activities with customers: the programs you implement, the feedback you seek, the products and services you seek feedback on, and even the questions you ask yourself as you put it all together.

In other words, if customer co-creation is the portrait you’re painting, your enhanced definition of service is the frame. The idea should pervade all of your co-creation activities, and grasping it can help you in ways that go beyond collaboration. For one example, framing your thoughts this way helps you understand why so many businesses treat customer experience as their key differentiator against competition.

The ‘Whats’ and the ‘Hows’

Following this idea should also help clarify what your customers are best-equipped to help you improve. Continuity is a key concept here: If a single focus group on a new product is an example of customer collaboration, an ongoing social media contest giving people the chance to win a prize for thoughtful feedback is closer to co-creating with customers.

In the end, the goal should be to identify these customer-centric areas and the tools you need to facilitate a continual dialogue about them. Even the smallest business is full of countless moving parts. While your customer base at large probably isn’t qualified or informed enough to comment on your accounting workflows or software development process, it’s a picture-perfect source of information on those aspects of your business that affect it directly.

Products are one obvious avenue to explore, and the influx of custom product-building tools such as the NIKEiD shoe customizer show a creative way companies are fostering discussion and gaining insight in the process. According to marketing research firm KL Communications, some companies are also getting serious about their experiential efforts, with leading brands such as IKEA® going as far as interviewing scores of customers in their homes. By interviewing customers to gain an understanding of what they can do better, IKEA provides an example of customer co-creation that has little to do with product development at all.

Macro vs. Micro

Further, these two examples provide an interesting view of the many shapes customer co-creation can take. The design tool lets a company engage with clientele regarding a specific aspect of a specific product; the interview example, on the other hand, shows a company that has effectively created experience-by-democracy, giving customers a way to affect every square inch of the retail stores they visit.

Although both macro- and micro-level interaction both involve interactions with individual customers, the insights gleaned between the two companies are likely very different. The design tool gets to look at which color schemes are resoundingly popular and highly unpopular, where the retailer gets to gauge a more open-ended sentiment that can include large troves of data or important insights from a single customer.

Not that you have to operate at global enterprise levels to benefit from either of these models, of course. A restaurant could use similar tools to allow its patrons to dictate part (or even all) of its menu. A digital marketing team could use conversations with existing customers and even feedback on the content it provides to determine new products and services. A boutique could use social media contests, social votes, and design tools to determine which brands and looks its customers want — and so on.

Customers, however, may be the most important co-creation partners you can engage, and for obvious reasons. In that sense, building initiatives that go beyond lip service and truly include them in the creation process isn’t just chasing business trends — it’s something smart organizations have been looking to do since business was a thing. Plan accordingly.

For technology that will facilitate the next level of collaboration, connect with a Vonage Business consultant.

About Evan Wade

Evan Wade is an author and editor from Carmel, Indiana. As a veteran tech writer and lifelong tech enthusiast, he focuses his writing and research on communication, mobility and security. Alongside work with leading cloud technology providers and industry news sources, Evan has extensive sales and end-user marketing experience, giving him a unique view of the individual’s relationship with technology — and how organizations can realize huge benefits from it.

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