The Value of Real Customer Involvement

Last week I wrote about instituting a visitor advisory board for your site: a way to encourage real and substantial interaction with a core group of interested visitors and customers.

I received a number of responses to that article, one of them from Michael Katz, who pointed me to his own execution of this concept, a “Customer Expert Program.”

So here’s a question: Why don’t more e-commerce sites work harder to solicit, manage, and use significant feedback from their customers? I’m not talking about that lame “feedback” button. I’m talking about respecting your visitors as an important element in your team.

I think there are two principal reasons why sites don’t do this.

First, it’s not taught, either in school or as part of on-the-job training. There is no curriculum for “enabling customers to direct elements of your business.” The concept is outside of current management experience. Sure, within the formal, controlled framework of focus groups, customers’ “views” are solicited, but that’s not the same as making real customer involvement part of your business plan.

Second, I don’t think people have yet figured out the “how” of it all. Given that out of all your thousands or millions of customers, a few will have some extremely useful things to contribute, but most will likely not, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

How can you reasonably let go of the reins of control enough to open the way for real customer involvement without descending into chaos? How can you really tap into the value that customers can bring to your business?

I don’t have those answers. But I do think that part of the future success of online business lies in opening the doors in this way.

Some hints to this future for e-business can be found in a recent Alertbox article by Jakob Nielsen and the reader comments that follow it.

Mr. Nielsen says, “The first decade of web publishing was dominated by professionally created web sites. Perhaps as a result, some people view web publishing as unidirectional and use broadcast-oriented terms like ‘eyeballs’ and ‘consumers’ to refer to users. However, the people who populate the web are not just consumers. They are users, customers, and producers.”

He’s referring to content here. But couldn’t the same be applied to e-commerce? Couldn’t that last paragraph be adjusted to read, “However, the people who visit your site are not just consumers. They are visitors, customers, and merchandisers”?

After all, the aggregate expertise of your visitors will far outweigh that of your in-house merchandiser when it comes to figuring out what will actually sell, whether you’re selling products or services.

The knowledge base now scattered within the collective experience of your customers holds incredible insights as to where you should be going with your business, what you should be selling now, and what you should be preparing to sell in the future.

To unlock that knowledge, you have to open the door. Get serious about listening. Shift some attitudes internally. And create some tools to make it happen.

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