In a recent conversation on our ProCommunity podcast, I discussed how customer communities and companies can engage one another more effectively with Lew Conner, Executive Director of The Higher Education User Group, a thriving independent user group community of Oracle and PeopleSoft customers.
This social business advice goes beyond the basics and applies to independent user groups, company-sponsored customer communities, and other membership organizations like associations.
The way in which customers want to engage an organization exists on a spectrum. It ranges from help with 'how-to' or 'is this a bug' questions to feedback about where the market is headed and what customers will need in a solution several years from now.
Have your product managers participate in, and listen to, online product advisory groups so that they can chime in and collect valuable information about products when customers reach out to other customers for support. Building this relationship will also make it easier to engage customers in strategic areas such as future market needs and product direction.
It is critical to create a partnership culture with your customers. A key component of doing this is to find and engage the right people in the user community. Often, users' first reactions when given the opportunity to lead a dialog about your products or services are to surface complaints or bicker about the product roadmap. This is not productive for the company or the user community.
It is important to elevate people who can move beyond negative outlooks and hardline stances to create a productive partnership. Once you have identified those leaders who understand this big picture, use your online community and offline events to provide consistent opportunities to engage. For instance, ask them to lead an online product advisory group, contribute a blog article a few times a year, head up a conference track, or commit to a 30 minute phone call with other leaders once a week.
Making your company executives available to your user group's top leadership goes a long way toward building a lasting partnership. Though engagement does not have to be constant and the conversation can be casual, it should be a clear priority for your business.
In the ProCommunity discussion, Lew Conner gave an example of Oracle executives joining the Higher Education User Group's board of directors for extensive unstructured conversation at the board's executive retreat. This type of casual relationship-building is invaluable to both the company and the user community. It is also a sign of a healthy and collaborative customer-company alliance.
People are passionate about their careers. Careers are enhanced when people are recognized by their peers. Boost enthusiasm for your user group and spread your reach by creating meaningful ways for people to get involved.
Customers will gladly give of their time to play a greater role in the community. This increases the productivity of the group and is a steppingstone toward creating customer advocates and future user group leaders.
Not all customer personas are equal. For technical products, your audience can include developers, business users, and executives. Often times, your lower level users are involved in the user group with the permission (and budget authority) of the executives.
Keeping in mind that executives need to be engaged differently than other segments, create ways for them to participate in your organization through your online community, on the phone, and in special advisory groups. Consider this an investment keeping all of your other users engaged and an opportunity to listen to the business problems that face the people with the purse strings.
Private online customer communities, whether independent or company-run, are the backbone of a user community's value, discussions, and peer-to-peer support. While the most important element of a successful user group is the partnership-oriented culture with the organization providing the products or services, online communities are the catalyst behind the engagement. Without a strong online community, the user group would not have the numbers, participation, and centralized expertise to provide consistent value to the customer community or the company.