The Connected Customer Experience


I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, and my Dad started his career in a small community bank in our home town. As my Father’s career grew, he had the opportunity to join a burgeoning software firm focused on financial data processing for small community banks, then back to the community bank business as a founder and CEO. I sometimes went to work with him, and I saw first-hand how valuable deep and personal relationships were to the business of community banking. The local customer’s success and the bank’s success and growth were tied together in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways. The context for these relationships was the local community.

Brands vs. Relationships

The value of customer relationships to a business is now being given the proper attention and research it deserves. A recent article in Harvard Business Review detailed a study comparing the value of brand assets vs. customer relationships (as a percent of total enterprise value). The results were surprising: over the 10 year period from 2003 to 2013, the relative value of brands actually declined, while the value of the “customer relationship” increased almost 2x.

As the graph bracingly shows, brand valuations declined by nearly half (falling from 18% to 10%) while customer relationship values doubled (climbing from 9% to 18%) over a decade. All other categories of intangibles remained stable. These numbers reveal a dramatic shift in the strategic approach to marketing over the last 10 years. Acquirers have decisively moved from investing into businesses with strong brands to businesses with strong customer relationships.

The HBR article above asserts that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. In my previous article on the Connected Customer, I stated connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t and also cited research that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and grows the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”), and considers the Community the actual product.

Getting Started - Consider Three Dimensions : Space, Time, and Connectedness

To start to explore the concept of Community-Centric Customer Experience, it is helpful to think of the experience along three dimensions: Space, Time and Connectedness.

  • Space: all possible customer touch-points (i.e. digital, in-product, retail, service, phone, etc).
  • Time: mapping the relationship journey over the lifetime of the customer, developing elements of the experience that are responsive to the growing value, expertise, changing needs and increasing intimacy of the “maturing” relationship.
  • Connectedness: contextual connections woven in to the customer experience that reenforce building the Customer-to-Company relationship & the Customer-to-Community relationship.

Presence in Space: all Customer Touch-points

In the current wave of Digital Transformation, marketers are fundamentally rethinking use of digital assets, especially the static and expensive corporate web presence. Given declining organic reach, many social media programs are being rethought as well. Marketers are also struggling with realizing the full value (and promises made by vendors) of CRM and Marketing Automation systems. Community-driven support is a fact of life in most tech companies. Product teams engage with Customer Advisory Boards at expensive events and in private customer communities. What do all of these experiences and programs have in common? That fact that they actually have little in common in terms of platforms, budgets, organizations and executive sponsors. It is increasingly important to have a common set of eyes on the ecosystem of customer touch-points, and to harmonize and improve customer experience the disparate teams, platforms and programs must align and work as one. The bad news is, this only solves for the Customer to Company part of the experience. The growth opportunity is in the Customer to Customers & Company (a.k.a. “Community”) relationship. Developing an strategy that positions the Community experience as the center of gravity for digital breathes fresh life into stagnant marketing programs and sets the stage for bold experimentation with “Collaborative Economy” concepts like hosting Customer to Customer Marketplaces, Co-design and Co-Innovation with customers, custom products, digital asset sharing and much more.

A simple example of an evolved digital ecosystem, with Customer Community as the center of gravity is shown below.

Concept exercise for a community-centric digital strategy. Example only, not client work.

Managing Over Time: Mapping the Relationship Journey Over the Lifetime of the Customer

Many techniques have sprung up to research, design and illustrate the path of a customer from awareness, through to purchase and then product use. These same techniques can be expanded in two important ways: 1.) to illustrate the lifetime journey of the customer and 2.) to illustrate the Community journey of the customer from new member to various senior roles in the community leadership structure. More on this in an upcoming post.

Developing Connectedness: Building the Customer to Community Relationship

I defined “Connectedness”earlier as contextual connections woven in to the customer experience that reenforce building the Customer-to-Company relationship & the Customer-to-Community relationship. It can also be thought of as the potential value latent in a given network of relationships amongst a company, its customers, prospects and partners. Realizing that latent value, in large part, is a community development and management exercise. One simple way to begin to open the aperture on the possibilities presented by Connectedness is to think about every customer interaction as an opportunity to build community — to not only fulfill on the contextual obligation of an interaction (product interaction, phone call, social media exchange) but to also use the opportunity to weave connections to the larger Company and Customer community.

One recent example: part of my responsibility on the Autodesk Fusion 360 team was owning the programs for nurture marketing — specifically the automated email campaigns to help guide trial users through the product and to conversion into a license when the trial was up. I had my community management team redesign the flow and content of the emails based on community feedback, and actually had community managers insist that they send the email from their named corporate email accounts, with their full contact information. The performance of the nurture stream went from abysmal to 45% open rates, and the team developed a large number of personal relationships from the exchanges — all because we treated a simple marketing vehicle as a community-building opportunity.

In Summary

Customer Communities are poised to be the glue to hold the Connected Customer Experience together and provide a platform for meaningful business growth. Thinking about a Community-Centric Customer Experience along the dimensions of Space (touch-points), Time (lifecycle) and Connectedness (value of the network) can help your Company get started.