I’m writing a long piece on customer collaboration, one of the key components of Social CRM, which elevates to its proper place the idea of building peer-like relationships with customers. Very naturally, the focus of this piece swings toward the technology being developed for collaboration with customers. But as is often the case with anything involving customers, the technology merely scales and extends a human activity. If you’re not ready to engage in that activity, the technology isn’t going to help you.

The Case of British Hobby Retailer Hannants

In thinking about the term “collaboration” broadly, I recalled an incident from last year that hinted at how a simple form of collaboration could have a massive impact on customers with almost no overhead on the part of the business. Unfortunately, it stemmed from something bad: the British hobby retailer Hannants discovered that the third-party firm it used to process credit card sales had been hacked.

The company did the right things to preserve its long-term relationships. It shut down its online site to sales immediately and posted an explanation of the reason why. Then it sent everyone on its mailing list -- including people who were not yet customers -- an email explaining the problem, apologizing for the inconvenience, and offering advice to make sure the customers’ credit cards had not been compromised.

It also said it would provide updates as it received news about the situation -- and then it followed through with regular updates for the next 48 hours.

Instead of treating customers like spectators, the company involved them into its attempt to cope with the problem. On social media sites catering to hobbies, customers shared the information from Hannants and offered suggestions to each other about securing their credit.

In the end, Hannants did lose some customers -- but a far greater number of customers reacted as though they had gone through the crisis with the company. Because Hannants was so inclusive of customers as it went through its problem, it not only handled the crisis, but it also built customer loyalty in the process.

This was done through simple email, aided by social media. It wasn’t done with collaboration technology (although that may have aided in the process). It was done by having the attitude that the best way to get customers to share in experiences with you is to share with them.

It's All About the Right Attitude

There are other forms of collaboration -- the collaboration company can facilitate between customers to solve problems, the collaboration between the customer and the company to develop new products, the collaboration between the buyer and the seller to personalize offerings to the benefit of both parties. All of these are perhaps more oriented toward achieving business goals (offloading of service requests, crowdsourcing of product ideas, product offerings tailored to the customer based on stated needs and desires), but their success is predicated on the idea that you need to be a partner in the conversation to realize value from that conversation (much as Hannants did). This is an underpinning of Social CRM, and it’s been discussed at great length -- but in its somewhat undefined form in Social CRM, it’s been almost dismissed.

When it’s put more simply as collaboration, business sits up and notices, because the products of these discussions are more concrete -- they translate into results, not into a component of a larger strategy.

But the common denominator here is the desire of the business to communicate with the customer, and that is a relationship that requires trust and respect from the business. Those are traits that can’t be automated and which don’t result from the deployment of technology, but they’re critical for the concept of collaboration to succeed.

Before your business invests in customer collaboration tools, ask yourself this: Do you trust and respect customers sufficiently for collaboration to work for your organization? It’s critical that you put the right attitude in place before you deploy the right technology.

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