In our previous installment, we outlined the very basics of what is an idea and how we, as humans, go about expressing our ideas. We later ended with, what we like to call, The Thinking Model. This model becomes the crux for future blogs in this series.
So, why is an idea exchange so important? Let's look at some of the stark realities that probably exist among many of our businesses today.
The Transaction Problem
We each probably have some level of a customer engagement model defined. With this, most likely feedback is transactional in nature from Service Experience surveys, ratings on a product, 3rd party reviews, to direct customer interaction via user groups, escalations, and/or direct executive level engagement. What's interesting is that most of these engagements are not truly collaborative in nature. You use my product or service and I, in return, tell you how good you did. But, what about my business challenges? What about my strategy and the results I am trying to gain from this great service or product that I have purchased? What if things aren't working as I intended them to? Sure, you may collect ideas/feedback, but usually they are presented as "I need the product to do X" or "Why can't I do or see Y." But, why? If the product is improved to do 'X' or 'Y', what problem are we solving for the customer?
We often measure success on how well our design is adopted versus if the design is solving a problem for the customer. Let's take a form of feedback that most companies have today. Surveys are a great way to get a pulse on how well the product or service is perceived. Typically, there is some form of rating and a series of questions that may direct the user to respond to several aspects of the product or service, and even may go beyond that specific product or service to give indication of the overall perspective on the department/division or company itself. In our experience, that rating system is usually measured on a numerical scale and from that, focus is typically spent on specific consolidated buckets that may represent a dissatisfied customer, a neutral customer, or a highly satisfied customer. Surveys are a good way to get feedback and understand the general pulse of the customer or group of customers and their feeling about the product or service. However, they don't usually give insight into the business challenges of the customer and almost always never lend themselves to being a good repository for ideas around how the specific product or service could be improved or changed.
A point of concern is that when we focus feedback on the transaction, we tend to look at problems and potential solutions singularly. We fail to look at suggestions collectively as potential insights into how we can truly change or improve our offerings. This can lead to poor and costly design, misuse of resources, and misdirected improvements that are received by the customer as useless or not valuable. Without a complete understanding of business challenge and application, the company could be wasting time and money on solutions that don't matter or expand the realm of influence and application.
The transaction problems described here then contribute in whole or in part to the problems associated with knowledge.
Action for you: Identify and list your transaction problems. This is a prerequisite to solving problems.
The Knowledge Problem
That's the problem, lack of knowledge. When we don't truly understand our customer and what they are trying to accomplish using our products and services, we can't design a better product or service. Sure, we can take a stab, talk to a couple of customers and get insights, and maybe even pull a few ideas, but without the collective audience engaging in the discussion, our efforts may result in sub-par design and utter frustration for the larger customer base. When you consider that often times we are challenged with a universal application, it is truly tough to understand product change impacts when there are lots of different industry applications, special regional laws and applications, compliance requirements, and you name it!
By offering the ability to capture ideas in a public forum like a community, you begin to centralize feedback and details around the ideas, reduce duplication of ideas, and expand to a wider audience which allows for more complete information around the product or service. Think about it, you now have the information, at your fingertips, to complete a more effective cost analysis and better understand the perceived impacts of developing a solution to fit your customers needs. In this environment, you have your customers telling you what is important to them and what direction you may need to consider to impart product or service loyalty! The consequences of ignoring this problem, plainly stated, is RISK! You risk focusing time, resources, and brand on solutions that may only provide a partial fix or improvement and could quite simply give your competitors more leverage in the marketplace.
Action for you: Identify and list your knowledge problems, known or perceived. This is a prerequisite to solving problems.
So why not build into your customer engagement model that very layer - an idea layer - in your community. Call it what you will, but we challenge you to think about ideas being more transparent. Whether those ideas are truly public, or reside behind some firewall where only licensed or registered users can see them...EXPOSE THEM! Get the conversation started with your customers. By doing this, something magical will happen. A bubble-up effect will begin to give insight into those things that customers value as important or useful. Through comments and engagement, customers will start to expose their business challenges and begin to offer reasons into why they feel the idea warrants further consideration. But, more importantly, opinions will surface about the applicability to the universal audience and now you have insight, the insight needed for your development teams to design a better, more cost-effective solution!
What are the resulting benefits?
- Leads to better software design
- Develops revenue generating potential as, hopefully, solutions become more universal in scope
- Reduces noise from traditional tracking systems
- Identifies what customers believe to be of value or importance
- Exposes to the customer those ideas which the collective audience deem important, not leaving that idea living un-promised forever
- Engaging (or better engaging) developers and product strategists
- Connecting, re-connecting (or better connecting) with the customer
- More productive product management and support
- Opens up the process to new innovation
In turn, the results from above become the foundation for measuring your success. We will be addressing the topic of ROI and measuring success in a later blog.
Action for you: Now that you have identified customer transaction and knowledge problems, translate the above list into specifics for your company.
The Engagement Model
Before outlining the model, make sure you define a process that includes development/service ownership and agreement on how everything will work.
Tip/best practice: This is a really huge one and you risk much by introducing ideas in your communities for which there is no process and ownership. In fact, if you don't do this you might as well not implement ideas in your communities and just let customers voice their opinion in thread discussions. Some platforms do not even have the ability to have ideas and in those cases, even if it disconnects the community from the ideas, there are open source applications such as Pligg that can be incorporated. If the community in question is a support community, it is also desirable (if not even required) to ask development to own both the management (status, etc) and moderation. Of course, you will need to sell development or service owners by showing them the benefits (and pointing them to our thoughts about ideas is a good start!).
At the risk of oversimplification and acknowledging that you may have specific challenges for which we have no visibility, the engagement does not have to be complex. In fact, one could argue that a simple and straightforward engagement model would help those new to the concept as well as perhaps solve any complexity currently in place. The beauty of simplification could be:
- Customers create ideas. The community votes and comments. Going back to The Thinking Model, the number of votes on an idea may not necessarily be the deciding factor. We see votes as a sentiment. A company's objectives and goals alongside how a product is designed (and can be further enhanced) in tandem with sentiment is the only rational way to make decisions. If voting is the exclusive means to making the decision, you could be both making the wrong decision as well as setting a future precedent in the community that the "popular vote" will usually or always trump other considerations.
- Development and/or service owners participate with probing and clarifying questions. Some ideas will naturally lend themselves to generating conversation. Often times an idea, as first presented, is not clearly stated or fully defined. So, this is where the development and service owners become important in either getting the conversation started by asking clarifying questions or as knowledgeable participants in the overall discussion. Insights into other pieces of the products features and functionality can sometimes lend themselves to plausible and temporary solutions while the customers wait for an idea to be vetted or accepted into the product's footprint.
- Development and/or service owners are also moderators. This does not strictly fall in to a traditional community moderation but rather one that manages the ideas. Setting idea status (also known as an idea stage) and communicating what will or what will not be are the primary activities. This is a key activity in that it is setting customer expectations. This is also important for ensuring that the users are focusing on, through voting and discussion, the actual ideas that are still active. Making sure that the ideas are clearly marked within their life-cycle gives clarity to the customer and helps in their own planning and product considerations.
- Implementation and release. Once it has been agreed that an idea will be implemented, the development and/or service owner transcribes the requirements and supporting documentation in to a release management system where it then follows a company's process to being developed, tested, and made available in either a minor or major release. The cycle is not really complete until it is clearly documented that the idea has been incorporated into the product or service and insight is given into how the customer obtains the new addition. So, it is important to ensure that the idea is tied in tightly with your knowledge base.
Action for you: Identify a pilot to implement ideas in your community using the above engagement model. Outline a proposed engagement model using the above prescription.