Learnable Services, CRM, and Social Business Design

March 29, 2010

“Presenting a consistent face to customers improves their comfort and satisfaction.”

R “Ray Wang” and Jeremiah Owyang Social CRM: The New Rules of Relationship Management

Marketing, especially social media marketing, and learning, including organizational learning, are both essential components of a dialogue strategy for customer experience design and management. A dialogue strategy builds on the assumption that companies learn more from customers when customers learn from them, and doing so benefits both. I increasingly think it provides a basic framework to think about, and consider as part of your experience design strategy, when relating to customers. Thought leaders increasingly refer to the challenge as social business design.

Given the maturity and diffusion of social media, a dialogue strategy provides a framework to discuss communication as an ecosystem, whether addressing collaboration, innovation, segmentation, sales, customer service, or brands. The key to the process is understanding customers, attracting them, engaging them with sales in mindempowering them to solve your product and service problems, and learning from them to improve products and services, thereby strengthening your brand. It is not simply segmenting them, targeting them, driving them through interactions, and transacting with them through sales.

Over time, people buy things they need from you rather than someone else because they want what you offer, and because they feel an empathic connection, i.e. that you understand them. From my reading, Wim Rampen’s contention that we need to use segmentation the customer’s way gets to the heart of the point. The challenge of learning how to make an empathic connection increases to the extent that CRM (customer relationship management) aims to align customer engagement directly with business transactions.

Those looking for a direct, sustained connection between customer engagement and sales from Social CRM are expecting too much in my opinion. The key question is whether you know that Jane Smith who called for support tonight also chatted with one of your people earlier, or posted (or tweeted) something positive or negative about you on her blog, or posted something about your product/service to a how-to community forum. Knowing any of those things about Jane’s activities and experiences with your brand increases the potential for empathic connection between your people and Jane, meaning your understanding of what Jane needs from your products/services increases.

It would be nice if a monitoring platform could listen for you and, just automatically, determine how influential Jane Smith really is in the scheme of things. It might be nice to have a social media management system that just took care of everything, gauged the influence of anyone commenting about you online, ranked their value relative to your brand, and prioritized the level of response needed. However, in the near term, regardless of how much we want that panacea, your employees, or outsource partners, are going to need to engage with your customers as though their problems are your own

Nestle’ can speak to that issue recently. It is important to note that the Nestle’ example is not the first time a company’s supply chain management, rather than a product or service per se, came under organized criticism. Nike and Shell, among others, found their own supply chain relationships under fire over the past decade. Indeed, Shell’s early experiment in 1998 with a blog called Tell Shell came under such negative commentary from the public that the company shut it down. Nike, on the other hand, engaged the debate and incorporated the criticisms into its business model, I’ll leave it to you to decide which brand strategy makes the most sense for customer relationships.

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Ethnography and Ubiquitous Digital Research

February 4, 2010

Ethnographers are traditionally known for immersing themselves in the everyday lives of people and paying attention to the details and context of their activity. Anthropologists after Malinowski considered extended participant observation in the lives of the people they studied a prerequisite for analyzing culture. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth-century ethnographers began to consider their analysis increasingly as a challenge of interpreting cultural phenomena rather than explaining their variation.

With the increasing availability of the Web, researchers using computer-mediated communication, i.e. digital, devices in their projects label their work under a range of categories. I’ve discussed ethnography several times before, the first taking note of the trend toward virtual anthropology and the next talking about the significance of Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life, followed by a couple of posts about ethnography’s relationship to empathy and globalization.

In 2003, Cheskin’s Davis Masten and Tim Plowman characterized digital ethnography as the next wave in understanding the consumer experience in Design Management Journal. To my way of thinking they were correct in asserting that, “Digital Ethno enables participants to convey the real-time richness of their own lives and environments.”

Along with any new wave in understanding people’s experience comes a range of neologisms intended to clarify the multiplicity of research options that emerge. Kozinets recently suggested that the use of ethnography in computer-mediated research activities is best described as Netnography, a neologism he dates from 1996. He argues for the use of the term, netnography, in the following way:

Netgography differs from other qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of computer-mediated ethnography and also, importantly, its integration with other forms of cultural research (p. 15)

However, as Kozinets suggests, the 2008 survey of Intenet users done by the Annenburg Digital Futures Project found that 56% of the members of online community members meet other members of their online community face-to-face. And, as Kozinets further notes, the Annenburg research did not include social networking sites, making the figures conservative ones since, as Brian Solis recently noted, social networking combined with geo-location and augmented reality applications is bridging the online and offline interaction. Kozinets insists that this simply means research must blend ethnography and netnography to study the intermix of online and offline activity.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think Kozinets thinking on the relation between netnography and ethnography fails to persuade. Suffice it to say that, to my mind, as Web 2.0 increasingly permeates peoples’ everyday lives, the term netnography fails to sufficiently describe the way ethnography works in a consumer environment where digital devices are  ubiquitous.

As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint. If any term is needed other than ethnography, I’d suggest digital ethnography remains the most fitting. When we consider mobility as part of a ubiquitous computing environment, defining the relationship between space and place increasingly requires analyzing social practices rather than simply distinguishing a time and location for an activity.

As Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish observe, “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world.” Brewer and Dourish note, for example, that research on mobile messaging used to coordinate meet-ups or other rendezvous allow for people to show-up using a proxy form of participation before they get to the physical meeting. Additionally, the recent research by Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, How Brand Community Practices Create Value from the Journal of Marketing explicitly approaches brand communities using a range of qualitative techniques, including netnographic, to study participants across several years both online and off.

My inclination regarding ethnographic methods is to endorse the point of view offered in Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. They note,

…ethnography is not a method per se, but rather a collection of methods…In commercial consumer research circles, one sometimes hears various rules, on the order “it is only ethnography if there is observation,” or “video,” or “multiple meetings,” or “sufficient time,”…or…(filled in with any number of favorite and idiosyncratic rules. But what seems most accurate about ethnography as a companion mode of discovery in cultural analysis is that as a methodology it must be viewed through, and seen as permeated with, the sociocultural. (p. 50, my emphasis)

In other words, the specifics of the methodology matter less than its purposive application. Following Geertz, Sunderland and Denny contend, the methodologies employed, whether participant observation, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries (online or offline), village censuses, surveys, or maps, “are not ‘ethnographic’ per se, but…are made so by the intellectual framing of the task” (p.52).

The purpose of ethnographic research is as important as the methods used, as long as the sociocultural context remains in focus. For example, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers.

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Customer Competencies, Co-Creation, and Brand Communities

October 20, 2009
Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex's photostream on flickr.

Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex’s photostream on flickr.

Word of mouth communities and networks using social software are increasingly spread over regional, national, and international borders, making them much more important to those who market branded products and services, online and off. The recent buzz around the concept of social business points to the growing importance of social networks and communities to the evolution of business practice. Whether companies are in fact closing the community gap or the engagement gap remains an open question though.

As Rachael Happe of the Community Roundtable notes in commentary on the Community Maturity Model:

in the stages before a company becomes truly networked, metrics are isolated to supporting one business process vs. in a networked business the whole business becomes social and the communities are set up to support cross-functional goals.

In other words, customer communities approaching maturity produce value for the business, or organizational enterprise, rather than only a specific functional area — such as research and development, product management, customer support, or marketing. Rachel’s overall point receives validation in a recent article in the September (2009) issue of the Journal of Marketing that reports on long term ethnographic research on brand communities by Professors Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, “How Brand Community Practices Create Value .”  The most interesting thought in the article for me is their point that customer competencies are a valuable resource for building co-creation opportunities in brand communities.

Unlike earlier discussions of customer competence, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould contend trying to co-opt customer competencies is the wrong strategy. Rather, their research findings suggest community management benefits from developing opportunities for customers to grow their competencies with the brand. They make it clear that their research indicates,

Companies wishing to encourage co-creation should foster a broad array of practices, not merely customization.” In other words, don’t try to keep the community focus only on what benefits the brand as you define it. The important point to keep in mind when discussing value in brand communities is that members create value for themselves through producing cultural capital distinguishing their status relative to the community, aside from the ROI and business value gained by the company owning the brand. Making sure members are provided opportunities to grow their competencies encourages them to reinvest their cultural capital in the brand community.

I discussed co-creation in several posts this past year in relation to eLearning 2.0 generally as well as Nokia and, back in 2005, its overall importance to the challenge of creating successful innovation, including the relevance of customer communities to innovation outcomes. The concept of customer competencies captures the overall significance of co-creation for efforts to produce value through engaging customers. However, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould offer the additional insight that the competencies critical to brand communities are developed through community practices. By practice they mean the linked, implicit way people understand, say, and do things. The term is further used to refer to the activities, performances, and representations (video, graphics, etc.) or talk of community members.  

Experience designers can use the concept of customer competencies  to inform choices about how to manage practices in customer communities.
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Validating Customer Communities

October 13, 2009
group

Courtesy of mtsofan's photostream on flickr.

I’ve known Steve Finikiotis over at Touchpoints for some time, and especially appreciate his concept of the Validation Principle. I’ve seen the Validation Principle at work in my own experience managing online communities, as well as participating in many online communities. The key to any online experience is engagement, and engagement means relating empathically to other people in a way that they appreciate. Steve recently outlined the relevance of the Validation Principle to Twitter use, and other social media, in a succinct way.

If you use Twitter or any of the other social networking tools, you’re bound to notice how much people crave acceptance and appreciation…Its obvious that people like being shown appreciation, but there’s more to being appreciated than meets the eye…When we’re validated by others, we’re inclined to bond with them. I call this the Validation Principle, and it’s one of the keys to building durable customer relationships.

The bond Steve is alluding to is a key part of any successful customer community. It contributes significantly to a community’s duration. Developing such bonds though is not an easy process, requiring time as well as attention. It involves learning from customers, and it involves their learning from your actions in relating to them.  

Rule number one in managing customer communities is don’t fail to listen. Additionally, failing to recognize that customers know you are listening but feel like you just aren’t hearing them is equally damaging. Sometimes it is possible to listen effectively in an online community itself. Other times, you may need to actually do research to directly engage and validate passive members who mostly consume content (sometimes referred to as lurkers) to really understand the dynamics of an issue playing out in an online customer community.

What have you learned from engaging passive content consumers in customer communities?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Social Business, the Golden Rule, and Open Empathy Organization

May 20, 2009

empathyI first took real notice of the term “social business” in a post early this year over at Peter Kim‘s blog. The concept of social business is not limited to those enterprises seeking to “generate social improvements and serve a broader human development purpose,” though these are certainly admirable goals. Rather, social business is increasingly discussed as a frame of analysis for considering the business implications of  large numbers of people using web 2.0 technologies, especially social media, within corporate enterprises as employees, or outside them as customers.

Channels, policies, processes, touch points and transactions are increasingly viewed as parts of the social experience organizations use to engage employees in collaboration, and customers in conversation. The common goal of the discussion involves transforming business practices to incorporate social relationships into the value proposition to customers and other stakeholders.

My recent reading of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik (with Peter Mortensen) provided some basic insights for me in thinking about the development of social business practices. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the intersection of experience design and organization. The book explores the concept of empathy in a manner that speaks to the social business discussion by pointing out that the result of a transformation is more than adoption of new technologies such as social media.

Wired to Care offers an approach to organizing business as well as creating design insights on how to engage customers to improve products and services. One of my earliest posts on Skilful Minds, Break the Golden Rule with Customer Dialogue Support, offered the following observation,

Many “customer care” approaches call for treating customers the way you’d like to be treated—the so-called Golden Rule. Treating customers the way we, as service providers want to be treated implies that we inherently know what’s best for them. A customer dialogue approach alternatively assumes that customers know, or can quickly learn, what’s best for them as individual customers. We need to treat customers the way their actions indicate they want, not the way we would want to be treated as a customer.

Reading Wired to Care persuaded me that my previous point only moved the discussion a part of the way to an understanding of the nuances of the Golden Rule for business. Wired to Care offers an interesting point of view on the limitations inherent in the traditional understanding of the Golden Rule, while contending that a full appreciation of it reveals truths about us as individuals, and our relationship to organizations, whether as employees or customers. It outlines three levels of the Golden Rule:

  1. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — the most basic level with limited efficacy unless people share the same view of the world
  2. “Do unto others as they would have done to them” — requires increased empathy to distinguish the wants and needs of individuals
  3. “Do unto each other as we would have done unto us” — provides for empathy by focusing on “how we’d all like to be treated, inside the company and out,” yet also recognizes that good business practice might additionally require treating people “better than they expect to be treated”

Dev contends that the third level of the Golden Rule provides a basis for integrating empathy into the everyday practices of organizations. Though he does not use the term social business, Dev’s analysis offers a foundational strategy for implementing social business through the concept of an Open Empathy Organization.

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Empathic Research Methods and Design Strategy

July 20, 2008

Adam Silver, a Strategist at Frog Design, recently wrote an insightful article, “Calculated Design”, in the company’s online magazine — design mind. I want to discuss the article because it touches on several key issues relating to innovation and designing products and services for the experience of users/customers. Adam notes that as globalization and digitalization emerged in the 1990s the trend resulted in product and service interfaces with more culturally diverse and geographically distributed audiences and a fragmented market. The combination of these forces led designers to search for new methods to augment artistic intuition. Considerations of form and function also required attention to feel, features, and interactivity attuned to the needs, wants, and beliefs of specific users/customers.

As Adam observes, ethnography was one of the first new methods incorporated by design research to meet these challenges in the market. However, he thinks ethnography is, on its own, unable to provide the kind of information needed to validate product and service ideas across wide audiences. Read the rest of this entry »


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