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The Best Consultant You Can Hire? Your Customers

Companies can go a lot further than just using a consumer for a one-time trick like crowdsourcing for a marketing campaign or reacting to new products. The real opportunity is to structurally collaborate with your consumers.

The Best Consultant You Can Hire? Your Customers

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Co-creation is hot these days, with companies involving consumers in creating new products or in developing a new marketing campaign. I am a big fan of these campaigns; however, they don’t use the consumer’s knowledge to its full extent.

Companies can go a lot further than just using a consumer for a one-time trick. The real opportunity is to structurally collaborate with your consumers. In the last year, I have researched the options and limitations of structural collaboration between companies and their customers. One of the conclusions is that the consumer is an excellent consultant. Just like when you hire a typical company adviser, the art here also lies in involving the right people as consultants.

And yet, about half of companies we researched do not solicit feedback from clients when shaping new ideas, new products, and concepts. When they launch a new product they have to wait and see how the market responds. A quarter of the companies have a client community, either an open one and/or a closed one. These companies manage to integrate the client’s input in their decision-making processes. By approaching the clients via a community, you go beyond a once-off action. Via the community, you manage to engage interesting people for a longer time span. These people are the ideal consultants for your company, so to speak. They turn into employees that are not on the payroll.

Even though the number of client communities is quite high, only a very limited group of companies manage to structurally involve their clients. The main group is not involving their clients at all. Structural collaboration is probably the most difficult to implement of all the options offered by new digital (social) media, as its impact goes way beyond marketing. It concerns R&D, IT, legal, sales and marketing. All processes have to be adapted to do it properly, so it makes sense that it cannot be implemented overnight.

Objectives for structural collaboration

Consumers as consultants represent the core of co-creation. Let consumers think along and work with you on a structural level. You can use different objectives in doing so:

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· Make better products. By using the consumer as consultant, the number of failed product introductions should decrease.

· Increase flexibility. By having the consumer on board, you can move faster, e.g. no 6-weeks wait for research results. The consumer is always available and can help where necessary.

· Generate positive consumer feeling. Every good marketer has a decent amount of gut feeling in him/her. It would be great if we could add to that a hint of consumer feeling. One of the targets of involving the consumer as consultant helps managers think as a consumer; decisions will more accurately reflect consumer sentiment. 

· Foster good marketing and PR. Evidently a lot of marketing and PR effects are involved when the consumer sits at the table. Companies that are open and listen to their customers are extremely popular in this respectx.

Consumer consulting boards

There are several ways to obtain feedback from the customer. One of them is classic market research. Via focus groups and questionnaires, a company looks for the opinion of the customer. Furthermore a company can easily ask for feedback from social media followers and fans. This will rapidly give you a first indication of whether something is successful or not. Feedback via social media is rapid, qualitative, and direct. The only disadvantage is that it is rather superficial.

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The most in-depth way of structural collaboration is the ‘consumer consulting board’. This is a relatively small group of consumers (150-1000) who are participating behind the scenes in almost all tactical and strategic company matters.

A nice example of such consumer consulting board can be found with Ducati, a sports bike brand. In the sports bike industry there are competitive advantages to creating technical gems. Making a new bike is a complex and technical procedure. Even if someone is a Ducati fan, this does not mean these people can also give technical input. However some fans have huge technical knowledge. Many bikers work on their bikes themselves in their spare time. In order to learn from these people’s experiences, Ducati set up an online tech café. This is a community of some 1000 experts. Some of them have even developed new designs for the next Ducati bike. These 1000 people give continuous advice to the Ducati R&D department. Ducati considers its fans to be a genuine part of the company. The major part of product management, R&D, coming up with new designs and commercial management is done in close collaboration with the fans via online communities.

The advantage of such a consumer consulting board versus collaboration on an open platform is the thoroughness. Consumers are really involved in the company and give real in-depth input. Companies that have such a consulting boards manage to get the consumer in the boardroom too, and do so more rapidly than the others. This of course helps in making very customer-oriented decisions.


The employees who are not on the payroll

Important question: which consumers make the best consultants? In order to obtain advice on a daily basis for your company, you need relevant people. Consumer consulting boards require consumers who can give added value. The minimum condition is their commitment to your company. Consumers are either consultant connoisseurs, devotees of your sector, or they are major fans of your brand. Research by InSites Consulting colleagues has proven that, without this emotional link, people are not interested in participating in an online community. You are in fact looking for collaborators who are not on the payroll. If you want to evolve to co-creation of new products, these two extra dimensions are handy to involve in your selection:

1. People who have an innovative vision and are socially independent. They have their independent vision on innovations. They consider only their own experiences and opinions, not taking into account what might be popular. These people bring you a lot of innovative and pure ideas. They love trying new things. Their opinion is more extreme that the typical customer’s. They will feed you pioneering ideas.

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2. Social influencers. This group discusses novelties, taking into account what their social environment thinks of them. Influencers are regarded by their surroundings as some sort of creative specialists who easily discover the advantages of innovations. Therefore their opinion concerning certain innovations and the market is often asked for. They love being creative with products and think it is important that others approve of the innovations they use. They talk proactively to others about innovations. It is clear: it is relevant to collaborate with this group, and they contain a lot of conversation potential. This second group not only helps at brainstorming, but also at starting conversations during the realization of them. They have a good feel for what novelties will be adopted by the market and which ones won’t. They filter the ideas of the first group.

These are only a few of our conclusions from our research on structural collaboration. All details can be read here, and can be downloaded via SlideShare.

What kind of experiences has your company had with consumer consulting boards? Tell us about it in the comments. 

[Image: Flickr user Anthony Catalano]

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