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How to Turn Your Best Customers Into a Growth Engine

I’ve said repeatedly that building a vibrant community is the most important objective of any business these days.

photo credit: Mourner via photopin cc

photo credit: Mourner via photopin cc

While this may sound like some social media laced feel good sentiment it’s actually quite practical.

Making your business customers, prospects, suppliers and partners feel like important members of a bigger community simply makes long-term business sense and is the key to long-term growth in ways that you not have even considered.

Many businesses get the idea treating customers in ways that make them want to return and refer, but you should also look at your best customers as collaboration partners able to help you formulate plans for growth.

Creating new products and services and making plans for growth is tricky adventures. Why not systematically involve your customers in every decision you make? Why not create new products and services with your customers? Why not include them in content creation and marketing campaigns?

Why not get your best customers to tell you what they need and then help you create, iterate and perfect it?

Below are five steps that can help you build systematic community involvement into your growth plans

Champion personas

The first step is to segment your business customers into personality types. Not every customer group is right for this approach and you may likely have completely different segments, such as B2B and B2C, and may need to build entirely different approaches for different segments.

Additionally, you’ll want to identify customers groups or types that are more open to this level of involvement. One of the best places to look is for customers that already refer or evangelize what you do. Can you identify them specifically or can you at least come up with a description of common characteristics?

These are what I refer to as you community champions. This is the first group to focus on as you try to expand your community reach.

Ongoing mining

Next you’ll want to dig in and figure out what this group might be lacking. This is sometimes a little tricky as if they really knew they probably would have told you by now, but I find that posing a series of questions around what they wish they had, what they can’t find or what doesn’t seem to work, even about your current offerings, is a good place to start.

After you do this you’ll want to audit your content, touchpoints and revenue streams in an effort to identify a handful of potential growth and involvement opportunities.

Many times you can find ways to involve your customers by simply creating content opportunities such as guest blogging, case studies and video testimonials.

Consider events you might create where your customers can do some of the education. Host peer-to-peer roundtables and let your customers facilitate discussions among prospects.

Consider additional revenue extensions where your champion customers could moderate other customer groups and help add ongoing value.

Innovation circles

Once you’ve established some working rapport with your community champions get them involved in helping you build, test and refine new offerings.

Create what I like to call innovation circles to use to build with your customers. Take rough product, service, packaging and pricing ideas to your circles and get feedback. Then with this feedback create a beta test group that agrees to help you get it right. Then use these testers as case studies and early evangelists for your now much improved offering.

You don’t have to stop here either. You can use this same approach for all of your marketing initiatives, copy and positioning.

Accountability tracking

The final piece is the glue that holds this entire approach together and keeps your community champions coming back for more.

You must create a way to religiously track the results your champions are getting from their relationship with your organization as well as their greater involvement in the community.

This just makes good business sense, but it will also help reinforce the value you bring to the table over and above the somewhat empty claims of good service and low pricing used by your competitors.

One of the best ways to build this into your community is through game mechanics. Create ways for your community champions to participate in contests. Get them to compete with each other. Teach them how to help each other through tangible acts such as linking swapping, sharing and guest posting.

Make the use of your progress and services something they must report and even incentivize them by creating awards for people who come up with new uses and best documented results.

Partner platform

One way to take this notion up a notch is to teach a group of strategic partners how to do the same and then start cross-pollinating your communities.

When you create a common language and process, such as “innovation circles,” you make it easier to teach the methodology and create even greater participation as you and your partners are promoting the same approach.

Imagine how much more value you can bring to your community by building this kind of best of class partner platform, Further imagine how interested potential partners will be to learn how you plan to shine the light on them throughout your vibrant customer community.

Your customer champions want to help you grow and, while making referrals is one powerful way to involve them, when you take a formal approach like the one described above you’ll not only make it easier for them to refer you, you’ll create a team of business partners eager to help you plan and grow.

Teaching Your Business to Manage Itself

Have you ever encountered a business where everything just felt in place? The experience was perfect -the products, the people, the brand, everything worked in seemingly effortless fashion. You made an odd request; it was greeted with a smile. You went to try a new feature; it was right where it should be. You walked in, sat down and felt right at home.

Teaching Your Business to Manage ItselfBuilding a business can seem a bit like a giant set of Legos scattered all over the room. There are countless bits and parts and pieces that might fit together or they might not, but the game appears to be locked in composing these fragments in a manner that verges on what seems like some kind of normal.

But here’s the thing. Normal is a trap. Normal is the business you ran from to start this business. Normal is the last three businesses that choked and spurted and collapsed under the weight of management. Normal is a poor imitation.

Businesses that run so smoothly as to seem self manage aren’t normal. In fact, they are terribly counter intuitive, but terribly simple it turns out. The key is a tremendous focus on three things only – clarity, culture and community.

Clarity

Until you can get excruciatingly clear about the one thing your business really does that no one else does and, perhaps more importantly, the handful of high payoff behaviors that you the owner of said business must to spend as much time as possible immersed in, you will have a very difficult time practicing anything that looks or feels like art.

Until you can feel why you do what you do and use that as your guide the road ahead will always seem uncharted.

When you are clear about the one thing everything just gets so simple. You don’t even have to think about decisions anymore because you have the perfect filter and the filter runs the business.

If clarity for your business means earning a referral from 100% of your customers everyone know what to ask, how to greet a customer and who owns the result.

Culture

If a business is to mange itself a culture of ownership should be the sole objective. This must come at the expense of hierarchy and the assertion of autonomy. Every business, regardless of size has a culture. The only question really is whether or not it serves the business and the people that come to work there.

I’ve worked with business owners for years now and in my experience control, or the inability to give over control, is the greatest threat to business growth. Until a business can extend trust to those around him and give up control, there will be little more than constriction and contraction.

This means that you must also be able to communicate your sense of clarity and package it in a set of core values that when practiced in action become the road map for culture and the mantra for “this is who we are.”

Community

There was a time when community meant only customer. Today the customer is the community and that includes its customers, employees, mentors, vendors, advisors and even competitors all conspiring to advance and influence the business ecosystem.

When there is a clear picture about what the business stands for and the people that fill in that picture are given the freedom to manage their outcomes, the creation of a strong, vibrant and supporting community is a natural outcome.

A fully alive, self-managed business is little more than the sum of these parts orchestrated with total purpose.

What Farmers Know About Community

Family FarmI grew up in a farm community and while it’s unlikely one farmer thought of themselves as fierce competitors of another, they do provide a market with the same products.

However, I would often witness a sense of community that I think has been lacking of late, even with all of this talk of the word community. What I saw time and again was that if one farmer experienced a hardship, a broken down tractor, loss of livestock, or need to get the crop in before a big storm, they could usually count on the help of neighboring farms without the need to ask or expectation of payment.

Everyone in the community knew that they would probably need this same kind of support and gave a hand willingly. I wonder if today’s small business community could take this view? I wonder if we could take that view with our customers and even our competitors?

As we begin to will some sort of economic recovery take a quick look at your closest competitors. What’s happened to them during this downturn? Is there an opportunity to grab market share? If so, resist it and consider lending them a hand instead.

I know this may run counter to competitive wisdom, and I’m not suggesting we should to take on their payables, but I do think there’s a long view in being the kind of company that uses its position in the community to establish a statement about what’s really important.

Even with all this buzz about social and personal business behavior, I wonder if we’ve forgotten what real community is somewhere along the way.

Image credit: royal broil

Testing SezWho commenting plug-in

SezWhoIf you make comments on this blog you might have noticed a new WordPress plug-in that I’m trying out called SezWho. SezWho is a distributed context, rating and reputation service for blogs, forums, wikis and other social sites.

So, what that means is that when you post a comment or read comments from others, you can also track related comments that person has made on this blog and others. You can also sort all the comments based on reader ratings, rate comments yourself, and focus only on those comments that were rated highly useful.

It think it’s an interesting way to find new and related blogs and build a little tighter community around the folks that comment the most. Here are some examples of other sites using it as well.

Go ahead and make some comments and try it out. I would love to hear your feedback on the tool.