How to Harness the Customer Awakening

Over the last few decades, we've seen remarkable "awakenings" in Eastern Europe and in some parts of Africa. Last year, a Tunisian vegetable vendor, exasperated with government oppression, immolated himself in front of the offending government building, setting off a chain of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East, the "Arab Awakening."

While business markets are obviously different from societies in many ways, they share more things in common, especially in today's networked world. In particular, many businesses are experiencing similar awakenings spawned by their customers. Consider the "My Dell hell" diatribes by prominent blogger and journalist Jeff Jarvis, or Heather Armstrong's "Maytag Nightmare" that she described in vivid detail to her 1.5 million followers. Both launched media and customer firestorms; both shook top management to its core.

C-suites and boards are often puzzled, even frozen, over how to communicate with customers in this chaotic and potentially dangerous new environment. Imagine you're a major bank. Would you want to start a Facebook page and let anyone weigh-in with what they thought of you, and of banking in general?

But what many see as a threat is actually a major opportunity. And the lessons learned from political uprisings can inform businesses on how to adjust to the new, increasingly transparent world we live in.

In both cases, you have institutions whose purpose is to serve a community: citizens on the one hand, customers on the other. And while business has scant experience dealing with this new access and openness, political institutions have a few centuries of experience under their belts.

What can they teach us? Let's look at one key assumption business is making about the new world, and see how important lessons from perhaps the most successful of all the political awakenings — the American Revolution — can suggest better approaches.

Seize Control of the Conversation

"In today's world, you've lost control of the conversation." That's what a number of pundits are saying and as a result many companies are taking a defensive approach to the new socially networked world. That's not what the Founding Fathers did.

Much like we see today, during the 1700s there was an explosion in communication. The American postal system flourished, making it possible for individuals throughout the country to communicate directly with each other. Four times as many publications of all types were in circulation in the last three decades of the18th century, as in the entire previous century and a half. London's Grub Street, an early version of Madison Avenue, flourished as its "hacks" sold their writing services for persuading, and sometimes inflaming, audiences. Versions of Grub Street popped up in other countries, including America.

The early American revolutionaries took full advantage of this cacophony, forming the famous "Committees of Correspondence" to gather like-minded people into communities to exchange ideas and publish them. Think of them as shrewd, freedom-loving rebels akin to those in contemporary Libya, Egypt or Syria.

A group we now know as the Founding Fathers then took charge as the leaders of the Revolution, not by force or legal means, or by hiring the services of Grub Streeters to manipulate the conversation. Rather, they took control of the conversation with big ideas: new concepts illuminating how the people they wanted to serve could lead better lives, find prosperity and freedom, and pursue happiness. For the first time, the ones communicating ideas were the ones implementing them.

That's the opportunity many businesses have today, often without realizing it.

Hitachi Data Systems — Be the influencer

Many companies, dipping their toes into social media and Web marketing, try to engage with bloggers who've built up audiences and exert influence over their buying decisions. It's what I call the Blanche Dubois approach to marketing: it "depends on the kindness of strangers." Also, their approach to social media is defensive: hire listeners and react swiftly to negative comments.

Nothing wrong with that, but businesses today have a huge opportunity to take the American Founders' approach and seize control of the conversation. That's because you and your company have two things no blogger or academic can match: You have (1) customers who are, presumably, achieving noteworthy success with the help of your product or service, and (2) internal experts who have deep subject matter knowledge and work every day, in the trenches, with those customers. These are the ones implementing solutions, who should be communicating to your market.

Hitachi Data Systems, a data storage and knowledge solutions firm, took this approach when it was having trouble "getting the word out" about its offerings. HDS has passionate customers, but also competes against much bigger, better-funded competitors. As I explain in my book, The Hidden Wealth of Customers, HDS marketing executives Brian Householder and Asim Zaheer took, in effect, the Founding Fathers' approach to assert leadership in the conversation. Here's how:

Get your experts out front. HDS put Hu Yoshida, its highly-respected chief technology officer, in the limelight to attract high-level audiences. His blog, which is now one of the most influential in the industry, showcases his subject matter expertise and experience.

Yoshida brings deep subject matter experience (and accompanying credibility), and is helping implement the ideas he talks about. And like the Founders, he leverages his knowledge and experience by communicating big ideas — social innovation, video surveillance, making incredible movie special effects — that get attention.

Put customer issues front and center. Part of HDS strategy is to attract C-level buyers. Yoshida gives C-level readers insights into current trends in topics such as private-cloud computing, virtualization, big data, unified storage management, and other issues critical to that intended audience. He focuses regularly on helping them think through important issues, rather than just touting HDS solutions.

When he does tout HDS solutions, look at the difference with traditional marcom. Rather than marketing-ese from an anonymous corporate source, Yoshida comes across as an expert, with time in the trenches, who's proud of his work and craft.

Stop reacting — lead. Like many other firms, HDS has immersed itself in social media and its new forms of communication — but not because doing so is trendy or because they "have to." They simply go where their customers and buyers are.

Following those customers, the firm established a Facebook page page and a Twitter account. However, unlike many such corporate social network pages that fall into the trap of being "all about us," HDS has extended its approach to include addressing issues it knows its customers are facing. For example, the Facebook page might post links to blog posts by Yoshida on the latest video technology or storage trends. Or it might tweet a link to an article on how much money you could save in your data center.

Put customer experiences front and center. Central in all HDS thought leadership efforts are customer stories. "If our audience is a bank CFO, we'll talk about a large bank on Wall Street that tackled the issue we're addressing, and how it did so," says Zaheer. What's more, the firm keeps customers closely engaged as it rolls out its content, keeping them informed, getting their input and feedback, featuring their stories, and putting them on stage at its live events. For customers and prospects who are located where HDS doesn't have a presence, the firm can take a variety of new and old media steps to rectify that situation.

Seen through the lens of history, the current customer awakening, and the disruptions caused by social media to business today, need not be a cause for worry or panic. Instead, they represent a tremendous opportunity — provided that business managers and leaders can think and act anew and seize the moment. Like the American Founders did, and like HDS is doing.

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