Customer engagement emerges as the next frontier in product innovation

True innovators recognize that customer engagement is at the heart of successful customer service.

Most companies intuitively understand the return on investment that comes from improving customer experience. But in the era of mobile devices and social platforms, what only innovative companies have grasped is that customer experience hinges on true customer engagement.

People talk about products as the engines behind innovation, and that's true. But what about the innovation that surrounds service and service delivery? Products matter, but it's the service layered on top that often differentiates the products themselves. Customer interaction -- and its importance to overall customer experience -- is an area of intense focus where companies are upping the ante and making the difference.

This new form of service delivery now often comes in the form of customer engagement and crowdsourcing. Companies are now engaging customers in the process of delivering a product -- through social channels, on their mobile devices, in online communities and other forums. As a result, customers' ability to get involved and share information with others is having a profound impact on the kinds of products that companies are creating and delivering. Companies that have recognized the role of customers in their product lifecycle offer some lessons in superior customer experience. Let's consider some.

Game changers

Brad ClevelandBrad Cleveland

Jed York, the 33-year-old CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, is bringing a team that had fallen on hard times back to prominence. San Francisco came razor-close to winning the 2013 Super Bowl. York is "the secret behind the 49ers' return to greatness," wrote CBS Sports writer Jason La Canfora in a recent column.

Those who work with York often cite his vision, leadership, and organizational skills, but when I spoke with him, I picked up on another trait: He's incredibly focused on customer experience. For all the intrigue surrounding players (his deep concern for them is evident) and a new $1.2 billion stadium set to open in August, his focus seems to always gravitate back to the fans.

Products matter, but it's the service layered on top that often differentiates the products themselves.

Levi's Stadium will be fully equipped for mobile phones (think network, apps, video feeds). "[Fans are] coming in with their Androids and iPhones; they've already invested in the hardware," York said. Imagine a player scoring a touchdown: Some will watch the replay from different angles; others may want to explore his involvement in the community, buy jerseys with his number or jump into social discussions. In York's world, customers become part of the game.

Customer engagement is a theme playing out across today's most innovative organizations. Jessica Herrin is the CEO and founder of Stella & Dot, a company that offers boutique-style jewelry and accessories exclusively through in-home trunk shows. She and her team have developed an innovative social shopping approach that harnesses ecommerce, social media and personal service, and the company is on a rapid growth track. In another example, Local Motors, headed by CEO and founder John ("Jay") Rogers, enables customers to design and build their own street-legal car or motorcycle through "crowd-powered automotive design, manufacturing and technology" (check out this interview on Jay Leno's Garage).

Customer engagement is an end product, not a by-product

Think these companies are exceptions? Innovative outliers? Maybe, but don't underestimate the central role of customer interaction and engagement in the success of more traditional organizations. I visited General Motors' customer care center in downtown Detroit. As GM goes through deep water with its recalls, cultivating customer engagement has become more important than ever.

In addition to traditional channels, GM interacts with customers and prospects through 97 automobile forums, 20 Facebook pages and 14 Twitter handles; it has tools to pull potential conversations to desktops, where reps decide when it's appropriate and helpful to join conversations. As one of their agents told me, referring to a forum scrolling across his screen, "That's where our customers are, so we need to be there." Organizations as diverse as Intuit, Comcast and the National Cancer Institute are transforming engagement through multichannel customer interaction.

It's intriguing to see the role of customer interaction in shaping strategy and business returns. And it's fast becoming a competitive mandate.

This article was originally published in the (free) newsletter The Edge of Service.

About the author:
Brad Cleveland is a speaker and consultant who has worked throughout the U.S. and in more than 60 countries for American Express, Apple, USAA and others. He is the author of eight books, and publishes the popular (free) newsletter The Edge of Service. Cleveland was one of two initial partners in the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), where he now serves in an advisory role. He can be reached at brad@bradcleveland.com.

This was first published in July 2014

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