The realities of customer engagement (hint: it’s not all positives)

The other day I jumped into a conversation thread on the SWOM forum and caught this bit of genius from “Wandering Dave Rhee”:


As a former Dell competitor (at the time when they introduced their initiative last year), I can say that we closely looked at the pros and cons of creating such an initiative ourselves [Ideastorm]. The pros are fairly obvious, so I’ll simply say that the perception of listening to your customers is as important as actually listening and acting on what they tell you.

The cons, however, can be numerous. For example, do you really have enough resources to manage a discussion professionally, if your internal team can barely keep up with the internal ideas coming from your own people? For example, feedback from your (professional business) customers, which is filtered through your (dedicated in-house) sales force?

How do you prioritize the input feedback, if what you’re told is, “I think it would be cool if you had or did X,” when you know from past experience that this seldom translates into, “I would buy more of your product than I already do if you had or did X”? Or rather, “I would buy so much more of your product or service, that it would more than pay for your effort to collect and process my feedback, plus integrate it into your design and manufacturing loop”?

How do you gently tell your customers, “Thanks for your feedback, but we’ve decided to do something else instead”? Even if your reasons are good, yet possibly confidential ones? (Such as exclusive supplier agreements that prohibit you integrating some new “cool” (but not necessarily better) technology into your product?)

And here’s the biggest one — any consumer-facing company with a lengthy product history (e.g., you’ve been around more than 5 years) also will have a natural backlog of unhappy customers. If this is your first effort to solicit feedback in a public forum, then you must be prepared to hear, and address in public, a lot of angry complaints (whether justified or not, including those from unethical people looking to blackmail you for a handout). You have to decide that you have first, a culture of transparency in your internal management, second, a willingness to air your dirty laundry in public, and third, the staff and other resources to wash it several times a day, since letting complaints sit over a long holiday weekend can really do significant damage to your brand.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, although lord knows I’ve tried many, many times over the years. The real solution to this reality (notice I’m not calling it a problem…) is to power through it. Think about what it takes to train for a marathon: you don’t run 26 miles on day one. Instead, you start slowly and each day just keep adding to your distance. Of course after day one and a half mile you may feel like you’re going to die. Stop there and you’ll get nowhere. But when you wake up the next morning and push it up to a mile then two the day after, you find yourself surprised when it’s marathon time and you’re ready for that 26 miles.

Remember, success is hard. But the more you practice, the easier it gets.