Most business owners recognise the value of collaboration between colleagues to improve things like innovation and engagement, but as many are discovering, collaborating with customers can reap greater rewards.
Customer collaboration can take many forms, from simply forging closer links with them on social media, to inviting them to take part in business brainstorming sessions.
Trunkaroo, which designs hands on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths) inspired activity kits for children, is one company that has benefited from close collaboration with its customers, most of who are parents.
Founder and CEO Sahar Meghani said: “Our customers are the lifeblood of what we do, and therefore we want them to feel they are a part of our decision-making process and our brand. Whether it is through social interactions, live workshops, or feedback surveys, we are constantly listening to them, and based on what they are telling us, improving our service.”
Offline workshops, where customers take part in science experiments and activities, have worked particularly well for Trunkaroo.
“It is a great way to meet our customers in person and to tell them about our plans and ideas,” she said. “During these sessions we often test out new product ideas, which makes them feel very involved in our product development process, and therefore incentivised to tell their community and friends about us. It becomes a true two-way relationship.”
Another benefit of this close collaboration was that some of Trunkaroo’s earliest customers subsequently became investors during the company’s equity funding round earlier this year. “This both validates our product offering and confirms that customers truly believe in our mission and feel invested in our success,” said Meghani.
Customer collaboration, particularly in the B2B sector, can be an effective way of raising a company’s brand profile all over the world, as Vision Support Services, a supplier of textiles to the global hospitality, healthcare and retail markets, has done with great success.
The firm has a rich history, with brands that have been around for hundreds of years and placed everywhere, from the RMS Titanic in 1912, to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai. Every year it runs a Style Awards, with the aim of finding some of the unsung heroes in hospitality design. From these awards, they produce a coffee table Style Guide featuring a selection of the most unique hotels, interviews with influential designers and a guide of up and coming trends for the year.
Marketing executive Anna Gillespie said: “This allows us to hone in on our customer base through collaborations with some of our esteemed customers, explore opportunities with potential customers and nurture relationships with current customers through recognition and celebration of their achievements.”
Another customer collaboration came in the form of a ‘Where’s Victor?’ social media competition for their hospitality customers. The company sent Vision-branded teddy bears to anyone who requested them and asked them to take photos of their bear getting up to mischief in their hotels, at their homes or even on holidays.
“We created a map showing where Victor had been, from Dubai to Trump Tower, which again required customer collaboration, but for a different reason,” explained Gillespie. “B2B brands are often seen as too corporate and lacking in humour. With this campaign, we wanted to do something fun that our customer base could really engage with. These campaigns bring about a human element to the company and, after all, people buy from people, not companies.”
Customer collaborations can work extraordinarily well, not least because they increase customer engagement while helping to build the brand in a more traditional way, through press coverage, and through word of mouth recommendations. Ultimately they can create a community of users who look to a company as a trusted industry expert.
However, as business advisor and author of The Startup Coach Carl Reader points out, there are some important things that companies must bear in mind when collaborating with their customers.
“Ensure that confidentiality agreements are signed,” he said. “With an innovation session there will be lots of ideas flying around, and some may not come to fruition. This is fine, but it’s important these ideas aren’t taken elsewhere or shared with others.”
There’s also a need to set out some ground rules to establish how the collaboration will be structured. “You need to be clear on whether it will be a meeting in need of direction, or a more fluid get together,” added Reader. “Define the expectations, and facilitate this.”
Companies should think about ways of motivating customers who are keen to collaborate, which could be anything from a simple lunch, through to beta access to products or services.
“The most important thing is to make sure you take any ideas that your customers produce on board,” said Reader. “There’s no point running the session if you are going to focus on your own ideas rather than theirs.”