Utilize Technology to Build Intimate Customer Communities

The latest developments allow businesses to cut out the middlemen and establish a direct line to the people that matter most.

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By Lisa Hammitt

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In today's cloud-based, mobile-focused, inherently social world, customers demand a higher level of responsiveness than ever before: they expect businesses to provide what they want, when and how they want it.

But achieving this type of agility can be difficult for big businesses that are several levels removed from the customer and often struggle with the red tape of internal communications. In many cases, it can be several weeks before customer feedback filters up to the appropriate levels and change can be effected, frustrating customers and leading to a decline in brand loyalty.

Related: The Bigger the Brand, the More Likely Its Customers Feel Ignored

Until very recently, middlemen such as distributors and agencies were the people who exclusively held relationships with customers -- because of limitations imposed by factors such as time, location and technology, businesses simply couldn't connect with their customers in a personal fashion and were reliant upon the connection these middlemen provided.

But entrepreneurs today are changing all that. We're finally seeing a move away from the traditional model towards a type of extroversion in dozens of young companies. Next-generation social infrastructure and mobile technology are making it possible. It reflects a radically different kind of customer intimacy that is all about understanding customers at an individual level, through personalization and direct connection utilizing social technology.

This new customer intimacy appreciates connections as much as it recognizes customers as individual buying units. It accepts that the consumption of goods and services almost always has a sometimes latent social component no matter what vertical you serve: education, healthcare, cooking, sports, finance, arts, entertainment, fashion, etc.

Your organization sits in a mostly invisible pool of customers, non-customers and influencers, a pool that is much larger than your organization and upon which your very existence is entirely dependent.

So what do you need to be doing? Not letting any distributors and agencies get between you and your customers, for starters. You need to not only get close to your customers, you need to meet them in the middle of the street. You need to make customers integral parts of your most creative processes -- make them part of your team.

It's all about creating communities and 24/7 engagement with customers using social technology. These communities should consist of members from both inside (employees) and outside (customers) of your organization, and collaborate to accomplish goals. Like-minded customers can share information, employees can better understand and address customer concerns, and your organization can create and co-create with customers to build lasting relationships.

Below are some key precepts to adhere to when thinking about utilizing social technology to build these communities for your business:

Your community needs a mission.

The mission is what drives community engagement over the long term, and what separates communities of purpose from discussion forums. The community must be fully integrated with your business processes: begin by pinpointing specific customer pain points, and then focus the community on solving those through interaction and open discussion with customers.

Related: Should You Listen to Your Customers' Needs or Do They Even Know What They Really Want?

Take this discussion a step further by incorporating customer feedback and producing iterations of the product based upon the discussions held in the community.

Remember to aim high -- the mission needs to hit a notch or two above the literal product or service category being delivered. Customers need to feel as if they are co-creating and that their opinions have a hand in shaping an improved product that meets their wants and needs.

Participation is a two-way street.

The mission the community decides upon must appeal to a higher, long-term sense of purpose, but for a community to work the collaboration needs to produce immediate benefits for each set of constituents. To build brand loyalty, customers need to see change happening quickly, and employees need to see that their connection with the customer is producing a return on their time investment.

Rather than traditional product development cycles of months or even years, adjust to shorter cycles that focus on incorporating customer feedback incrementally. Utilize social channels and rich-media content such as video to obtain immediate customer feedback and iterate quickly.

The process and technology can't get in the way.

Organizational hierarchies shouldn't get ripped apart, and IT resources shouldn't get diverted from day-to-day operations. Look for social technologies that allow you to build communities that effectively float over existing hierarchies.

This way, there is minimal IT involvement (which means lowered costs and saved time), and your communities can get up and running in days or weeks, rather than months -- which means addressing customer concerns more quickly and effectively.

Services are a sweet spot.

Communities are about relationships, and relationships are inherent to services. So it's no surprise that connected communities involve innovative services created by what had been, less than four years before, purely product groups.

To build lasting relationships with customers, it is imperative to constantly keep a customer-service mindset, regardless of what industry you operate in. Only then will buyers turn from one-time shoppers into lifelong customers. In other words, it's no longer about providing a product -- everything is now a service.

Related: Customers Demand These 2 Fundamental Aspects of Authentic Brands

Lisa Hammitt

Vice President of Marketing of Salesforce Community Cloud

Lisa Hammitt is a senior software executive with 25 years of industry experience. Most recently, as vice president of marketing of Salesforce Community Cloud, she is spearheading strategy and is charting out industry-led use cases that drive community adoption and reach. Before Salesforce, Hammitt headed mergers and acquisitions in information management and cloud computing at IBM and HP. She received B.A. degrees in economics and French from University of California, Berkeley, and completed graduate coursework in artificial intelligence at Stanford University.

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