As customer relationship trends go, there is something of a "back to the future" feel about receiving direct input and guidance from customers. This is an extremely effective, but rather infrequently used, method for helping shape product and service strategies and marketing programs.
The advisory and community techniques for doing this are both well known and well established, and relatively easy to implement; yet, surprisingly few companies actually apply them at all, and fewer still get direct customer input on a regular basis. For those that do, there are lessons for organizations of any size or industry. The LEGO Group is a company that has, for example, a unique method for obtaining, and actively using, direct customer input within the DNA of their companies.
LEGO products for adults
There are something like 300 million humans on the planet who, at one time or another, have played with LEGO products since they were first introduced almost 60 years ago. My daughters loved building with them when they were little (they’re now in their 30s,
with kids of their own), and one of my grandsons is a LEGO products fanatic (graduated from the building bricks to the new line of dinosaurs).
With children, the principal market, the LEGO Group has been extremely active in using devices like its LEGOLAND theme parks (in California, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom) as a prototype proving ground and for getting response to new product concepts, although the company has announced that it will be reducing its share of ownership in the parks this year. A new source for generating direct customer insight is being added, as I understand it, through "LEGO Inside Tours," exclusive visits (small groups of kids at a time, ala Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory tour) to see the company facilities and work closely with product designers and developers, model makers and marketing planners. This is a prime example of bringing customer input directly into the center of the business.
What isn’t nearly as well known, however, is how popular LEGO products are with adults, and how big a business opportunity this is for the company. Getting direct input from adult enthusiasts has become a major initiative. I was introduced to LEGO contact methods with adults, first hand, at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association conference in Chicago last March. Jake McKee is LEGO Group’s global community relations specialist (online/offline community and blogging), and he presented on LEGO Group’s activities regarding, as he states in his LEGO Group community "About Me" description, "projects that help integrate the adult fans in the daily operations of the company."
|How One Company Takes Direct Input From Brand Influentials and Advocates:
The LEGO Group Ambassadors Program
While many corporate approaches for obtaining insight and guidance directly from customers are little more than glorified focus groups, yielding fairly pedestrian results, some companies have taken more creative, leading-edge approaches. A great example is the LEGO Group Ambassadors Program, which has been in place since the beginning of 2005.
There are between 15 and 20 Ambassador “seats,” or participants, carefully recruited from among influential members of the adult enthusiast community. They serve in six-month cycles. Members provide feedback on new product concepts at early stages of development. This is done on both a virtual basis and at events, such as BrickFest, an independently run conference and public exposition for adult LEGO products fans. Another key element of this program is that it functions as a conduit, or mechanism, for building stronger ties with adult LEGO enthusiasts, demonstrating the company’s interest in providing high value for them.
As stated by Jake McKee, the LEGO Group staffer who oversees the program, “Our company has recognized the benefit of direct customer dialogue. We’re not selling products in the Ambassadors Program or looking to participants to push products for us. In their involvement with the company, we can demonstrate respect for our customers; and both sides get something positive out of the relationship. They’re real people, and we want them to be happy with LEGO Group and our products.”
He’s involved in an array of blog and forum sites. This is serious stuff for LEGO Group, and having McKee as a member of management, devoted solely to communicating with these customers, reflects the company’s commitment to direct adult input as a key source of guidance. What McKee represents is not only the company’s desire to solicit input from adult LEGO products enthusiasts but also its desire to do so in the venues and through the communications devices that are most active and comfortable for them.
Direct customer input
Here are several important advantages to getting either in-person or community input from customers:
- Product/concept/process beta testing. When companies come up with new products or concepts, or intend to modify a relationship process, they can get an early read on customer response by using their advisors or communities as collaborators and jury. Customers can critique or test a proposed offering or process modification, sharing opinions and suggestions, while companies observe and mine the information. Though anecdotal, this helps companies optimize their offerings, often avoiding the complexities and costs associated with gathering complete customer input prior to introduction.
- Customer value research. Companies can conduct straight customer loyalty and customer value research by recruiting panels of forum or community participants. Typically, these surveys are conducted on an intranet basis. Results are immediate, and companies using their forum participants as panelists get response rates high enough to avoid the non-response bias pitfalls of other, lower response, self-completion research methods. Further, companies using their communities for value research can link results to projected, segmented customer profitability, a tremendous benefit.
- Real-time insight. Input generated from customer communities, blogs or advisory groups is about as fresh and current as any company could want. Customers can reflect back to their suppliers needs and problems, which are actively on their radar screens, and organizations are then in a position to quickly respond for process modification, product or service planning or message and communication development.
If these reasons don’t feel compelling enough, also consider this: Letting customers into the inner sanctum of company processes can be like letting sunshine bathe plants. Given enough moisture and nutrients, i.e. the perspectives and direct input of customers, this will very definitely help the enterprise will grow and flourish.
Other quick, unique examples
The LEGO Group is not alone. There are other companies that have used customers for direct input, and they are worth mentioning. They include:
- Southwest Airlines, which uses frequent passengers to help select new employees
- John Deere, which has a dealer advisory board for guiding retail development programs
- Dorothy Lane Markets, which has a customer advisory board for helping improve operating processes in each of its three stores
- Harley Davidson, which gets input from active H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) members
A concluding thought
As organizations seek to have more actionable insight into current and emerging customer needs, direct customer input will only continue to grow—not just "back to the future" but also as a way to get closer to customers, understand the way they make decisions and deepen relationships with them. Everything old is new again.