Making The Experience Emotional and Personal: How Online Communities Can Help Companies Strategically Build, Protect, and Recover Customer Trust

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In books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), the isolation of individuals, and the desire for community (through technological means) was thoroughly chronicled. Putnam identified this sense of isolation as the decline of personal ‘social capital’ found through traditional offline community activities, and group interaction in general, and asked how the feeling of connectedness could be rebuilt.

Shortly after Putnam’s book was published, early and embryonic brand-building online communities such as iVillage began to gain recognition. In addition to these focused communities of interest, progressive companies also started paying attention to the networking and social participation phenomenon. Organizations like Amazon began building customer communities. This was the start of what we know as the online ‘network effect’, to better understand customers, and build or protect image, though viral communication or word-of-mouth.

Today, emotions and personalization have everything to do with optimizing, or crippling, the customer experience. Online communities can be pivotal in driving the emotional response, and the resulting perception, of a corporate or brand reputation resulting from enterprise actions and behaviors. Customer experiences must at least match the brand, product and services promises made through these, and related, communication programs. If experiences don’t parallel promises, consumers express their feelings and opinions to the world with a single mouse click; and companies have to pay attention or suffer the lasting consequences of negative word-of-mouth. A prime example of this was what became known as ‘Dell Hell’, in which the poor support service and product quality deficiencies customers were experiencing from this popular consumer manufacturer during roughly 2005 through 2007 sent shock waves through the Internet.

At one point, the Attorney General of New York even sued Dell for false advertising, poor product quality (stories of overheating laptops catching fire), failure to provide adequate or efficient support services, and deceptive business practices (such as useless warranties). It was not until Dell publicly apologized, brought much of their offshore and outsourced customer service back in-house, and opened collaborative employee-customer community sites such as Direct2Dell (which set up an employee-consumer dialogue portal about product and service quality issues, with a team of Dell staffers who monitor comments and reach out to bloggers) that this situation gradually began to subside. In sum, the negative customer perception took several years, and much effort and expense, to erase; but it has remained fairly positive ever since.

As with Dell, an online community can be an effective lever for rebuilding and stabilizing brand reputation and image. That opportunity has been used by companies which have experienced negative press and impaired customer perception, such as Toyota, Carnival, JetBlue, and FedEx. My colleagues and I have been observing how Target’s data breaches, which have impacted over 100 million shoppers during the 2013 holiday shopping season, resulted in a draining of the emotional bank account – the sum of positive personal brand experiences and word-of-mouth – of customer trust in the organization. This has hurt the company financially, but there is also a ‘long tail’ of negative enterprise reputation and image to be addressed.

Online community has the power to help bring back customer and public trust in Target, through collaborative dialogue and assurances that the company is serious about taking responsibility for the data issues, and letting consumers know that strategic plans and processes are in place to fix the problems. Most customers appreciate and want more of this kind of personalization, a relationship, and an emotional connection. Community would provide this to Target, an integral element of its brand trust reconstruction.

Doing this contributes to making an enterprise like Target feel more human, transparent, authentic and honest, and accessible to customers and other stakeholders. Community also enhances the branded experience, and it makes the customers active partners in shaping Target’s future reputation and image It’s not the only trust-building answer for Target, but online community would be a major component of this effort.

It’s up to organizations to:

• identify the strongest emotional drivers for customers and other key stakeholders, such as employees
• effectively leverage these emotional drivers.
• create methods of building an emotional connection on an ongoing basis.

Successful companies have either evolved to do this as part of their operational and shared values DNA, or they have begun to recognize the importance of image and social responsibility in their communication programs, by placing customers’ interests ahead of the enterprise’s. They can build a veritable bank account of trust. High trust, and the positive reputation and image it breeds, represent both an enduring strategic advantage and a definite competitive differentiator. Personalization, which is enabled by an organization’s online community, builds trust and truly optimizes the overall customer experience, which is perhaps its most important benefit.

Many organizations have questions about how private online communities can help them build stakeholder trust and achieve business, innovation, and cultural goals. FYI, I will be co-facilitating an online community webinar on April 29th at 2 p.m. EST with Dr. Whitney Miller, Director of Insights for Passenger, a leading developer and manager of b2b and b2c online communities (www.thinkpassenger.com). Registration for this informative session is free, and all those interested are encouraged to attend. Please click on the above link to register.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.

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