Collaborating with Customers

Working Together with Customers to Achieve Their Goals

April 4, 2013

Collaboration is a method of working together to reach a goal; it isn’t the goal itself. But when you collaborate with customers to reach a goal, the results can be very powerful! Often the best collaborations begin with face-to-face, real-time meetings. But then they continue asynchronously, using emails, shared repositories, and community platforms to share, improve, provide feedback on, and validate ideas, products, and business processes that you come up with together.


The best way to figure out what a customer wants is to ask him. But don’t just ask what he wants; ask what he/she needs to be able to do, how they’d ideally like to do it, and why. And the best way to come up with great ideas for products, services, business models, and customer-facing processes is to work collaboratively with the customers that will be impacted.

However, it is important to remember that collaboration is a method of working together to reach a goal; it isn’t the goal itself. When collaborating with your customers, and with other members of the customer ecosystem, be sure that:

  • The right people from all relevant organization are involved in the collaboration.
  • The goals of the collaboration are clearly articulated.
  • You follow up on the ideas that are generated, even if just to say that they aren’t going to work.


For years, we have been evangelizing the importance of understanding your customers’ needs, desires, and priorities in order to offer products and services that help them successfully achieve their goals. But it goes beyond simply trying to understand the customers’ points of view through methods like surveys and customer satisfaction ratings. It is so much more powerful to actually work collaboratively with customers to ensure that you stay on the same path towards mutually successful results that satisfy their scenarios (what the customers are trying to accomplish and the role your organization plays in reaching their desired outcomes).

Besides coming up with impressive results by working together, the very nature of collaboration helps build stronger relationships among your stakeholders and the customers that they work with. In addition, tight relationships are built among the customers themselves, who become allied together as advocates for your company.

There are an unlimited number of scenarios where you and your customers can work collaboratively to achieve impressive results. Here are just a few:

Customer Support/Problem Solving

One of the most common company/customer collaboration scenarios is customer support. A truly empowered customer service representative can work with a customer not just to fix a problem, but to ensure that the customer is fully satisfied and that the problem can be avoided for other customers. Let’s look at a very simple example: a customer cannot figure out how to properly assemble the piece of office furniture (say, a bookcase) that she purchased. The instructions aren’t clear, and the customer is desperately in need of help. Because the bookcase is a relatively low-cost item, the company can’t afford to send out a “field engineer” to do the assembly—that just doesn’t make economical sense. But neither does continually having a CSR talk through the assembly process with customer after customer (realistically, if one customer is having trouble, many are having the same issue).

Of course, the company can post more complete documentation online as well as YouTube videos on how to build the bookcase, and this is always a good idea. But how much better to work collaboratively with the customers who have the same problem, finding out exactly where they are getting stuck, getting ideas for what pieces of information provided in the packaging would have gotten them over the hurdles, and how to best present that information (what words to use, pictures to draw, helpful tips to provide) or even how the product might be modified to make for much easier assembly. Then imagine that the CSR has the authority (and the relationships) with colleagues in documentation and product design. The ideas from the customer (or multiple customers) could be rapidly prototyped in new documentation or a slightly modified set of tools included in the package. Then the customers who provided ideas could be invited to test out the new and improved assembly process in order to provide feedback.

Yes, this is expensive. But the results of what has now become an ad hoc collaborative project, initiated by a customer need, can save countless calls to the support line and, even more valuable, help encourage future sales of the brand because customers will no longer become frustrated when building the bookcase, and are now much more inclined to also purchase the matching credenza.

This is a rather simplistic example. But extrapolate the idea to the products that you offer. How might empowering your customer service representative to initiate this type of collaborative product based on customer issues help reduce support traffic and increase future business (not to mention the enhanced relationships with those customers that are included in being part of the solution team).

Customer Co-Design

And this all leads to the most powerful customer collaboration of all: Customer Co-Design. More and more (although still not enough) businesses are working collaboratively with customers, suppliers, and partners to co-design new features, processes, products, and even business models. In co-design, the company subject matter experts work directly with customers (and partners) to actually describe, specify, and possibly even build a new way of doing things, an enhanced product that fits a new customer need, or a streamlined business process that eliminates customer frustration and company expense.

Here’s a simple example of a business process and policy change that resulted from a customer co-design (and this really happened to me)…


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