5 Pillars for Structural Collaboration with your Customers

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Tom De Ruyck and myself recently conducted a qualitative study about structural collaboration between companies and consumers. The target group of our research project were C-level people of global brands. In the next few days, we will introduce all the findings from this study. The attached PowerPoint available on SlideShare contains all details of the study and is available for download.

Before we begin: what do we mean with structural collaboration? This paper describes the success factors for ‘structural collaboration’. When we talk about structural collaboration we mean the integration of the voice of the customer in all decision making flows of your company. In most companies, customers are only allowed to give feedback at the very end of a decision making flow through traditional market research. This paper gives insights on how to involve the customer in every single phase of the decision making flow on an ongoing basis. We acknowledge that collaboration can also be done with employees, but the focus of this paper is on collaboration with the market.

The facts about crowdsourcing, co-creation and collaboration
Co-creation is hot. In recent years, the world has been witness to a whole host of successful co-creation cases. Doritos allowed its fans to develop an advert to be shown during the Superbowl. Lays Crisps asked their customers to help choose a new flavour and snack manufacturer Mora produced a new croquette in collaboration with its consumers. Co-creation and crowd-sourcing are high on the agenda of the majority of today’s marketers. It is seen as a quick way to experiment with this new way of working. There is nothing wrong with this, but in most cases it doesn’t go any further than being just a trendy marketing campaign. The other problem with all of the examples above: they were all ‘one-offs’. There is no long term vision, nor intention to collaborate with the customer in a more structural way.

Currently, only 3% of all companies have experience with developing new products and services with their consumers. In most cases , this collaboration starts with a pilot project. If the test is successful, the collaboration can gradually be built up in a more structural manner. Less than one out of ten companies who co-create with their customers also use this collaboration for the launching of new products. We may say that the focus of co-creation is mainly focused on the initiation of new ideas. But even if consumers are more or less continually involved in the process of dreaming up new ideas, this is still not enough to be able to speak of ‘structural collaboration’. Structural collaboration means that the customer is involved in all aspects of your company’s life. This includes:

1. Getting new insights: exploration of the target group. Listen directly on how they perceive the product and service quality to optimize the commercial portfolio. This also implies discovering new market trends and unmet needs from your most relevant customers.

2. The development of new ideas and fine-tuning of existing ideas. Create new commercial value together with the customer. By involving them in the product, campaign or brand development flow, you create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The most relevant customers decide almost upfront what they will buy.

3. Key role during implementation. Include customers during the implementation phase to make sure that your interpretation of their ideas is done in a correct way.

4. Continuous evaluation and optimization. Use the voice of the customer as a continuous flow of information to improve loads of smaller, tactical issues and to re-shape the future of your company with your customer as your primary consultant.

And it pays off: a recent article in the ‘Harvard Business Review’ claimed that companies are better able to solve all their main business problems if they collaborate closely with their consumers. The good news is that consumers are also willing to help companies out with this: more than half of them want to collaborate with one of their favourite brands around one or more of these issues.

Moreover, recent research carried out at the University of Wageningen has demonstrated that products whose packaging is labelled ‘co-created with consumers’ will sell significantly better than equivalent products that are not labelled in this way. In other words, consumers have more confidence in each other’s judgement than in the judgement of professional experts within a company. And they are probably right. In a recent study, we found that new product ideas that were co-developed with consumers score especially higher on ‘being relevant’ and ‘fulfilling ones needs’ .

The goal of this paper is to look into the necessary ingredients for a company to structurally get the consumer on board: every single day and for almost all decisions that need to be taken. As a consequence of this intense collaboration between your company and the market, decisions will no longer be imposed from above. And when the majority of your decisions are taken in this manner, following consultation with the market, you may really speak of ‘structural collaboration’. The consumer is truly represented in the boardroom. His voice can be heard in every part of your company, a voice that is every bit as loud as the voice of management and staff. You may even want to consider actually appointing a consumer as an honorary member of your board. Tomorrow we will discuss the different objectives and KPI’s companies use to evaluate their structural collaboration with customers. The full research report can be found here: