Customer as colleague – thoughts around hiring your customers
By Mike Hoffman
Recruiting in the age of disruption
The evolution of digital technology has revolutionised social processes and traditional relationships, including those of employer to employee. It has equipped employers with a host of agile new tools and solutions with which to reach out to their candidates. However, as the possibilities have increased, so too has the competition. Employers must now achieve real cut-through if they are to contend with the noise of a crowded market. Luckily, consumers themselves are also utilising these technologies to engage more with brands, and are likewise more receptive to engagement. To the savvy recruiter, they can be harnessed as effective brand advocates, and are potentially your greatest asset.
There are numerous advantages to hiring these organic advocates, or ‘fansumers’ – for example, they are already likely to:
- Know your product (likely reducing the amount of training required)
- Like your product, so selling it (or improving upon it) will come naturally and possibly with greater conviction
- Be familiar with their potential co-workers
- Have demonstrated that they can physically get to your facility
- Be someone you already know something about (likes, payment history, etc.)
- Share the values of your firm
Even if you don’t recruit them:
- If they know you need employees, they may become a valuable referral source
- The candidate experience, if done well, may also make them better customers
On the other hand, it’s advisable to keep in mind that aptitude should still trump brand loyalty. Enthusiasts for your product or cause are not necessarily those with the skills you need, as recruiters for Charities or caused-based organisations can testify. Hiring your fans is also easier said than done, depending on the nature of the business you are in.
When Harry hired Sally
That old axiom ‘never meet your heroes’ can be applied to hiring one’s ‘fansumers’. What makes for an ardent customer may not necessarily make for a smart hire, and you wouldn’t want to risk losing their brand loyalty in the recruitment process. The key here is to be extremely clear from the very beginning about the realities of the position. Always be upfront about the demands of the job, including both the pros and cons, as well as the hours. Keep them updated on the process and make it clear what you are looking for from the outset. Tell customers that if a job with you is not the right ﬁt, you will help them connect with other companies that may be better suited to them. Maintaining open and transparent communications throughout the hiring process will reassure your hires, and ultimately safeguard your future revenue streams.
Lease don’t hire
Of course, one of the many advantages to ‘fansumerdon’ for recruiters is that there needn’t be any actual pressure to commit. The biggest taxi company in the world owns no cars, the biggest accommodation rental business owns no hotels, and the biggest retailer owns no shops. Likewise, there is no need to actually ‘hire’ when you are already proactively engaging with your customers; feeding off their insights and rewarding their enthusiasm. To a certain extent, they are already working for you. They are employees who are not on the payroll. Why then burden yourself with their HR issues, bonus payments, duty of care or health and safety risks – to say nothing of their salary?
In this sense, any investment in customer engagement can be viewed as a type of relocated salary. Just because they are not directly employed by you, doesn’t mean they don’t make a contribution to the bottom line – and there are at least 5 ways in which they can drive as powerful a contribution as a full-time employee without any of the drawbacks:
1. They're expert consultants
Nobody knows your brand better than your customers. Whether designing a new product or experience, working with customers from the outset guarantees a detailed roadmap of their needs.
2. They're creative innovators
To keep up with the dizzying pace of advancement in the startup era, companies need fresh ideas, broader perspectives and a steady stream of customer ingenuity. MIT's Eric Von Hippel put it best when he said: "Consumers themselves are a major source of product innovations." For example, product innovators at Lego tap into Lego Ideas – an online forum where people unleash their design skills and submit original Lego set concepts – forging one-on-one customer engagement, not to mention actual sales.
3. They're ‘change agents’
Customers will never let you get too comfortable. They'll always push you to evolve. Including customers' voices into an organisation is the most powerful and effective way to prepare a company for making necessary changes, quickly and with minimal risk.
4. They're hard workers
Customers will do amazing things for a brand if they see the value in it for themselves. For example, in 2015, a 12-year-old girl called Madeline Messer inspired change in mobile gaming after she noticed – and proved through her own research – that most mobile games unfairly make users pay-to-play as a female character. When the makers of Temple Run and even Disney read her findings in The Washington Post, they dropped the charges for female characters.
5. They're powerful ralliers
Businesses are inherently siloed, but customers aren't – they don’t care in which department the fault for a product lies. Their feedback, apart from being valuable in itself, keeps businesses thinking as single entities with a common purpose, not as a collection of Business Cost Centres. Sharing what customers have to say with every department, at every level, creates empathy, helps buy-in and gets people thinking and acting differently.
If you have ongoing relationships with your customers – digitally or in-person – they will work even harder for you to make your brand better, more relevant and more resilient. If you "hire" your customers as strategic partners, they will give you access to their entire lives, not just the moments where your brand intersects. A culture rooted in customer inspiration is the company that grows – quickly and confidently – with customers by its side.
The practice of using customers as displaced employees (otherwise known as co-creation) has become more common as cheaper, more powerful technology has made co-operation easier. It allows companies to go a lot further than if just using a consumer for a one-time trick. The real opportunity however, is to structurally collaborate with your consumers, which ultimately depends on hiring the right people as consultants.
Unfortunately, only a very limited group of companies manage to structurally involve their clients. It’s probably the most difficult to implement of all the options offered by new digital (social) media, as its impact extends well beyond marketing – concerning R&D, IT, legal, and sales as well. And all processes have to be adapted to do it properly.
Objectives for structural collaboration
Consumers as consultants represent the epitome of co-creation. Let consumers think along and work with you on a structural level. You can use different objectives in doing so:
- Make better products. By using the consumer as consultant, the number of failed product introductions should decrease.
- Increase flexibility. By having the consumer on board, you can move faster, e.g. no 6-weeks wait for research results. The consumer is always available and can help where necessary.
- Generate positive consumer feeling. One of the aims of involving the consumer as consultant should be to help managers think like a consumer; meaning decisions will more accurately reflect consumer sentiment.
- Foster good marketing and PR. Evidently a lot of marketing and PR effects are involved when the consumer sits at the table. Companies that are open and listen to their customers are extremely popular in this respect.
- Consumer consulting boards. There are several ways to obtain feedback from the customer. One of them is classic market research via focus groups and questionnaires. You can also solicit rapid feedback via social media, though it is likely to be more superficial.
The most in-depth, hands-on form of structural collaboration is the 'consumer consulting board'. This is a relatively small group of consumers (150-1000) who are participating behind the scenes in almost all tactical and strategic company matters.
A good example of this can be found with Ducati, a sports bike brand. Ducati’s consumer consulting board is their online tech café – a community of some 1000 biking experts. Some of them have even developed new designs for the next Ducati bike. Ducati’s R&D department draws on these 1000 people for continuous advice, and Ducati considers its fans to be a genuine part of the company.
The employees who are not on the payroll
So, which consumers make for the best consultants? In order to obtain advice on a daily basis for your company, you need relevant people. Consumer consulting boards require consumers who can add real value, the minimum criterion of which is their commitment to your company. Consumers are either consultant connoisseurs, devotees of your sector, or they are major fans of your brand.
Research by InSites Consulting has proven that, without this emotional link, people are simply not interested in participating in an online community. You are in fact looking for collaborators who are not on the payroll.
It is now easier than ever for businesses to engage with their most switched on customers and, potentially, use them as a source of recruitment. And providing you remain mindful of the pitfalls, there are numerous advantages to this approach. Thanks to the rise of digital tech, the way we network, interact and engage now challenges traditional binaries of hire vs non-hire, and new collaborative models offer new possibilities for a company’s future workforce.
Coinciding with the recession has partly driven this process. The subsequent sluggish recovery of the last 10 years has seen businesses shedding exposure by opting for lease models, outsourcing and re-scaling through the use of a more flexible workforce containing more freelancers and the self-employed. This process of disruption is a theme for our age, and applies as much to recruitment as all other business processes.