Collaborative Design: Let the Customer Guide the Way

Communication between organizations -- IT buyers and suppliers -- today should be viewed as a dialogue that extends beyond selling and customer support to driving business strategy and product design.

It’s official: when it comes to customer relations, the days of relying solely on salespeople and evangelists to build trust with your customers are long gone. In my time as a senior executive at various companies, as well as a consulting partner with Accenture, I’ve witnessed a shift in how vendors engage with their buyers, and in turn, how buyers engage with their vendors.

Research tells us that nowadays a buyer has completed up to 80% of the “buyer journey” before ever interacting with a salesperson. Companies that once relied on “wining and dining” potential customers are now finding themselves in a sales slump, and buyers who don’t make their voice heard to their vendors are consistently left disappointed by those vendors’ product releases and business strategies.

Are you talking or discussing?

While most companies will say they value their relationships with customers above all else, not every business leader has a strategy in place to promote a true sense of trust and collaboration. So, what are we missing when it comes to building collaborative partnerships between organizations?

First, I’ll address the customer: You offer a wealth of invaluable insight into how a company’s product or service is actually used. Make yourself heard by getting involved in customer advisory groups and proactively communicating with your vendor contacts beyond when you need their help. You’d be surprised at how little visibility they have into how their customers use their products.

Now, vendors: What are you doing to encourage your customers to share their honest feedback and suggestions? Do you have a customer advisory board or a formal approach to soliciting product and company feedback? If not, why? Are your sales and support people the only members of your organization in regular contact with your customers? Ask yourself why. If your main topic of conversation with your customers is to get them to buy more, you’re missing out on valuable dialogue that can benefit your organization from top to bottom.

The importance of partnerships

In today’s world, openness and transparency are corporate values that continue to be appreciated. Building an open, collaborative ecosystem through strong partnerships is key to ensuring customer satisfaction and helps propel the entire industry forward. Innovation does not reside in a vacuum, and the sharing of knowledge between vendors, customers, partners, and stakeholders offers everyone the opportunity to succeed. Collaborative design does not mean design by committee; instead it opens up the design process to new ideas. And this concept extends beyond just product development: Collaborative design can also be applied to business and go-to-market strategy. The only way to ensure these ideas are shared is to create an ecosystem where participants are encouraged to discuss issues, propose ideas and offer constructive feedback.

From the bottom to the top

One of the keys to successfully turning customer and partner feedback into tangible results is to extend the concept of open dialogue and collaborative design from the bottom of your organization to the top. Everyone, from the engineering and sales teams to management and the C-suite, should be engaged in these kinds of conversations. By doing so, customer and partner feedback can be incorporated into everything from product roadmaps and service offerings to strategic business objectives and corporate decision-making.

The same concept can be applied to the buyer. Encourage your team to share feedback with vendors; there’s no reason why the CIO and VPs should be the only ones communicating with their technology vendors when the engineers and IT staff members are the ones using the products. Keeping the flow of information open and avoid communication siloes to enable buyers to be heard outside of the traditional sales cycle.

A new world for customer relations

While I’ve been discussing the evolution of customer communications and collaborative design in the context of IT, these concepts can be applied across industries and beyond the traditional buyer/seller dynamic. The bottom line is this: Times have changed, and communication between organizations should be viewed as a dialogue that extends beyond selling and customer support, and instead drives business strategy and collaborative growth. Innovation thrives on openness, and openness thrives on communication. Open new channels of interaction and see what you can learn.

Philippe Vincent is CEO of Virtual Instruments, which offers an infrastructure performance management platform.