Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Look up “collaboration” in a dictionary, and the definition is straightforward enough: “working together to achieve a goal”. In business, that goal is growth, and leaders have long been looking for ways to improve team cooperation to get there. When digital options like FaceTime and Google Hangouts started making it easier for families to stay connected, company owners realized they could do the same for employees. Since the pandemic, those options have exploded, and it suddenly seems as though everyone is focused on collaboration, but virtually no one is capitalizing on the awesome resulting potential. A new form of collaboration is on the horizon, allowing businesses to work dimensionally with players at the very crux of their success: customers.
Stuck in the universe of colleagues and teams (perhaps stretched to partners or other companies) most people incorporating collaboration these days are missing out on the major benefits of doing so with customers… but not for long. As more of our daily lives go online, businesses realize the inherent communication advantages and leave those who hesitate in the dust. In the years to come, new products and services based on more active customer engagement and interaction will be the standard.
Room for improvement
Collaboration has to be a two-way street, yet most of the touchpoints between a company and its customers remain missed opportunities. The first contact will most likely be from the marketing team (banners at the airport, TV commercials or billboards on the side of the highway), and usually void of all collaboration. Few to none of these offer scannable QR codes that take you straight to a representative. If they did, customers and prospects could more easily offer input in that exact moment, giving you data that could improve their overall experience and draw more people to your company.
The next person likely to encounter a customer is someone from sales. They actively reach out and perhaps even offer incentives like free gifts for staying on a 20-minute call, but all their talk is focused on selling, then they disappear. Finally, when a customer has already paid and reaches out to a company’s customer success and support team, trying to speak to a real person is often as much work as climbing out of a hole. In both these structures, company employees talk to a customer or at a customer, but rarely with a customer, and these are missed opportunities for feedback that can expand a business in every dimension.
Related: 3 Ways You Can Let Your Customers’ Stories Speak for Your Brand
Know where to grow
Two-way communication with customers provides specific and measurable data about the direction they want to see your business go. Imagine trying out a new coffee shop: an employee might tell you about the launch of a new holiday flavor, but this is a one-way conversation. A collaborative approach would be to ask what kinds of holiday flavors you would want before the holiday season, or a request for feedback on current options, then bring that information back to the team for improvements. Either way, seeking out input from customers results in better sales and greater loyalty.
To grow, you need to at once up the customer satisfaction game and keep coming out with new products or services, and the best way to do both is to collaborate with the people buying them. Customers want to be heard, not just drop opinions in some dusty suggestion box. When I give product feedback, I usually reach out to company pages on Twitter or Facebook, because I know I’m more likely to find a human who will listen. Not only does listening to customer feedback make customers feel more satisfied, it makes it easier to determine what products and services they will buy and recommend to others.
Pioneers have already begun
Industry leaders are certainly waking up to customer collaboration, but for the most part are still at square one. When I was working for Symphony, an infrastructure and technology platform, I saw how much people in wealth management were struggling to maintain communication with customers. They essentially could only meet in person (or via email) because other digital avenues were deemed insecure, which is why banks had to call us in for solutions.
And we may be at square one, but strangely, no one is talking about getting to 100 yet. Most people are still waiting for some kind of segue — a point in the customer journey that makes collaboration possible, but there is none. The truth is that even before customers start looking for what you sell, you can make the decision to start synergizing with them. Teenagers, for example, may not need your product yet, but you can encourage their feedback for when they do. So, collaborate from that first impression all the way through their lifetime, so they continue to enhance your reputation with public reviews and promotions. Regard your customers as teammates working towards your growth, and you can outpace even industry giants that are still slow to take action.
Related: Why Organizations Should Take a Customer-First Approach During Unprecedented Times
Tech tools make it easier than ever
To access all collaborative touchpoints, look to the digital tools that are making it easier and more affordable. Facebook Messenger, Intercom, Yelp — customers can even leave messages through a Google My Business landing page. For small companies with little time to spend analyzing feedback across many apps, companies like GoSite offer all-in-one platforms that help them better manage the process, including providing quick responses to customer questions as well as feedback. The result is a more efficient user experience, driving satisfaction and increasing revenue.
The digital universe has the capacity to fuel customer collaboration with personalized touches — perhaps a greeting asking how you liked your last cup of coffee and/or how it could have been better. To make the most of it, a two-way street of collaboration needs to be open all the time, and customers need to know all the ways of accessing it. Whether a coffee shop, laundromat or bank, every business is going to need a person or enterprise SaaS responsible for getting that done. Enthused by that discourse, customers can start taking on bigger roles like influencers and affiliates, and the business structure of tomorrow will likely include entire customer teams.
Related: 5 Digital Solutions to Help Your Business Take Off
Online, in-store and in hybrid ways — and across the entire spectrum of business — universal collaboration with every past, present, and future customer should be the goal. Stop thinking only about shareholders, investors, executives and employees: Your customers are important business partners that already contribute time and money to your growth. Include them in your plans and support the people who support you, because this is where the future is headed.