[SiH] Feature Article: Customer Collaboration the Wave of the Future in Business

Success in Harmony

August 2007 – Vol. IV, Issue 7

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Feature Article: Customer Collaboration the Wave of the Future in Business

I recently heard Pete Ashdown, founder and president of the veteran internet service provider XMission, speak about the future of business. He not only spoke about cutting edge technologies that businesses are implementing, but what those technologies are leading us to in business–collaborating and building community with customers.

Businesses used to get ahead the old way. The philosophy was “business is war,” and customers were shielded from the operations of the company. Getting support was like climbing a wall, sometimes with hierarchical guides along the way. Often, this led to delays for the customer and a lot of frustration.

In contrast, businesses who are getting ahead today are involving their customers much more in business operations. They build a community of users among their customers, and they encourage and benefit from customer contributions. They involve customers in their decision-making processes, and they directly involve and work with the customer. The result is loyal customers who become evangelists for the product and service, because they feel a part of something and are actually contributing to the quality of what’s being generated.

So, how can this be done? In addition to business standards, like a Web site and email, consider some of the technologies that are making it easier than ever to interact with the customer:

  • Instant Messaging. Instant messaging, or IM for short, can be controlled by the recipient like mail, yet instant like the phone. IM software includes privacy screens, easily documents conversations, and can become a sort of virtual office.
  • Instant Meeting. A type of online conferencing, it allows one-to-many communication rather than one-on-one. It generates an instant brain trust in the collaboration between the company and many customers. It’s personal like the telephone, but gated and scheduled. In these meetings, it also allows customers to help other customers. A classic type of instant meeting is a scheduled chat. Webinar technology offers even more features, because it incorporates slides or virtual whiteboards as well as typed chat, video, or voice communication.
  • Discussion Forums. Many technology companies have incorporated discussion forums as a way for customers to support and help other customers. An alternative to online forums is an email mailing list that allows members to email questions and responses to the whole list. Some forums include both an online forum and email mailing list feature. In addition to forums for specific users of one company’s products or services, industry-wide forums are often available. Discussion forums have the following benefits for companies:
    • builds community
    • retains customers
    • frees up your time
    • solicits opinion
    • resolves problems
  • Voice Over IP. Voice over IP, or voice over internet protocol, is basically telephony services turned into software. Voice calls can be made over the internet cheaply or even free, and the quality has improved significantly in recent years. VoIP can effectively eliminate PBX systems, or make PBX features like call forwarding, conference calling, do not disturb, follow-me and voice mail accessible at a much lower price. VoIP systems converge with other technologies, like voice, presentation, and text.

Some suggested resources for the above technologies include:

  • Instant Messaging: I suggest a multiplatform solution instead of downloading and using several IM clients at the same time. AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ and Google Talk are among the most popular. Since you may have friends and colleagues using different clients, find a solution that will speak to them all–your computer’s resources will thank you. I use Miranda IM, but Ashdown recommends Adium for Mac OS and Trillian for Windows.
  • Instant Meeting: For group chat or voice conferencing, I suggest that all users use Skype. If you’re more interested in webinars, GoToMeeting has conferencing services or webinar services. I’ve also used free telephone conferencing services with advanced features through BV Free Conferencing.
  • Discussion Forums: I have used phpBB and like the flexibility and ability to customize. However, if you’re new to forums, you may want to try something “out-of-the-box,” like Yahoo Groups, Google Groups or MSN Groups.
  • Voice Over IP: This is an area of technology that is growing and changing very quickly. I have used Skype for quite some time and have been impressed with the quality of the calls. Ashdown recommends SIP as a phone system and PBX replacement. Some homes and small businesses are switching to Vonage, a popular VoIP provider, but be aware that Vonage-connected phones will not work in the event of a power or broadband internet connection outage.

Thanks to technologies that are becoming easier and cheaper to use, businesses can communicate and interact with their customers in whole new ways. Identify some of the ways you can begin to collaborate with your customers to gain a distinct edge in your market.

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