Redefining customers – Beyond consumers to collaborators

A trend, a shift that one is increasingly seeing!

“Customer is king” was (and is) the refrain one often heard as being the ultimate guiding principle, especially in service-oriented businesses. My experience at HCL Tech and translating Vineet Nayar’s philosophy of “Employees First Customer Second” into action was a new paradigm shift in the early to mid-2000s. Subsequently, we have heard many industry stalwarts including Richard Branson talking about putting employees first (especially in service industries) as the customer experience is really created at the employee-customer interface and if a ‘wow’ factor has to be created for customers, one would have to keep employees at the centre.

My experience with niiti and the social enterprise world has taught me something entirely different: that the ‘wow’ factor for the whole ecosystem can be created when customers become collaborators. In the social space, the paucity of resources and the enormity of challenge that one often has to solve, be it addressing poverty or improving learning outcomes or even environmental degradation, often forces ‘vendors’ and ‘clients’ to actually become partners in the true sense where the vendor goes beyond expectations of service and the client contributes as well to the expected outcome.

Many of our engagements with partners such as Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Ashoka, Enable India, Oak Foundation, Villgro, IAVI, Aajeevika Bureau, DeHaat, CEQUIN, just to name a few, are examples of how a collaborative approach has helped us arrive at a result larger than what either of us individually could have achieved. On one hand, this could be attributed to increased flexibility that the niiti team demonstrated, to look at potential outcomes beyond the defined scope of a project. On the other hand, it demonstrates the trust that the client had in our ability and commitment to give us a ‘seat at the table’ while making key decisions. This is a trend, a shift that one is increasingly seeing, even beyond the social space. Based on our own experience, I am sharing with you, dear reader, simple steps that in my view could lead to creation of this ‘collaborative culture’.

Steps on how vendors-customers could collaborate to become partners

So, when does the client-consultant relationship evolve from delivering what was committed to exploring and finding answers and solutions together? In our view, a vendor could become a partner with a customer when:

  • There is deep understanding of the overall purpose and objective and the defined scope of work is aligned to this purpose.
  • There is clarity in understanding the historical perspective of the challenge that is being addressed, and the vendor is committed to learn from that experience with humility.
  • There is greater empathy for the client’s approach and the vendor understands how the client thinks and makes decisions.
  • There is a deep desire and an ability to be agile and responsive to both the client and the ecosystem’s evolving needs.

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves” – Steve Jobs

This is however not a one-way street. For a vendor and customer to collaborate and become partners, there is also an onus on the customer. Some observations on behaviours demonstrated by customers in contributing to this collaborative culture are shared below:

  • The customer to trusts the vendor’s intent and capability and provides the space to them to exercise agency.
  • There is openness and transparency in terms of sharing documents and insights that enables the vendor/consultant to understand the customer mindset and status quo better.
  • There is a genuine effort on part of the customer to seek views and opinions of the vendor on matters within and sometimes even outside the scope of the defined engagement, and weigh in on the recommendations.

An approach to collaborating with your customers

Interestingly in the B2C space, not too many companies have embarked on collaboration, though customers are all for it (see Box). To enable this shift, the first step is to ‘listen in’, and engage. This could result in “co-creating” the products or services with your customers. It is a win-win situation for all.

Research by Edelman revealed that 87% of people want more meaningful relationships with brands, yet 66% say brands don’t share with them at all.

Co-creation – A shift that happens when the human experience is at the heart of business design

An often over-looked aspect in collaboration is the importance of experiences of other stakeholders – employees, suppliers, distributors, partners. These entities directly or indirectly influence customer experiences. Collaboration and co-creation involve a shift from traditional thinking. In contrast to a prescriptive, iron-clad strategy and process deployment, these involve putting the human experience at the heart of business design.

ITC e-choupal is a classic case study in collaboration. When faced with the task of improving quality of produce sourced from Indian farmers, ITC veered away from the traditional path of consolidation to bring in productivity and quality. Instead, it invested in equipping independent farmers with enabling technology (e-choupals) to access farming expertise and to collaborate. These hubs eventually became marketplaces, and in the process, ITC could reduce its procurement costs by 30%. This idea has since been adopted by many other organisations, both in India and elsewhere.

At niiti, this spirit of collaboration is what drives us and has led us to become valued partners. It means deeper and more engagement on a project, sometimes limiting us in terms of the number of projects we are able to do at any given point in time, but the quality of outcomes and the relationships we have come to share with our partners convince us that this model is worth a try, as many similar organisations are experiencing!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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