FEATURE1 May 2010

Hear me out: Let’s invite customers into the boardroom

Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everyone else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research.

What’s the big idea?
Most organisations dedicate a lot of time and money to trying to convince us they are customer-focused. But if you really believe that customers should be listened to why not invite them into your board meetings? Why not hear what they think straight from the horse’s mouth?

Customers? In the boardroom?
Yes. Organisations will frequently gather all the key decision-makers in multi-departmental meetings: the marketing team, the research team, customer service, operations and finance, maybe the ad agency and one or two other favoured agencies. In fact the only person uniformly not invited is the customer.

Taken to extremes, companies would invite coachloads of customers to every one of their board meetings and let them have their say. Everyone would be welcome and free to rant about their own particular hobby horse or recent experience of a brand – like an AGM for customer feedback. Could it not sometimes be helpful to have 200 living, breathing customers for something as important as a FTSE 100 company’s board meeting instead of a dry report? Why isn’t it standing room only in every board meeting and innovation workshop in the land?

Because it would get messy?
But surely you’d get stacks of insight and a feel for issues that you would struggle to get from more traditional market research techniques. It’s about time businesses got less squeamish about coming face to face with their customers.

But it would be a logistical nightmare
It’s true that you might not want to have to book a huge venue for your board meeting or AGM just in case hundreds of customers turn up. But why not do it virtually? The advent of the internet means that the usual boring logistical barriers no longer hold water.

How would that work?
Simple: you’ve arranged for a panel of customers (or potential customers) to be at the ready to take questions online when the board meeting takes place. Instead of waiting for discussions from the boardroom to filter down to marketing and market research teams before commissioning a study and waiting for the results, just cut to the chase. A researcher sitting in the meeting can script questions live and fire them off to customers. The answers come back in real time. You don’t need a beautiful chart with 1,000 neat responses if the first 34 people tell you the idea is sheer genius (or an enormous turkey). You’ve got enough to make a decision and move on.

The fact is, although many organisations bang on about starting up ‘customer conversations’, very few are prepared to actually meet a real customer face to face. Or have a conversation with one. Or see one (other than from behind a two-way mirror). For now I’ll settle for the comforting filter of the internet as an intermediary.

It’s still a high-risk strategy
Having all the key decision-makers and a rep sample of your customers all in the same room is not for the faint-hearted. If we have customers on tap who say they hate my pet project, that could be embarrassing. But if you dare to put the customer in the room (albeit virtually) not only could you rule out bad ideas there and then, saving the business millions of pounds and masses of time and effort, you could actually use your customers to steer conversations in the boardroom and accelerate ideas that get the thumbs-up. They can even bring topics to the table that wouldn’t normally make the agenda. Research has become a handy bargepoll to keep opinion at a safe distance while gauging it. In my mind, our role as researchers should be to connect our clients to the truth. That means getting up close and personal with their customers.

Share your vision with us: robertb@researchmagazine.co.uk

1 Comment

13 years ago

Great idea - I was doing this in 2004, as reported in Research - http://www.research-live.com/features/grey-matters/2001157.article I also got a serious beating up by the industry for prodding a sleeping giant with a sharp stick - http://www.research-live.com/features/awards-of-the-year/2001373.article Good luck!

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