Building the Relationships that Customers Want

Steve Diller

In the last blog, I discussed four different types of relationships companies build with their customers: top-down, co-created, improvisational and bottom-up. I’d like to focus a bit more on the first two, because they’re the most common, and fought over, in the debate about how to build relationships that customers will value most. And they’re tremendously important when developing an innovation strategy because they impact overall customer experience so much.

Currently, “top-down” is the the most common type of company-customer relationship. With this approach, the producer of the offering decides what the nature of the offering will be, and then produces exactly that for customers. A great example is a movie. When we go to see a film, we aren’t consulted about what should happen 15 minutes in, or to a particular character, as we’re watching it. Instead the director and the production company make every single decision about the form and nature of the content, and serve it up to us. It’s essentially an authoritarian relationship- they build something for us, we pay them and they give us exactly what we want. I don’t have to figure out what I want to have happen, or rely on my creativity, or try to find the energy to be innovative. I can just pleasurably immerse myself in a created reality for two hours.

In contrast, the “co-created” model involves both customer and company creating the offering together, often in real time. A great example of this would be Build a Bear workshop, in which a child interacts with lots of possible attributes provided by the retailer, and is able to build a customized product. The company and customer have, in fact, designed the final product together. Many children love this approach because it allows them to be at least somewhat creative, so the final product is highly personalized to their tastes, not to mention that they can say they made it themselves. Accomplishment is a major experiential benefit.
With the rise of interactive, digital media, co-creation has become increasingly fashionable as a model for the customer-company relationship, partly because it’s more possible than ever due to the nature of digital content, and partly because UX folks have seen the possibility as having ideological content. They believe that it’s actually better to co-create because it engages customers as “good,” active creators rather than “bad,” passive consumers. While there’s certainly something to be said for co-creation, the assumption that because it demands active participation it’s somehow better misses a key customer need– the desire to passively consume.

Going back to the movie example, when customers had the opportunity to choose a particular ending to a film, they generally chose not to because they wanted the director to create the world they were temporarily inhabiting. The director isn’t simply directing the actors and the action, they’re directing the viewer to see and hear things that will (hopefully) please them. It can be quite pleasurable to give oneself up to the experiences evoked by others rather than having to be responsible for creating one’s own experiences. In fact, being able to inhabit someone else’s vision of reality can be dramatically more interesting and meaningful than co-creating something that, by definition, is limited by one’s own imagination.

This reality probably explains why top-down relationships between companies and customers is still the dominant relationship type. In most, though certainly not all, situations, going with a top-down approach, with perhaps a bit of improvisation mixed in for flavor, is the relationship innovation strategy most likely to please people. Truly customer-centered innovation approaches will usually go this route, rather than co-creation, simply because it’s generally what people want.

5 Third Street, Suite 925
San Francisco, CA 94103