Identifying the Relationships that Customers Want

Steve Diller

As discussed in earlier blogs, we have several choices of relationship types we could develop with customers – top-down, co-created, improvisational and bottom-up. Which make the most sense?

There’s a tendency in the digital world to believe that customers generally would prefer to co-create the offerings they encounter. We can see this assumption playing out in a now-common tendency to allow customers to customize websites, for instance. However, in our work with customers across many industries, we see no clear indication that most customers want to co-create or improvise with companies all that much.

Experiments in co-creation suggest a relative lack of interest in co-creating in many areas of business. For instance, in the movie industry, a few directors developed techniques for audiences to choose the sort of conclusion they wanted for several films. What they found was that this sort of co-created approach to film was deeply unsatisfying for most audience members. Instead, people wanted the top-down approach, in which the director made the decision, just like he or she had in choosing everything the audience saw and experienced through the mastery of all the tools at the director’s disposal, from camera angle and actor behavior, to editing and sound effects. It was all about being taken in hand and shown an alternative world we couldn’t imagine for ourselves.

While customers pretty clearly like the top-down model for the time-based arts like film, other categories, for instance, vacations, suggest that there’s a segmentation that’s possible, with some individuals liking the top-down approach of a guided tour of a country, with others preferring a fully improvisational approach in which they set out in a particular direction and then “wing it” in every aspect of their travel.

To complicate matters, again using the tourism example, people may want a top-down approach early-on, switching to a co-created or improvisational approach in the middle of the trip, and shifting into a more top-down portion again at the end.

Broadly speaking, we’d argue that when you want to design the relationship type you should have with customers, the first step is to break down the phases of the evolving interactions you need to have with them. Then, explore each phase with customers to see if you can come up with the optimal relationship type to make that phase optimally satisfying. Qualitative research, in particular, ethnographic work with people while they transit each phase, is undoubtedly the best way to gain the insights that can make this approach to relationship design effective.

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