Just before the holidays in Part I of this post, I pointed to but a few of the symptoms of a what I see as a deeply dysfunctional relationship between companies and the consumers that buy their products. I cited the example of my own experience buying a ‘high-end’ can opener that simply wouldn’t open cans. “How did this happen?” I asked. “How did this this product make it to the shelves and into my shopping basket?”. In the cold light of a new year, some of the answers have come clear.

While we may bemoan the good old days when companies seemed to care, it would be unfair to lay all the blame at their feet. No, like in any relationship that’s hit the rocks, there’s usually a good balance of blame for both parties, and this is no exception. Consumers have at very least fluffed the pillows on bed in which they now find themselves lying. In the simplest terms, just as voters deserve the politicians they elect, buyers deserve the products they buy.

Decades of consumer data and focus group research have told the big box boys and their suppliers just what do do. No brands that wish to survive are immune to the to steady decline of quality at the hands of rock bottom prices and a hemisphere full of bargain hunters.

Is the relationship doomed? Is there any way to turn it around?

There’s every indication that we can if we take collective responsibility for our roles as buyers and sellers. For my own part, there’s a good chance that my can opener experience could have been quite different if before returning it I had called customer service and complained. But something told me that would simply buy me another can opener of equally poor quality or a credit for some other badly-designed appliance. I might have levied my opinion in the twitterverse or on a blog or facebook or even the company’s website, but my experience told me that in cases like this no one is listening. All indications, BTW of a lack of faith the their concern about me and my perception of the brand. How very much like a bad relationship…

But imagine a different scenario:

The enterprising product manager of this major kitchen appliance company is just a month into the launch of its new line of handy kitchen tools to all major department stores, and notices something isn’t right.

Going into the critical first quarter of sales she sees that the return rate of the can openers in the line is very high. Surprised, given her own experience with it, she logs into her OneDesk account where she can see all the products in her portfolio. She goes straight to the feedback tab in the can opener’s OneDesk Project and is gobsmacked by the sheer volume feedback on the product, all of it negative. Tweets, blogposts and emails from the customer portal, they all tell the same story. The can opener doesn’t open cans. She does some forensics, searching the product’s project plan, issues and tasks pages, and finds multiple references to a contract with a new manufacturer that promised to reduce production cost and time by 30%. It was going to mean a major return for the company for had been popular item and provide consumers a nice savings at the cash register.

Unfortunately however, the high return rate for the product meant that this line was a complete dud and this quarter’s revenue was in the tank. But at least now she new why, and what to do.

After approving the special credits for the complaining customers, and sending them their voucher links with apologies through OneDesk, she turned her attention to the product roadmap. The contract with the new manufacturer was immediately cancelled, and the design issue raised to priority status for immediate resolution in the new plan. Using the specifics and timelines she had pulled from OneDesk, she then drafted the initial copy of a customer communique announcing an official recall of the can opener to the marketing and communications department, and finally reworked her forecast for the quarter.

While this kind company/consumer collaboration may seem pretty far off, it is in fact very much here and now. The power of the social web combined with enterprise collaboration and open application development have allowed for just this kind of synergy and high speed market alignment. The sooner that companies jump on board, the sooner customers will get used to working with them this way, to tell them what they like and, more importantly, what they don’t like to make sure that mistakes can be quickly turned around before they cause permanent brand damage.

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