Co-creation: growing your business with customer approval

Growing your business comes with change. And change means making decisions. The question is: who is best to decide what to change?

Most business owners take it upon themselves to introduce new product features or alter existing ones. Sure, these changes are usually preceded by market research, in order to build a solid business case. More often than not, though, this kind of customer involvement remains a backstage event, invisible to the public eye.

When the new or altered product finally launches, many customers will hear about the change for the first time. The fact that the change has been properly researched and actually is a step forward, does not automatically mean that customers will embrace it.

“Nobody asked me!” or a mental shrug are common consumer responses to companies that launch new products or change how they operate out of the blue.

Obviously, you cannot involve every single customer in the decision-making process. But you can show them who you have involved so far and that “we also welcome your input” at any time. Customers who believe that their voice is being heard – or represented by equals – perceive changes in your product as a co-creation, and will become more loyal to your business.

Here’s how to get there…

Suggestion box 2.0

First thing on your list should be to make it easy for people to leave their suggestions, needs and complaints. If leaving a suggestion feels like a chore or if it is unclear what to expect after, the amount of valuable customer feedback will be limited.

One way to let people share their thoughts and ideas with you, is to publish a visually appealing webpage, with a short form (name, e-mail address, proposed idea) and an overview of previously submitted suggestions and their current status. Simple and encouraging.

Another common practice for retrieving customer input is to run an ideation forum. Opposed to a regular webpage, that has to be updated manually, an online forum lets customers post their own ideas, visible to the rest of the world. Unpolished but authentic. A forum also supports public interaction between customers and your company. Useful, if you want to get to the core of a submitted idea and a better mutual understanding.

Pick your battles

Once customers find their way to your online ‘suggestion box’ and ideas start rolling in, you should respond to every single one of them in a thoughtful manner. That doesn’t mean that you will have to deliver on every request, by setting up numerous simultaneous dialogues and co-creation projects.

Obviously, you want to spend your time and resources most effectively. Often, this requires you to make tough decisions. Be strict and realistic when you filter ideas submitted by customers, but also be fair and transparent about it.

When you receive ten customer suggestions, for example, it is better to commit to three impactful co-creations and turn them into a success than to marginalize all ten by trying to please everyone.

Different kinds of conversation

So, you have selected a few promising customer ideas for co-creation. Now what?

First of all, you and your counterpart should agree on the kind of conversation you both prefer. There are different paths to take.

The diagram above is from the book ‘Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together’ by William Isaacs. The author states that there are fundamental choice points at the start of a conversation, each leading to a different outcome: generative dialogue, dialectic or debate.

Generative dialogue emerges when participants are able to suspend defending their beliefs and opinion, truly listen to one another and come to a mutual understanding. In the end, everyone involved acknowledges that there is one collective truth, with shared challenges and solutions. Instead of talking in terms of ‘you and me’ it becomes more about ‘we’. This purest form of dialogue can take up months to get right, because it hinges entirely on reflection and understanding. Therefore, you should only pursue generative dialogue when there is no pushy deadline and when the topic at hand – a complex problem most likely – requires a thorough approach and sustainable resolve.

Dialectic, on the other hand, is the result of a more defensive kind of conversation. All parties involved keep to their point of view and try to convince others by presenting facts. But they also aim to bridge differences and find common ground. Compromise. Agree to disagree.

Finally, you should always try to steer away from a conversation becoming a debate. I am talking about verbal derailment here. You recognize a debate when participants start trying to silence each other by overpowering their opponent. Emotions run high. Probably more gets broken than fixed.

Dialogue versus co-creation

When new unforeseen ideas and opportunities emerge from talking with your customers, I label that as a dialogue.

When you and your customers decide on a joint plan of action, as a result of (generative) dialogue or a (dialectic) compromise, I call that the start of co-creation.

It is important to distinguish dialogue from co-creation, in my opinion. They are separate interaction styles with different goals and approaches.

Co-creation is about actually changing something in the world. Dialogue is about discovery and understanding the world before lifting a finger.

Co-creation requires customers’ input, feedback and commitment to a plan of action. Dialogue requires customers’ commitment to listen and openly share.

Co-creation should have a time constraint, like most projects do, to set a milestone for everyone to focus on. Dialogue goes on as long as the participants see fit – you cannot put a deadline on understanding.

Facilitating dialogue

So far, I have shown you how to include customers in changing and growing your business. And I have pointed out the fundamental differences between dialogue and co-creation. Lets get more practical now. Here are some tips for facilitating dialogue.

Once a topic is selected for dialogue – by its definition as stated above – I strongly advise to appoint an independent host to organize and guide the dialogue process. When you take it upon yourself to host a dialogue, as one of the dialogue participants, make sure there is no perceived conflict of interest.

Like I mentioned before, true dialogue does not come with a deadline. Participants decide how much time they will need to come to a collective understanding of the issue at hand. The group is responsible. The host only reminds the group of its commitment and makes it possible for participants to meet.

Deeper understanding through dialogue can lead to the discovery of new ideas or a call to action. At that point, the group can identify an opportunity for co-creation and initiate change.

Running a co-creation project

Co-creation starts when there is a common desire to fix a problem or fulfill a need. Action-mode on!

Changing a part of your business through customer collaboration requires a well-designed co-creation process. Everyone involved should know which problem or need is on the table, and which steps will be taken to get from the current state to a future state. Transparent and predictable.

Next, all participants, including yourself, submit their solution. People should be able to build and present their case, one after the other. These cases are studied and questioned by you and your customers, often followed by a productive discussion. Give and take. A compromise in the making. A local brainstorm session works well for these purposes, where participants can look each other in the eye.

Eventually, you and your customers reach consensus – or you don’t. After agreeing on the way forward, you implement the change under the watchful eye of your customers.

Repeat these steps until the co-created solution satisfies unanimously. And don’t forget to inform your customers of the collaboration when you, for example, launch the resulted product improvement.

Show off

Finally, there is no need for modesty. Don’t just share an impression of the successful collaboration with your customers. Share it with the entire world! Go wild with creative content and try to reach as many people as you can.

Read on if you would like to know how to create content that will get you noticed.