Most managers know that listening to customers makes good business sense. Businesses have much to gain from actively seeking and encouraging customer participation, which the authors define as getting customers to provide constructive suggestions and share their ideas on how to shape product and service offerings. Yet many companies only pay lip service to this idea.
Rather than encouraging customers to share their views about the company and its products with managers, the authors found, companies tend to focus on encouraging customers to take part in spreading positive word of mouth.
Yet word of mouth is only one type of voluntary behavior that customers engage in. Moreover, it indicates only what people on the outside are saying, not how companies can improve their offerings or what customers may be looking for.
The authors, who conducted surveys of customers as well as interviews and roundtable discussions with senior executives in a variety of industries, found that both customer word of mouth and customer- to-business interactions are associated with a customer’s propensity to buy more of a company’s products and services. While not all satisfied customers become repeat buyers, encouraging them to provide feedback and suggestions helps tie them more closely to the business. Companies can even recapture defecting customers simply by contacting them and encouraging them to participate. In addition, customer-to-business interaction is often more malleable than customer-to-customer word of mouth and more readily within the control of management.
In a study of customers of a global bank, the authors found that customers who purchased the most were individuals who participated and engaged in much word-of-mouth behavior. High participation/ high word-of-mouth customers were the most loyal and attached to the brand; customers who did not participate tended to be the least valuable, the least loyal and the least attached to the organization regardless of whether they spread positive word of mouth.
The implications of the findings are that fostering customer participation can be very valuable and that companies are better off emphasizing customer participation over word of mouth (as opposed to the reverse), because it creates more customer “stickiness” (as in greater attachment and commitment). Nevertheless, the authors say, the two approaches should be seen as two sides of a coin, working both internally and externally to build financial value for companies.