Op-Ed: How to Build a Customer Community

The following is a guest contributed post from Andreas Hassellöf, founder of Ombori Group.

The customer always knows best – or so people say. But do they? And do we really trust them? As marketers, we’re always interested in hearing our customers’ opinions, but we rarely do more than ask them to take part in simple customer satisfaction surveys designed to make us feel good about what we’re doing and confirm decisions we’ve already made on their behalf. The only thing we really want to hear from them is whether our performance is adequate in terms of inventory, delivery, customer service and so on. We hardly ever ask them to participate in anything that truly matters or take part in any serious decision-making that could have a major effect on business operations.

But what if we did get our customers to tell us what they actually want from us? What if we did ask for their input on literally everything we do? What could we learn from them?

To answer these questions, Swedish fashion company House of Dagmar has taken the radical step of inviting their customers to participate in every stage of their business via their new mobile app. They’re creating an innovative new community, going beyond the normal limits of customer feedback, and asking customers for their input and advice on everything from what colors to use on specific items of clothing to issues of business development. It establishes a whole new level of trust between customer and brand, giving them a unique insight into the working of the company and direct access to decision makers at the top level.

The app began life at the Fashion Hackathon Stockholm in June 2017, a one-day event to find new ways to use emerging technology in the fashion world. We were challenged to come up with and build a social concept that made use of the new Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Dynamics platforms. House of Dagmar loved our prototype and decided to go with it. After several months of testing and optimization, the app was launched in November, for both iOS and Android, enabling House of Dagmar to reach the widest possible number of customers.

CEO Karin Söderlind was supportive right from the beginning of the project. “For us, this means adjusting a business model that feels old and uncomfortable,” she explains. “Our company is relatively small and we have always wanted a personal relationship with the customer. A community seems fun, engaging and personal. The idea is, among other things, that we can educate our customers in sustainability and show what we actually do. Our customers are very important to us and we value their feedback, so an app that brought us closer to them was a no brainer for us.”

This level of close customer communication and trust will have three important effects on both House of Dagmar and their customers. First, it ensures that the customers’ values and the company’s values are always strongly aligned. Second, it means that House of Dagmar owns the channel by which they communicate with their customers, ensuring that they always have complete control over that relationship. And third, perhaps most importantly, it gives customers a sense of ownership over the company and its products, and a feeling of belonging. They know that House of Dagmar is listening to what they have to say, and they can be confident that the founders of the company will always have their customers’ best interests at heart.

Customer communication at this level of intensity certainly isn’t for all types of companies. Larger companies with huge customer bases will find it hard to establish a meaningful level of customer engagement, and there is a strong risk that those interactions will be driven by a tiny but vocal minority who don’t represent the majority of casual users. There simply isn’t enough time to listen to millions of users in detail and take their views into account.

But for premium brands with a devoted following, a customer-driven community can be a powerful influence on their direction. It can help shape every aspect of the company and ensure that they deliver a unique customer experience that is perfectly tailored to their very specific market. In a world where brands are desperate to find ways to fight back against low-cost retail behemoths like Amazon, this is a massive differentiator that can secure long-term customer loyalty.