Forget clients, connect to the crowd
We all know customer relationship management. It's how we as businesses deal with people. Basically, a customer is a person who buys stuff from you. If it's a product you're selling, you'd rather not hear from them ever again, except when they want to buy a new one. If it is a service, once either side terminates the contract, they are no customers of yours any longer. Usually, that is when you stop communicating, because you're not working together any more (unless you're keeping their phone # to repeatedly telemarket to them, which is really only communicating what you think of your customer), right?
Existing customers, ex-customers, prospective customers, fans and antagonists as well as bystanders are all part of the crowd. All of these groups are communicating on some level, and it's up to you to heed it and participate or ignore them. These people used to be around you in brick-and-mortar business, but the internet brings them together in completely new ways, communicating about you whether you like it or not (and even without you being aware of it). They form crowds. Let me explain these specific groups to show why I think crowd relationship management is so relevant:
This is fairly obvious. If your customer is venting publicly about your shitty service, you need to take action or lose him. Their annoyance may also cause prospective customers to shy away from working with you or buying your products, fuel the flames of heated debates on the web and empower antagonists. Happy customers, unfortunately, rarely speak out in your favour of their own accord, but with crowd relationship management, you can give them incentives and reasons to do so.
Sometimes they are looking for an additional service you can't provide, but more often than not, they left because they were unhappy with what they got. In some industries, there are hefty penalties to changing providers, so these guys might have real issues, and will tell anybody who wants to hear them out (hint: this should be you). Some Ex-customers may turn into antagonists, and stage a crusade against your company; having experienced your service first hand, they gain quite a voice in the crowd. This can be averted through crowd relationship management, because you can even make people happy you don't do business with any longer, resulting in them making positive comments about you and your product, convincing prospects and eventually maybe return themselves. Acknowledging and Improving bad customer service is always better than continually being mediocre.
A large group that is showing interest in what you provide. They check online to find out more about you and your products, and of all people, it seems to be most important to convince these guys. After all, they may become Existing customers and earn you money. But who will these people listen to? The marketing mumbo jumbo on your company website? Or the 20-page long thread about how much your service "sucks balls", where, if they ask about specifics, they can receive answers that may be biased, but still very useful. If you want to win over these guys, you need to make sure what they read is positive, and that means making your customers *and* Ex-customers happy. On the internet, censorship is not an option.
These people don't even have to own your products or use your service. Some fans just flock to certain kinds of brand images; they dig your core values but maybe can't afford your offerings - Apple is a prime example, as is Porsche. I myself am partial to Dreamhost, because I love companies who care about their employees as much as they do about their annual earnings. Being in Europe, their services don't really work for me, but they have a fan in me. Fans will defend you in arguments, but will run out of steam quickly once it becomes clear that they've never really used your products or services and therefore have no hands-on experience. Crowd relationship management helps here as well, because you can actually connect to your most fervent supporters and reward them, turning them into powerful allies.
Naysayers. Just like fans, they often don't have first-hand experience with you or your company, but they somehow don't like your attitude (again Apple and Porsche. I wonder why?). Many of these people are closet fans who are just angry that they can't afford your product or service, or have been wronged by someone in your industry and take it personally. They might seem hard to turn, but have to be dealt with nevertheless, because nobody else will slander you as much as they will. Crowd relationship management allows you to identify Antagonists and potential candidates for this group, and try to turn them around before they can do damage. A strong (read: happy) crowd however will deal with antagonists automatically. Content Customers and Ex-Customers as well as Fans will come to your aid, and even Bystanders will chime in to point out flaws in the antagonists logic. Nothing is better at shutting up antagonists then a bunch of ridicule from his peers. All you have to do is bring them all together on one platform (pick one and support it in reaching your customers. If you listen to them, they will come).
This huge group really doesen't care about you or your product, everything they learn about you they get from forums - and usually, they gravitate toward the negative critique, because we all know that's more entertaining than people praising you. They, too, might chime in with what they heard elsewhere, not really increasing the intensity of the discussion, but the volume. These are the people that if asked about your industry will probably remember your name and little else (there is no bad advertisement), which is why so many marketing companies are still trying the shotgun approach, whereby they just target as many people as possible and just hope someone bites. That's incredibly annoying, and they don't even care why recipients didn't take them up on their offer - there's plenty of fish in the pond, as they say. Except today's fish can actually talk to each other and to you. And if these fish are happy with their service, they will give you repeat business for years to come. 100 customers who enjoy dealing with you and your product are worth more over their lifetime (and will actually answer if you ask why they'd abandon you) than 10.000.000 recipients of a TV ad boiled down to 1.000 sales. How much does it take to keep 100 people happy? Do not shoot at the bystanders.
Where to go, what to do
As a rule of thumb, if you're doing a good job in trying to meet customer needs and aren't rewarded for it, you need to work on your crowd relationship management, not invent new or better stuff to do. I would estimate only about 20% of businesses are stuck in the past, producing goods fewer and fewer people need or want. You know who you are. Some customers can not be satisfied, regardless of how hard you try, so it is paramount that you attract people who you can make excited about your product, and ideally voice off about how good a job you're doing. Listening to these people will yield valuable insight not only on how to market your product and how to create your brand (hint: around your customers) but eventually even how you deliver your service or produce your goods. Trying to tell the crowd what it wants is last millennium. Today, the crowd tells you what to produce.
Negative Comments may be around for a long time, even after you've satisfied these people or their anger has worn off. Effective Crowd resource management allows you to prevent negative criticism in the first place or entice them to take their statement back after their gripe has been dealt with.
All this requires a platform that encourages this kind of dialogue. Price comparison sites are the ideal candidate, because they already have users visiting and commenting on companies. When I approached two German sites, they both checked out my cred, discovered I'm not some high-flying guru and never showed interest, despite my explaining in detail how the concept would work. So now, my concepts are up for grabs for anyone. Talk to me and let's get started making you the go-to place for not only finding out about prices, but also about quality of service etc. all the while providing listed companies with real crowd management tools.