A New Model of Value Exchange: Treating Customers as Stakeholders


By Laura Muczynski, Account Strategist, Gongos, Inc.

In 2019, the Business Roundtable reversed the decades-old belief that the primary purpose of a corporation is to provide shareholder value. Along with it brought a new commitment to longer-term outlooks beyond profit and the importance of serving all stakeholders. Shortly thereafter, Edelman revealed what many insights professionals have long known to be true—that the stakeholder group most important to long-term business success is, indeed, customers.

As we evolve as an industry to walk the talk and treat customers as the valued stakeholders they are, it’s time to reevaluate some of our own decades-old practices. This takes a mindset shift supported by a new service model—one that embraces providing value to the customer, not just extracting value from them in the name of insights generation. Done well, it builds a reciprocal relationship between customers and brands through the medium of research that yields deeper insights and a more fulfilling experience for all.

This new model can be most fully actualized within online communities and advisory boards, where the longitudinal nature of engagement easily lends itself toward relationship-building over time, and where the research participant experience is often given the same prominence as the customer experience. In large part, it comes down to bringing humanity back from behind the sophistication of community technology. It’s about remembering that participants are part of a corporation’s human capital. And with that, we must treat them with respect and a realistic understanding of what we can and can’t ask of them, creating an experience that motivates them to return, and not hide behind a veil of secrecy while expecting participants to be forthcoming and vulnerable.

But, how can this manifest within other online qualitative methods? While not longitudinal, every ad hoc study includes multiple touchpoints. How can we shape that journey as a microcosm of the customer-as-a-stakeholder community experience?

Optimize onboarding with pre-boarding

When working with time constraints, it’s important not to shortchange the upfront. Get participants settled in early, comprehending what to expect and how to prepare before “the show is on.” This requires shifting your expectations for what time online sessions “go live.” As I learned from my high school marching band director, “Early is on time. On time is late.” If the beginning of our conversation means all are present and camera-ready, it only stands to reason that a start time is scheduled well before. Consider allocating the first quarter of your session to checking in, technical assistance, introductions, and informal conversation. Get participants situated and confident with tools like polling and private messaging if you’ll be using them. And communicate the true kick-off time—one that makes room for this crucial stage.

In the same vein, think “dress rehearsal” by asking participants to plan for where they’ll participate, what lighting they’ll need, and how their housemates will be accounted for so they can give their full attention to the discussion. And set the right balance of formal versus informal. We want participants to be authentic and, especially for ethnographies, we ask them not to clean up their homes on our behalf. That said, COVID-19 has shifted many of our lifestyles to a new level of casual that blurs the lines between work life, school life, and home life. Empowering customers to think of themselves as stakeholders entails treating them as colleagues, which means asking them to bring their best selves without compromising authenticity. Don’t wait until the camera is on to share research etiquette.

Snack size is best

While familiarity with videoconference platforms has increased exponentially, so has our experience with “Zoom fatigue.” Take a cue from your corporate calendar and keep sessions to two hours, or less, including the upfront. Discussion guides expand to fill the time allowed, but when you spread your recruit across a number of shorter and smaller sessions, you often yield deeper and more layered learnings.

What’s more, a fast-paced guide with creative activities keeps participants focused on recall and reaction, and away from overthinking and rationalization. And the same goes for asynchronous. Use power questions that elicit descriptive responses, and creative exercises that encourage storytelling over question-and-answer methods. These techniques can help keep research fun, while making each customer feel more important and their time more respected.

Push your comfort zone

While we want participants to be environmentally authentic, especially within asynchronous discussion, encouraging them to share video of themselves is important to the process. So, in the interest of practicing what we preach, we should model this behavior by showing our true selves within asynchronous activities through video introductions and instructions to complement the written word. Put your personality on display and use props to help you communicate. Encourage your client-side partners to make an appearance, even for a brief welcome at the beginning or thank you at the end. These soft touches can go a long way in humanizing brands and making customers feel that their participation is valued.

Similarly, share more context. Worry less about revealing too much and more about what you lose when participants take a stab in the dark on what you want to hear or see. Especially when it comes to asynchronous discussion, the better we can establish not only what we are striving to learn but why customers have been invited to interact with us, the more we give them agency to surprise us with their insights. As a client-side researcher, take this opportunity to frame your business challenge in relation to your company’s purpose statement and connect that to your customer, sharing a story of how you’re striving to provide value to your most important stakeholders.

The end is just the beginning

Building in low-commitment ways for clients to share back with participants is important—especially when recruited from customer lists. Over the years, I’ve experienced various consumer packaged goods client partners who ask permission to share brand coupons with their focus group participants at the conclusion of the sessions, and we’ve often joked that “every customer counts!” It’s true—every customer does count, and we can build an experience through the course of research that has an impact as great, or greater than, their traditional brand interactions. Consider what small steps you can commit to as an insights department or research provider to make it easier to create these moments of meaningful interaction, even in today’s virtual world, such as placing participants on a “recontact” list to ensure they’re among the first to know when a new product launches that they influenced (maybe even with a coupon to try it out).

With more reliance than ever on technology to facilitate research, it can be easy for us to lose our human touch by forgetting the difference softer, simpler gestures make in the participant’s journey. But, if we can rethink our approaches as building a customer experience through which we are treating our customers as stakeholders, we will cultivate deeper, two-way connections. In building reciprocal relationships founded in more than an exchange of money for time, we can multiply the rewards of our efforts by delivering long-term value to customers, our organizations, and the insights industry at large.

As published in Quirks.