Build a community and you won’t need customers

Instead, you’ll have committed fans who’ll go the extra mile for you

Here’s a heart-warming story from my recent holiday – and I promise it’s the last for now – that has a lesson for organisations who are serious about genuine and deep customer relationships.

Thursday afternoon in Tuscany – another beautiful day is unfolding and, in the main square of Anghiari, the town we’re staying in, seats and staging have been erected for the evening’s concert by Southbank Sinfonia and a specially-recruited chorus of local singers and visitors, mostly from the UK.

The festival’s been going for nearly a week and, in glorious weather, around the old town and nearby locations we’ve enjoyed some sublime music. Can anything spoil our perfect musical holiday?

As if to prove a point, the sky darkens, it gets colder, and then without too much warning, pours down with rain. We retreat inside the pizzeria we’ve been lunching at, and shelter from torrential rain and, at one point, what appears to be a mini-cyclone that leaves a trail of upturned chairs and busted parasols in its wake. As the storm subsides, we make a break for the hotel, returning to the square for the concert a couple of hours later. The concert was great, but we missed the best part.

The show must go on…

While we were lazing at the hotel a group of local people and visitors banded together with the orchestra to reassemble the seating and dry it off. When we returned it was like the storm had never happened.

It was a great example of how, when you’re united by a common purpose, the barriers between service providers (the town, the orchestra) and customers (the visitors) disappear. A group of people went the proverbial extra mile to make the concert happen, and a little bit of the world was a happier place as a result.

Onwards and upwards

You could argue that that’s a special set of circumstances: the Southbank Sinfonia is a training orchestra that takes the cream of the crop from music colleges around the world and gives them the experience of being a great ensemble player and, as a result, it has a lot of enthusiastic supporters – it’s a charity – that are all drawn to the festival each year because that’s what they feel passionate about. So, a bit of extra effort to make the show go on is hardly surprising.

But that’s missing the point.

Within any group of customers there will be people who want to feel part of something bigger than simply consuming the product or service provided. Here’s another example from my recent commute.

Book swapping in action

When I head down to one of my clients, I travel via Wimbledon station. On the platform where I catch my train there’s a waiting room with a rather tatty bookshelf in the corner. Over a few days, I noticed that the bookshelf’s contents seemed to vary considerably. Curious, I took a closer look and discovered that it was a book-swapping arrangement. It’s been going since 2009, which is quite something, and shows that

  • someone cared enough to start it
  • people care enough to bring along books to keep it going.

Train of thought

Now I’m not about to suggest that Surrey-bound commuters on Wimbledon station are united by a common love for, er, Southwestern Rail (not the worst of the rail companies in the UK, but that’s not saying much), making them go the extra mile to make waiting for a train a bit more interesting and spreading the love to their fellow humans via second-hand books. But the point is that your customers do care about things and if you want to stand a chance of turning your customers from grudging recipients of your products into raving fans who’ll help you deliver a better service then you need to start finding out a lot more about what they really care about.

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