Photo of several Marvel comics

Does your customer panel harness your customers’ superpowers?

My wife has recently had a knee replacement and was delighted with the whole experience (as delighted as you can be with major surgery anyway) at the hospital where she had had it done. However, she reluctantly had to submit a complaint after an error with her discharge notes which were highly inaccurate. The response from the hospital’s quality head was admirably quick and clear. Acknowledging the error and committing to learn from the mistake, she was also asked if she would like to join their customer panel. A veteran of maternity services panels at another hospital she jumped at the chance (not literally, obviously).

The following day I boarded a London North Western train at Euston. Opening up my laptop and logging on the on-board Wi-Fi I was asked if I wanted to join their customer panel. I demurred, but since I was on my way to a customer committee presentation to the board of a housing association, such organisations were very much on my mind. And, falling into the consultant’s trap of drawing a line between two data points and calling it a trend, it could be that customer panels, forums or whatever are increasingly being used as organisations recognise the need to become more customer-centric.

Whether you call it a committee, panel, forum or fan club, having a group of customers to provide you with feedback and guidance is an essential part of customer-centricity. But it takes investment to do it properly and so, to avoid wasting time and money, it’s worth paying attention to the following success factors.

1) Fan club or critics’ circle?

Recruiting the right people is a fundamental part of building an effective customer panel and your customers should include, ideally, not only representatives of different customer groups – ages, ethnicities, abilities etc – but also critics as well as fans. Admittedly most people who volunteer to sit on a customer panel are fans of the organisation in question and want it to improve but simply having a body that agrees with everything you want to do is not going to be effective.

A recruitment process that pays attention to the group and what individual members can bring is therefore essential and, as in my wife’s hospital, people who care enough to take the time to make a complaint are the very people you want on board.

2) Train and induct properly

So you’ve found a group of constructively critical people, let’s get them in a room and talk about customer experience…. Whoa! Not so fast! You might be happy to sit in a meeting and talk about whatever you have to talk about but your customers are most likely to be unfamiliar with such environments or, if they are, they won’t be familiar with how they work your organisation. A properly structured induction session or sessions are essential so that the panel understands what it can and can’t do (see below) and how it can work effectively together. If the panel is going to meet regularly over an extended period then induction should include some investment in team building or team dynamics – you don’t just want Spiderman, you want The Avengers. And why the super hero reference?…

3) Be clear about authority

“With great power comes great responsibility” is an adage made popular in Marvel’s Spiderman comics and films. Your customer panel may not be capable of climbing buildings and swinging between them on silken threads but they do possess one awesome superpower: their lived experience of your products and services. And this experience is a superpower that few organisations truly harness. And maybe that’s because part of harnessing that superpower requires agreeing a document that is, in my experience, one of the driest documents you can come across. Yes, I’m talking about Terms of Reference.

Let’s face it, you don’t curl up with a ToR when you’re in need of a gripping read, but they’re an essential part of good governance of any project, team or working group. (Maybe they should be done as cartoon strips?) And your customer panel needs to understand what it can and can’t influence.

How much influence? I’d say that if you want to be genuinely customer-centric then your customer panel should have a considerable influence on the direction and delivery of your organisation’s products and services. Of course, you the provider of these products and services have to work out how they can be delivered within the constraints of budget, practicality and technology but without the influence of your panel you’re just guessing.

4) Make the panel feel valued

I sit on the customer committee of a housing association as an external CX adviser and, like the other customer members of that committee, I’m paid to do so. The committee is part of a formal governance structure and reports into the board so the payment is a recognition of the time commitment required to prepare for and participate in committee meetings, sub-committees and other activities.

You don’t have to offer a monetary incentive for your customer panel but you do need to be wary of asking too much of your panel if their time is provided for free. However, there are other factors that are just as important if not more so and these include:

  • Running great meetings – simple meeting disciplines like providing papers in advance, running to time and having a chair or facilitator who makes sure everyone contributes will make group members feel valued.
  • Quality time with decision-makers – the customer panel should be on the agenda of your chief executive as well as the head of customer experience either to participate in meetings or to set aside time to meet with the members. Not providing that level of access and engagement will run the risk of the group feeling that they are merely a talking shop.

5) Close the loop

A well-run customer panel will generate plenty of insights into how well the organisation is delivering customer experience but what happens with those insights? If the group is suitably empowered they will be able to make recommendations, commission projects for further analysis and even approve proposals made by the organisation. However the fundamental requirement, as with all feedback, is to be able to demonstrate how you are acting upon it. “You said, we did” lists are fairly commonplace these days but, for communication with your panel I would also recommend a “you said, we didn’t” list – in other words great ideas that for whatever reason can’t be implemented yet.

Having a customer panel won’t make your organisation customer-centric overnight but, as a way of hearing the voice of the customer, it’s an essential part of the journey. Investing time and resource will pay back, particularly if you pay attention to the five points offered above.

If you would like to know more about how to become more customer-driven please get in touch.

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