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Conversations With Your Customers

By Nancy White

I'm not going to get evangelical on you, but allow me to preach for a just a moment. But first I have a request: I'd like you to climb aboard the Cluetrain with me. All aboard!

The train I'm alluding to is "The Cluetrain.com Manifesto ," a Web site and a book. They are the brainchildren of Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. These four Internet activists are on a passionate campaign to change the rules of corporate engagement with their customers. Let me share a snippet from Wall Street Journal writer Thomas Petzinger Jr.'s introduction to the book. Then we'll focus on how this relates to your online community:

"First, this is no feel-good book. Though the broad theme is overwhelmingly optimistic, the details will make you squirm. This is an obituary for business-as-usual. It shows you how your Web strategy may be minutes from obsolescence. It reveals how the Internet has made your entry-level employees as powerful as your senior vice president of marketing. Recall what THE JUNGLE did to meat packing, what SILENT SPRING did to chemicals, what UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED did to Detroit. That's the spirit with which THE CLUETRAIN MANIFESTO takes on the arrogance of corporate e-commerce."

OK. OK. So what does this have to do with small businesses? We aren't as arrogant and distant as large corporations, right? Right. And why? Unlike large corporations, we have the opportunity for close, intimate communications with our clients. This is the small-business advantage. We can have conversations with our clients. We can listen to them. We can learn from them. Online interactions and communities can be a tool to help us expand and deepen our conversational capacity.

Take a look at the first seven (of 95) "Manifesto" theses. Think about how they relate to your business and your customer conversations:

  • Markets are conversations.
  • Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments, or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  • People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
  • The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

What do you do to foster communication? How do you start and maintain conversations? How do you create networks with and between your customers, suppliers, and partners? How do you do this in a "human voice"? Some interesting food for thought. Are you on the Cluetrain?

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