While their Marketing and Support professionals continue to explore the usage and management of social media, there is a much larger challenge to be faced by SaaS/Cloud firms — and all other technology players as well. The implications of the changes in our general culture over the last 25 years are not limited to those two disciplines in the technology industry. All around us, corporate logos are proudly blazoned across t-shirts, jackets, bags, bumper stickers and everything else across the full range of visible possessions in daily life. We’ve become a society which increasingly is about personal definition through membership in groups and other affiliations. In the face of that reality, it’s time to fundamentally revise how companies think about the marketplace and their own organizational structure. The old Marketing & Sales paradigm and focus on the procession from Suspect to Prospect to Customer is too narrow. Today’s companies require a wider view as they seek to increase market share. To succeed over time, Management must consider the entire scope of its customerium, the community of its customers, influencers, fans, affiliates, mavens, promoters, detractors, ambivalents — and understand how each role affects and impacts the future of the corporation.
Mavens and the Knowledge Inventory
Support professionals have been focused on building and extending community support resources for many years as a means of reducing skyrocketing contact center costs. A key aspect of this effort has been encouraging the role of “mavens,” non-employees who are very knowledgeable about how the company’s products work and who are willing, even insistent to share their expertise with other customers for free. The contribution of a small number of mavens can easily reach strategically significant levels for a technology maker. Not only do mavens answer technical questions about how something works, they are also often at the forefront of innovation in how to better use a product to enhance productivity and profitability. As such, they represent a substantial value to the company.
The encouragement of mavens also carries a risk, however, for affiliation with a company or product can be positive or negative. At the senior end of the scale, mavens tend to have their own extensive set of relationships within the customerium and beyond. Their contributions build their own reputation and identity within the community over time, and savvy companies need to keep this fact in mind, for mavens also tend to be serious influencers. If offended, what was once an enthusiastic supporter, promoter and influencer can easily turn into an equally dedicated and active detractor and enemy — and the resulting damage can be every bit as substantial as the former gain.
We’ve become a society which increasingly is about personal definition through membership in groups and other affiliations. In the face of that reality, it’s time to fundamentally revise how companies think about the marketplace and their own organizational structure.
Mavens are only one expression of the knowledge inventory that grows up around a technology. Each customer company will have employees that learn how to use the application to increase their productivity and their company’s profitability. There is no reason why that knowledge and value must be lost if/when they are laid off or move to a different employer. Recognizing the value of such individuals, some SaaS firms have begun to maintain a registry of skilled users, and rent them to other customers when additional staff is needed on a temporary basis.
The Architecture of Enduring Relationships
The maintenance of a sustainable and profitable customerium begins with strategy, with the design and architecture of the role of the various elements and of the whole. Does your company have a map of its community? Are the key players and their standing along the knowledge and influence spectrums known? The power of those roles and individuals are far too important to be left to chance. For optimum results, there needs to be a strategy in place for the full range of conversations that take place between your company and all of the roles/players, but also for the interactions that take place amongst those people on the outside. We’ll be discussing this in The SaaS Support Forum  on LinkedIn, and I’m also available for complimentary Office Hours  sessions by appointment.
[This article was originally published on January 3rd, 2009. It has been extensively revised using insights developed from The SaaS & Support Project research.]