Kelly Hungerford on Customer-First Strategies and Community Building

By Juliet Stott  |  April 3, 2017

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Kelly Hungerford is a digital communications and marketing strategist with more than 20 years of experience in B2C and B2B marketing. Working out of her base in Switzerland, she has implemented integrated marketing and communication strategies into a wide range of companies, including most recently

Here she talks about her passion for customer-first strategies, building communities and tapping into the power communities can bring to the table.

Many brands and businesses are adopting a customer-first approach in order to win and retain customers. Do you agree with this strategy? 

Customer service isn’t a department, it’s a mindset—and looking past that, it’s simply a necessity. Businesses are feeling the pressure of Generation C, the “connected customer.”

I see companies moving to retool their platforms for the connected age—and we’re not just talking about customers. Employees are just as much a part of the customer experience and key to the customer-first strategies needed to succeed.

Can you give me an example of where and how this customer-first strategy is working in practice?

I really admire the Sunrise telecommunications story here in Switzerland. In the past four years, it has moved from the Swiss telecom laggard to the leading alternative telecoms provider in our country.

Back in 2013, its service was known as low quality, low price, poor customer service, and it had low employee morale. And to top that off, which is no surprise, Sunrise was losing market share and revenues were in decline. I’m pretty sure that even students on tight budgets didn’t want to use its service anymore. It was truly dismal.

Then, the Sunrise leadership took a deep look into what needed to be done to turn perception and business operations around. One area that surfaced quickly was customer dissatisfaction and the correlation with long-term revenue. The other was not having the right processes in place to consolidate and channel feedback to the right people within the organizations.

The CEO led the charge by personally making daily calls over a period of six to eight weeks to customers to understand where the company could do better. It also built a customer feedback loop into the company to serve as an integral part of their sustainable business strategy, geared toward long-term retention.

By 2015, the customer-first strategy had reportedly saved 20 million Euros in reduced employee and customer churn, with 80 percent customer satisfaction. In 2016, Sunrise reports that it now systematically evaluates the feedback of some 400,000 customers.

What’s the importance of building an online community? How do you do it, and how long should it take?

Communities are the lifeblood of a company. If you have a strong community, regardless of the size of the organization, you can reduce your costs; and you can dip into that community for just about anything—product development, innovation, marketing, co-creation of content, improved customer service.

There are so many ways you can leverage that relationship to help the organization. But building an online community is an ongoing effort. There’s a start date, but never an end date. When I was heading up Content, Community, and Communications for, I was the only person covering customer-facing operations.

What I quickly learned was that I couldn’t do it alone and needed a team. I didn’t have a hiring budget, but what I did have was an extended team [the community using] if I built the right relationship with them.

So, I worked on finding common ground. I set up tools for quick communication that enabled me to engage easily with our users, collect information and create a plan. I realized while running customer support, for example, that not all customers write in just to complain. Many of them contact companies to say thank you, ask for recommendations, or suggest features. All of the feedback means something to someone.

I created a way to funnel the right feedback to the right person to improve our service and build out marketing strategies and partnerships that would benefit our customers. In return for their feedback and time, I set up a way to easily promote their business and their Paper.lis (curated newspaper from social media posts) over our channels based on location, so these users could connect with relevant people geographically.

There was a value exchange going on that we all recognized. This approach allowed me to build a community of engaged end users. We all knew what the goal was (gather feedback on my side, get promotion on their side) so it was truly a win-win.

I’m working with global companies now, but regardless of the size of the company, the strategy for community building is still the same. You’ve got to dive deep into the small data. That’s the people part: understanding human needs before you can start working on community building.

What role does content play in building and enhancing a community?

Is has to be relevant. You can tell which companies have no connection with their community right away, just by looking at their social media feeds. They’re blasting out product promos and adverts. They look like a digital billboard.

The companies that are in tune and that are building a feedback conduit between the community and the company are creating the best kind of content. It’s been created on small data—the emotional and human part of marketing.

I think of content like good food: it should bring people together and around the table for discussion. By understanding what your community needs, and then tapping into that, you begin creating content that satisfies. To really understand the needs of your community you need to talk to them and listen, listen, listen.

How do you do that?

By looking at both qualitative and quantitative data. I see a lot of companies here in Switzerland focusing too much on the quantitative and not putting enough into qualitative research such as social listening. Social media provides an amazing opportunity to put your ear to the ground. The companies that are growing big social ears to monitor and listen are winning.

Social listening is one of the first steps to good, strong engagement. A company can easily tap into what their top five, 25 or 50 fans (users, customers, partners) are sharing, saying and engaging with to understand more about what makes them tick. That’s the first step in creating content that sparks conversation.

What kind of content should marketers create?

I think every marketer struggles with content’s product-to-person ratio: how much of it should be about the brand and how much about the people looking for the solution they provide.

The ultimate goal for a content marketer is to create content that people will take action on. The ultimate goal for a community builder is to share content and create conversations that build relationships. It looks like the people win. Put people at the center of your (content) operations, and everyone wins.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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