It’s common for the words communication and collaboration to be used together. However, while they pair nicely, they aren’t interchangeable, and a belief to the contrary is responsible for a large portion of project failure and customer unhappiness.
Customer Communication IQ
Let’s start with communication. Most enterprises do a good job when it comes to building communication plans, assigning communication-relates roles and responsibilities, establishing suitable channels and touchpoints and taking the lead on keeping customers in the loop. Yes, there’s always room for improvement. But most enterprises have at least an average customer communication IQ.
The Synonym Snag
That brings us to collaboration, and where the synonym snag ruins everything. Because while communication is a necessary part of collaboration, it’s not the same thing as collaboration. In other words: where you find collaboration, you’ll find communication. Yet where you find communication, you may or may not find collaboration.
And in many cases, the search is futile, because collaboration is nowhere to be found. It’s not that collaboration escaped in the middle of the night under cover of darkness, or won the lottery on its lunch break and is currently boarding a one-way flight to Bora Bora. Rather, it never existed; at least, not in a meaningful way.
Why not? Because collaboration doesn’t inevitably emerge from a lot of back-and-forth communication with customers, the way that water changes its state and turns to vapor when it reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Collaboration is something that enterprises must deliberately and thoughtfully engineer into their engagements, or else it can’t and won’t happen.
ONLY Collaboration Closes the Gap
Unfortunately, this is a scenario that enterprises can’t afford to accept, because customer collaboration isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s the ONLY thing that closes the gap when (not if) issues, problems, misunderstandings, risks and challenges emerge. Communication alone can’t do this. It’s the means and the material, and it certainly matters. But collaboration is the end goal and the guiding framework.
However, for all of the damage that this communication-collaboration confusion causes, it’s not a dilemma. That is, it’s not one of those necessary evils that enterprises must tolerate as they brace for impact. Instead, they can focus on 10 elements that make customer collaboration a core part of every engagement, from simple short-term projects to complex long-term engagements.
The 10 Elements of Effective Customer Collaboration
- Provide customers with a one-stop-shop portal that gives them real-time, on-demand access to their projects, files, conversations and requests.
- Match the portal to each customers’ brand look and feel. That way, they’ll see it as a familiar extension of their operations and be more inclined to use it.
- Ensure the portal is intuitive, easy-to-use and there is no learning curve. This is especially important when new users onboard from the customers’ side.
- Use version control tools to track iterations and updates. This is important for all customer collaboration, and not just those dealing with creative projects (such as marketing or design).
- Be prepared and have the tools to quickly configure and re-configure workflows that align with changing customer collaboration needs, processes and preferences. Sometimes customers don’t know how they want to collaborate – or how they collaborate best, until the project gets underway.
- Use tools like color-coded tasks to help customers quickly and simply see what actions they need to take (review, confirm, sync, etc.). If customers need to do any heavy lifting just to find out what’s on their to-do list, they’ll probably tune out and turn off.
- Give customers exportable links to fully-updated versions of reports, so they can take action and discuss them at every point in the process. Otherwise, reports will just sit there and get overlooked or ignored.
- Collaborate with customers in secure, designated discussion threads that automatically align in-context with the work that is being delivered.
- Maintain a single project plan, and share only what is relevant with customers. Don’t bog customers down with every little plan detail. They want curated information, not the proverbial kitchen sink.
- Speaking of the kitchen sink: separate customer-facing communication with those that involve internal teams.
Firing on All Cylinders
Most enterprises earn at least a passing grade when it comes to communicating with customers, and some make it on the honor roll. But communication alone doesn’t replace collaboration, or eventually become collaboration. It’s a necessary precursor, not a substitute.
For enterprises to truly establish and exploit collaboration as a profitable asset— just as they do with talent and technology—they need to actively and intentionally make it a part of every engagement. When all 10 elements noted above are firing on all cylinders, then communication and collaboration are integrated, and both project success and customer happiness are much more assured.