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The Pinnacle of CX: Community in Three Layers

You’ve likely already seen the US Surgeon General's latest report. The “Epidemic of Loneliness” has the nation fully in its grip. It may be the least surprising and yet the most important news of 2023. We saw this coming long before the pandemic, but my goodness! These past three years have created a perfect storm of psychological abuse. While the damage may be invisible, it is very real. Directly from the report:

  • “In the US, stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually.”
  • “Only 39% of adults in the US said that they felt very connected to others.”
  • “Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively.”

This impacts every single one of us. Just as we are all potential victims, we all can be part of the solution.

What We Need Now Is Community

The surgeon general himself said it perfectly as one of the core recommendations to turn the tide of loneliness: “Cultivating a culture of connection.”

The world’s best brands are already doubling down on this strategy. In my opinion, this should serve as a battle cry for customer experience (CX) professionals. We are uniquely positioned with the mentality, skills, and influence to make a tremendous difference in this area. CX professionals, by their very nature, are community cultivators. We are bridge builders in a world where so many seem to specialize in putting up walls. The companies we represent have the potential to be so much more than just places to work.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also good business. This article from McKinsey demonstrates how legendary brands such as Warby Parker, Gymshark, and Traeger are leading with a community strategy to dramatically improve their acquisition engine and secure long-term customer loyalty. Mark Schaefer’s research, as highlighted by Shep Hyken, indicates that “66% of brand community members say they are loyal to the brand.” When we grow the community, we grow the company.

That said, establishing a meaningful community requires serious foundation work. In 2018, I quite causally took on the mantle of community organizer with the introduction of the nonprofit CX Accelerator. And holy Toledo was I clueless as to the amount of sheer force, time, and love that would be required to establish and grow this new endeavor! Even so, the benefits are far greater than I could have ever dreamed.

Yes, forging meaningful connections is difficult. But it’s so worth it. I don’t think there is anything more important we could be focusing on as CX professionals. It’s not only how we earn a future for the organizations we serve, it’s how we play a critical role in the cure for society. Here are just a few top ways that a brand community can help to accelerate CX transformation:

  • Customers supporting customers: When someone really loves a brand, they want to help others to love that brand as well. Players have been supporting other players through gaming communities for years. The C2C (Customer 2 Customer) service connection has become a reality for many technology companies, as well. It’s time for general industry to take the hint.
  • Voice of Customer, perfected: High quality voice of customer (VoC) data is worth its weight in gold. Most organizations have finally realized their VoC engine requires more fuel than what traditional surveys can provide. An active brand community will provide the organization with high-quality, focused customer feedback on a regular basis. It’s a dream come true for a product team that wants to explore/test new features, a marketing team looking to home in on the right message, or a CX leader who is looking to understand how to reduce friction in the customer journey.
  • Co-creation for true innovation: There are times when an organization can get so caught up in what it is trying to offer its customers, it forgets to include those very customers in the process. An active community keeps the people you're serving front and center, providing a real-time innovation engine with more relevance than anything else in the world.

And this is only the beginning of the benefits. But how do we take the abstract concept of “community” and make it real in the context of our organizations? Having researched this topic for years, and having played a role in establishing serval brand-centric community channels, I believe there are three required stages or “community layers” that build upon one another. These layers begin with the senior leadership core and move outward toward co-creation with our customers. Precious few organizations are able to truly embrace the third layer, making it a tremendous competitive differentiator for those who achieve it.

The three required community layers are as follows:

  1. “United Servant Leaders”: Executives supporting each other and modeling out a specific and intentional culture.
  2. “Guides and Guardians”: The employee population, fully activated and ready to serve as organizational ambassadors.
  3. “The Brand Community”: The business and its customers together inside an active environment to fulfill the brand promise together.

Before we jump into the practical portion of community building, I feel the need to offer a disclaimer. There will be a major temptation to shortcut this process, but I can say from experience it’s not worth it. The research shows that the vast majority of community initiatives fail to survive for more than a year. I believe this is mostly due to organizations skipping the steps of internal community as well as not having the patience to develop it over time. Equip yourself now with a long-term view. Set proper expectations with all stakeholders. Otherwise (and I don’t mean to sound crass), don’t even try. A half-hearted attempt at community will cause real damage, losing credibility with employees and customers alike.

Okay! Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the first of the three community layers.

Layer One: “United Servant Leaders”

Sadly, I've been a part of several organizations in the past where leaders would tear each other down in an attempt to build themselves up. They seem to care more about fortifying their own “territory” than the needs of the overall business. Authentic community is impossible in an environment like this.

As Patrick Lencioni makes so clear in The Advantage, the senior leadership team must be truly united. “There’s just no way around it. If an organization is led by a team that is not behaviorally unified, there is no chance that it will become healthy.”

Without a leadership community, there can be no organizational community. I love Patrick’s term “behaviorally unified.” This means that leaders are not just giving lip service to the concept of alignment and then going behind other leaders’ backs to just do whatever it is they want to do. They have enough respect and honesty for one another to debate important issues and commit to a path even if it’s not the one they individually would have chosen. What we are looking for are servant leaders.

If your company’s leadership team is not there yet, that is okay. Most organizations need to focus here first. Grab The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and have the courage to initiate this robust dialogue with your cohort of executives.

Layer Two: “Guides and Guardians”

Layer two is the community of your employees. Here we seek to improve peer-to-peer relationships while activating a "brand guardian" mentality. This means employees care so much about fulfilling the brand promise, they will even engage in a crucial conversation to hold peers accountable when they're failing to demonstrate organizational values. As you can imagine, few companies ever achieve a culture this bold.

Regardless, this is the bar for which we should strive. If you look at the best organizations in the world, the thing that really sets them apart is exceptional peer-level relationships. According to data from TINYpulse, “having great colleagues and peers” is actually the number-one thing employees love about their jobs.

People will have tremendous pride when they are accomplishing something unique. They enjoy the experience of working together and will speak up to protect the brand from outside forces. In the language of “Tribal Leadership,” these are level four and five workplace communities.

Graphic depicting the five levels of organizational tribes, designed by Nate Brown.

The research suggests that less than a quarter of organizations ever reach a level four or five tribe. Most employees are stuck in a very selfish mode of thinking, represented by tribal levels one through three. This is only natural in a company where the circle of psychological safety has been broken. Lasting community cannot happen here.

So how does one move from a level one, two, or three tribe toward something greater? You guessed it: strong relationships. The authors talk about the power of “triads” or groups of three who form mini-cohorts across various departments. These atomic groups build trust and start to operate at a higher level, raising the bar for everyone around them. Add in support from senior leaders who are also modeling out these behaviors and you’ve got yourself a culture change.

It’s important to note that we're striving for more than just random friendships. CX leaders help to anchor everything to the unique brand promise of the organization. You're not just creating a community. You’re creating the community that can only exist inside of your company. There should be distinctive attributes to what you do, how you do it, and who should be representing you. This is building an employee experience that becomes the very foundation of your customer experience.

Layer Three: “The Brand Community”

Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for! It’s time to invite our customers into the community we’ve been cultivating. In this stage, the concept of community can become very real in the form of an actual community mechanism, either physical or virtual.

Hopefully you understand the necessity of community layers one and two. If there is not true organizational support for the community function, it’s extremely likely to fizzle out. The value just won’t be there. Customers won't waste time with it and business stakeholders will lose interest quickly. A great brand community stems from the “overflow” of a great employee community.

Mark Schaefer, in his brilliant work Belonging to the Brand, has essential advice for a business looking to establish a customer community: “A customer committed to a relevant brand community doesn’t require any further convincing, coupons, or coaxing to love us. They’ve become an engaged advocate for our brand, sustained through the purpose they find through our community. Moving customers from follower to audience to community is a process they will actually embrace!”

This is the pinnacle of both marketing and customer experience. The community connection transcends so much. Suddenly, you're not trying to drag your customers along. They're willingly walking beside you!

Starting Your Own Brand Community

Note how Mark says “sustained through the purpose.” Your community begins just as the organization began. With a unique and compelling brand purpose. Without this, your community has no glue. There's no real reason for these people to spend time and energy deepening their relationship with you or with each other. But forging the brand core in the center is like lighting a beacon. It will attract the very customers who belong to you. the ones who really care about the same thing you care most about.

Brand communities founded through the selfish lens of “just another place for the business to talk about itself” will fizzle out quickly. The community that can authentically invite customers in to help fulfill the mission will stand the test of time.

Forms the Brand Community Can Take

Once you’ve answered that magic question of who belongs with you in the community, it's a simple question of what would be the most convenient and helpful “location” for this group of people to interact.

Naturally, most organizations will be seeking to bring brand believers together in the form of a virtual community channel. Popular options for this include Discord, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Slack. Huge groups of people are already here, reducing the friction of adding another communication layer. All of these pre-existing tools have the functionality required to customize your environment and generate the proper level of engagement. This is especially true in the cases of Discord and Slack.

Geneva and Meetup are two that do a great job combining a digital experience with a community that can be together in-person, at least periodically.

Of course, if your organization is looking to go “all in” on the community concept, building your own environment or app will provide the maximum ability for customization and feel like a truly exclusive brand hub. The question to navigate is how to keep it as simple as possible for your audience and the business versus how to get the features you really need to maximize engagement.

* * * * *

I had an exciting conversation with a CX director of a major airline recently. I was explaining the community concept to him and the light bulbs just started going off. This wonderful brand has a group of “superfans” who are natural ambassadors for the company. Giving these folks a virtual place to meet and learn all kinds of exciting things from one another will galvanize their loyalty in a huge way. Then, as the organization slowly brings new customers into the community, they pick up the tone of these ambassadors and become just as excited as they are. Suddenly, share of wallet goes up, customers are supporting customers in ways never before possible, and the organization is closer to its fans than ever. What’s not to love?

CX leaders are community builders. Let’s embrace this role. People are desperate for the meaningful connections that we can help to create inside organizations and extending outward to our customers. The community-based experiences we design will have the power to transform organizations, earn loyalty, and even be a small part of the cure for our lonely society!