My company, IMOTO photo, is a real estate photography company. Our primary customers are real estate agents looking to enhance their marketing with professional photos. For us, and for most other real estate service providers, understanding real estate agents is critical to our success. We do this by collecting customer insight through a customer advocacy program.
For us, customer insight means obtaining a deep understanding of our customers’ psyche when it comes to their usage of real estate photography. Having this insight into our customers gives us the information that we need to meet, and exceed, their expectations, leading to customer satisfaction, customer retention and referrals.
We can also use customer insight to eliminate problems that are causing customers to defect and to mitigate pain points that might be preventing potential customers from using our service. Although there is clearly an immense value in customer insight, we found that it was difficult, and expensive, to obtain without a systematized solution. That is why we implemented our own customer advocacy program called the IMOTO Insight Council (IIC).
So what is the IIC, and how can other real estate service providers replicate the program? Simply follow the steps below to learn about our experience and to create your own customer advocacy program.
Before creating a customer advocacy program, you must determine what you want to get out of the program. We had three goals when we created our program:
Improve our understanding of our customers and use it to better our business practices.
- Use advocates to listen to external conversation.
- Convert external conversation into internal action.
Position IMOTO as an industry thought leader.
- Create marketing content based on our greater understanding of our target market.
Increase the awareness of our brand.
- Generate referrals/leads through advocates
2. Advocate actions
After deciding on goals for the program, you must define the actions that you would like your advocates to take. It is vital that your advocates have a clear understanding of their responsibilities, as any confusion can lead to inactivity. We outlined a three-pronged plan for advocate involvement:
- Communicate with IMOTO about experiences, problems and ideas.
- Provide feedback on IMOTO’s new product development, marketing campaigns, Web development, etc.
- Collaborate with IMOTO regarding trending topics to participate mutually in industry thought leadership.
- Engage with IMOTO on social media.
- Encourage colleagues to engage with IMOTO on social media.
- Act as a brand advocate for IMOTO by alerting colleagues of special promotions, etc.
- Facilitate connections between IMOTO and other industry players (agents, brokers, etc.).
Your goal is to choose advocates who are already big supporters of your brand and who would be willing to act in your favor without an incentive to do so. However, an advocacy program is meant to provide a mutually beneficial relationship between your members and your company. By giving your advocates additional rewards for being in the program, you will increase the amount of participation and inspire a greater level of loyalty. For the IIC, we chose to offer advocates a mix of tangible and nontangible rewards. Tangible rewards included coupons, free products and merchandise; nontangible rewards included recognition and access.
4. Feedback loop
To ensure the success of a customer advocacy program, you must implement a feedback loop, which means you must devise a plan that supports a continuous flow of information between your advocates and your company. By clearly defining channels of communication, your advocates will know when and how to contact you when they have feedback.
We send out a monthly IIC newsletter to our advocates, a monthly survey, and we have given our advocates instructions to email the IIC program director with any ideas, questions, concerns or referrals. All of these channels provide a perfect system for two-way communication, and they encourage a learning relationship between IMOTO and our advocates.
However, the communication does not stop there. Your company must take the advocates’ feedback and convert it into an internal discussion to decide what items in which you can and will take action. Some of the advocate’s advice will be actionable, and there will also be feedback that is not currently feasible.
It is important that you report back to the advocates to let them know the status of their feedback, even if you are not able to move forward with their ideas. We do this by writing every piece of feedback down in a Google document that is shared with the IIC advocates. We update the document regularly as we respond to feedback or update issues or ideas that advocates have submitted. The advocates can open the Google document to review our progress on their ideas or add additional comments to their feedback or other advocates’ feedback.
5. Internal controlling
The final component to creating a customer advocacy program is the internal infrastructure of the program. It is critical that your company keeps communication channels open to advocates and follows through with customer feedback. It takes some setup prior to starting the program. We appointed an executive to manage the program and set up an internal system for handling feedback and assuring that the ideas and issues do not get lost or ignored.
We have found our customer advocacy program to be extremely helpful in advancing our business. This year, the customer insight that we received helped us optimize our website, test new products, reach out to unhappy customers, and build many new relationships with agents and brokers. We highly recommend that other real estate service providers set out to build learning relationships with their customers through customer advocacy programs, as it can change the way you do business.