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The Ultimate Test Drive

Why companies are turning to customers for help with design.

The color collaboration seems to be working across the spectrum. “It creates an opportunity for customers to differentiate their products even more,” notes Reis. “And it allows us to build stronger ties with those customers.”

Motor Trends

Not everyone is enthusiastic about co-created products, however. Skeptics say a company’s reputation may take a hit if that business’s best ideas come from a band of outsiders. What’s more, working with an unknown and Web-savvy populace can lay a company open to loss — even theft — of intellectual property.

Another concern: while most companies make user-group members waive any claims to products, it’s possible that patents may become more difficult to obtain or defend on co-created goods or concepts. In fact, it may be only a matter of time before idea-generating customers hook up with fee-seeking attorneys to sue a business for a piece of the profits.

Woody Driggs, global managing CRM lead with consulting firm Accenture, questions whether such consumer/business partnerships actually foster customer loyalty. Driggs says CRM is all about relationships and, by his lights, relationships equal the sum of the experiences. “Those who really focus on giving a quality customer experience,” he says, “are going to win in this game of trying to collect insight from their customers.”

Making the interaction enjoyable appears to be the key. In Volvo’s case, the company’s build-your-own-C30 tool was a blast to use — almost addictive for car enthusiasts. And unlike some configure-your-ride features found on other carmakers’ Websites, the Volvo tool was fast and easy to navigate. That may explain the large number of responses the company received.

Based on the input, Volvo management has decided to configure the new hatchback a little differently than originally planned. Essentially, the company is taking away bundled-option packages, offering instead an à la carte menu for added features. The survey also showed that Volvo could expect to sell a higher percentage of the sporty version of the C30 in the United States than it has in Europe, where the car has been on sale for six months. “That’s nice from a financial perspective,” says Battaglia. “But it did surprise us.”

Everyone Complains about the Weather

In the expensive universe of new-product launches, surprises are best uncovered before a product goes to market. That’s why some experts predict customer co-collaboration will require the ability to crunch through lots of feedback data.

Makers of customer analytics and collaboration software apparently see no shortage of buyers for their programs, that’s for sure. Vendor SPSS released its latest version of its Predictive Analytics Platform in May. That came on the heels of the launch of version 6.5 of ClickTracks Analytics’s Web metrics program. In December, industry heavyweight SAS shipped Profitability Management, a Web analytics and collaboration tool. A few months earlier, rival Oracle purchased Sigma Dynamics, a maker of real-time predictive analytics tools.

The programs are getting easier to use, too. That’s crucial, says Nuclear Research’s Wettemann. Simpler tools, she points out, empower managers who deal directly with customers to conduct their own product analysis. “A manager can make decisions on how to offer and bundle items on the Web,” says Wettemann, “rather than sending requests to IT to do the number-crunching.”

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