Often when we discuss the idea of leadership, we apply it to our own organizations. We think about the various echelons of leaders – from the first line managers through the senior ranks to the role of the chief executive. But it is also important for us –as leaders within our businesses – to characterize and understand the leadership aspirations of different classes of stakeholders who are just beyond the reach of our business boundaries. Think, for example, of your best customers. What can the language of leadership tell us about their experience? What can the lens of leadership reveal about the motivations, interests and level of engagement of your customers and how can this impact your own leadership style?

800px-Technology-Adoption-LifecycleCustomer Leaders – Innovators and Early Adopters

Just imagine for a moment that you have a group of customer leaders. This is a group who are very closely aligned with your business. You have deep reciprocal relationships across your businesses and leaders at all levels are in regular contact. Quite possibly you have extensive co-innovation or co-marketing arrangements. What’s more, these customers expect to be in the advanced guard of any new innovation that you produce – and they work with you closely to preserve a competitive market advantage. In this way they are what Everett Rogers in his book Diffusion of Innovations calls “innovators.”

Following closely behind the innovators are the “early adopters”. These are likely to be your upstart customers – more recent, ambitious customers. They can see the opportunity that close engagement represents and they are open to playing with moderate levels of risk. They engage you because they lend you credibility in different (or emerging) markets, and they love the stability and scale that you deliver. It’s a win-win.

Customer Followers – the Early and Late Majority

The early and late majority cover a large proportion of your customer base. According to Geoffrey Moore who extended Rogers’ model in Crossing the Chasm, attention should be paid to each of these segments in sequential order. This means that a customer tipping point is achieved at the level of 15-18% of the customer base – and until this is reached, customer followers are unlikely to engage until there are “proven models” and “best practices” already well established. Therefore, early stage focus should remain with the innovators and early adopters.

The chasm and discontinuous innovation

Now, Moore’s model applies only to innovations which are discontinuous in nature – where you are seeking to effect a change in behavior. This is particularly prevalent in technology focused businesses, but with the rise of social media, these days it can readily be applied to almost any industry sector.

Moore suggests that the challenge is in bridging the chasm between the early adopters and the early majority. It loosely equates to what I would identify as Gartner’s “trough of disillusionment” stage of the Hype Cycle – where the early excitement of a new innovation wanes and the hard graft of gaining more widespread acceptance kicks in. The challenge for leaders is ensuring that not only are customer leaders engaged quickly and powerfully, but they also help set the agenda for the early adopters – building momentum that can spread across the entire customer ecosystem. Remember, it is important to understand the leadership aspirations of your customers. Allow them to not just follow an agenda, but to set one. Allow them to own and engage the innovation process, and encourage them to activate their own business ecosystems – those who could also be your other partners and customers.

And in the process, your business (and your leadership), will also be transformed. For the better.

Nina Nets It Out: Your best customers are not just transactions. They are, and should be, a strategic category of their own. Recast your best customers in the terminology of leadership and you will find new opportunities to engage, build and sustain relationships well beyond a single sale.