At C3 2015, the customers were the stars of about half of the sessions. In some cases, they were reporting on how the performance of their businesses had improved using software to automate components of sales, marketing, learning or customer experience. In other cases, they went beyond that and explained the unique ways in which they used applications. A great example of this was a session presented by Advanstar and its technology partner, Traction On Demand.

Invent a New Use CaseAdvanstar is an events company, and they organize hundreds of events every year, many with tens of thousands of registrants. They manage customer registrations and information not through a specialized events management software application but through an implementation of Clicktools, integrated with salesforce.com, was tuned by traction On Demand to deliver exactly what Advanstar needed. I could spend a lot of time explaining the details, but this terrific video does it far better than I could.

This case points out one of the critical reasons for software companies to be in touch with their partners and customers: While software vendors strive for innovation – and often deliver it on a technical level – it’s the actual users who discover creative uses of business software, and who can indicate directions for products to evolve.

Customer creativity is the second part of the cycle; modern business software takes a lot of the drudge work off the table and contributes efficiencies that should enable customers to spend time thinking more creatively about processes and tactics. Unfortunately, many businesses overlook that opportunity, instead using their newfound time to simply do more of what they’ve been doing. Smart companies look at the capabilities they now possess and re-think their processes to capitalize in those new capabilities – or, they look at the solution their vendor has provided them and apply it in a way that the even the vendor hasn’t envisioned.

For example, a CRM vendor was surprised a few years ago when it discovered that a customer had applied its application to the construction industry, using CRM to track construction equipment (from bulldozers down to power tools) using the customer record to record who was using it, where and when, much in the way you’d track sales contacts and how and when they’d been contacted by members of the sales force. Another instance involved a clever use of CRM by a hotel chain to coordinate customer feedback, guest behavior and guest spending to track individual guest experiences, and also to track trends across touch points with the hotel.

The CRM vendor didn’t emphasize these customers – they were described as “corner cases,” and seen as unproductive to selling the core product. That was a missed opportunity, because it showed customers doing some things every vendor should pray their customers do. First, they were intimately engaged with the software – they had made it fit their business needs exactly, and their companies couldn’t run without the software. Second, it showed how powerful great software can be in enabling creativity from a business. And third, and most mundanely, it indicated vertical markets the vendor could easily slide into.

Of course, a creative partner is a big help, too. It’s not a coincidence that the two CRM solutions described above were put in place by partners, as was the case with Traction On Demand. You can easily imagine the conversation when the partner first proposed Clicktools as a solution for event registration management, or CRM for managing construction equipment. The customer may have looked at the partners sideways until the partner could articulate the reasons the application he proposed is a better fit than a purpose-built piece of software.

Vendors often think they’ve considered all the angles concerning their products, but as a customer you know that there are often ways to use software that are specific to your needs and which the vendor never speaks about (or even realizes). We’re entering an era of more creative businesses, and if you’re one of those, do your vendors a favor and let them in on your secrets. And, if you’re a vendor, keep your eyes open for examples of businesses using your software to be creative and draw from them to expand the ways you can help other customers.