Do companies really want constructive engagement with their customers?

Have you seen what Starbucks is doing with their customers? They’re asking their customers to suggest ways to improve their products, and also to suggest ways of improving the experience when the customers purchase the products.

evly has created an app for owners of Facebook fan pages, that not only lets the Facebook fans suggest ways a company can improve, but allows them to vote, & comment, & share the ideas (which means the company gets tons of new Facebook fans for free).

The end result is a company…

1. That engages with their current Facebook fans

2. That gets new Facebook fans through all the viral methods built into the app

3. That gets real business value, by hearing “out of the box” ideas the customers want AND seeing which of these ideas the customers think are most important

Over the last few weeks, I’ve met with plenty brands that have expressed the desire to get their customers involved, and so the response from one well known consumer company left me so gob smacked, that I’m keen to hear your thoughts on what you think.

1. They believe that they’ve heard every possible idea that their customers could come up with, and don’t think that they can come up with any “out of the box” ideas that could prove worthwhile to them.

2. They don’t really want to “engage” with their customers in a meaningful way – they simply want to “entertain” their customers.

Do most companies want to involve their customers so that they can become better companies (better products, better experiences, better company all round), or are they just looking for bigger databases (more Facebook likes, bigger email lists) and for “customer involvement” to consist of “entertainment engagement”?

What do you think?

Eric EdelsteinDo companies really want constructive engagement with their customers?
Ryan Hogarth says:

Eric, in a South African context my experience is that being ‘disengaged’ is very real in boardrooms. There are several reasons for this, ranging from those who are aware there will be criticism of their brand to those who cannot see that being engaged is actually of value. This is, slowly, changing but remains a major obsticle to change from talking at customers to listening and conversing. With each success we chip away at the old!

I am no expert on marketing, but I know a thing or three about organisational innovation. And a web site or Facebook fan page that invites customers to suggest ideas is a dismal approach to innovation.

Firstly, I know of no breakthrough innovations that have come via open suggestion schemes such as Starbucks’ or Dell’s web sites. Indeed, Henry Ford put it rather well when he said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have replied “faster horses.”

When simply asked for ideas on a web/Facebook page, customers tend to give incremental improvement ideas. If the company receiving ideas is well known, they can expect to capture lots of ideas and lots of duplicate ideas (when 1,000 ideas have been submitted, who will bother to see if anyone else has submitted the same idea?).

That may seem great. Lots of ideas. Lots of engagement with customers. But reviewing those ideas to identify potential innovations is a huge administrative task that eats up employees’ time in a big way. For instance, IBM once captured 30,000 ideas from an idea jam. It took 60 subject experts 72 hours to do an initial review of those ideas! That’s 4320 hours (about 2.5 working years) of IBM rates.

How about voting on ideas? Don’t! Voting on ideas has been proven again and again to be worse than useless in terms of identifying potential innovations. (see, for instance, Voting identifies early popularity of ideas or idea submitters, but has no bearing on creativity of ideas.

So, asking customers for ideas results in a massive administrative overload and no demonstrable evidence that truly innovate ideas will be submitted. To make matters worse, if the company sponsoring the Facebook page/web application does not act on ideas quickly, idea submitters promptly decide the company in question is not interested in their ideas.

Oh, and then there is the issue of intellectual property. You definitely need to get your legal team involved in order to avoid expensive law suits later.

The truth is, if you want the public’s ideas to drive innovation, there are much better approaches. I won’t go into them here. But look at and for more information on proven idea capturing methods.

But, I confess, I am not a marketing expert. So, I cannot evaluate the value of a Facebook page or web page for capturing ideas in terms of promotional value. Just don’t expect it to drive innovation in any way.

Jeffrey Baumgartner