Driving Customer Innovation: It’s the Small Things That Count

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter, and for brands looking to connect at a deeper level with their customers, the invitation to “co-create” offers some perfect examples. Here’s why.

Consider the value hierarchy as it’s often defined on the social web: in my second book I talked about the “ladder of engagement, leading from consumption through curation and creation to collaboration. It works like this: potential customers come to your site and read reviews that influence purchase decisions. Based on those experiences, (now) customers return to offer their own comments or ratings for the products purchased. This may then progress to creation, for example, uploading some pictures or a video of the products in use. Finally, your customers take the big step: offering their ideas on how the products they’ve purchased might be improved.

To be real, we all get the 90-9-1 generalized truth – simply, that far more people take part in an experience than stop to write about it. Still, if only a fraction of customers make it to co-creation that can still be a big win for the brand. I don’ know about you, but in building my own business I’ve taken any little win I could get.

Overcome Fear

If you’ve ever thought about letting your customers design your next product, you probably reacted with a “Yeah, right…” followed by a “No way.” If you ask your customers to imagine big, they will. And they may well imagine things you can’t build. Mobile phones that unfold into TV sets. Cars that fly. Coffee cups that never empty. World peace. If you ask customers what they want and then fail to deliver you’ve doubly hurt yourself. That’s scary. But that’s not the end of it: back to the idea of the little things. If you ask instead how they’d improve what they’re holding in their hand right now, the small ideas that flow are very likely things you can deliver and that as a result will build loyalty. That’s not scary.

Case in point: for years, Dell customers wanting Linux instead of Windows could get it…but only after they’d paid effectively for Windows and then wiped it off and installed Linux. When Dell opened its IdeaStorm, one of the early wins for Dell customers was the availability of Linux pre-installed, as a direct result of asking consumers how they’d improve Dell’s offering.

Everyone knows about the Starbucks splash stick, especially if you’ve read my column before! But you may not realize that literally hundreds of other customer ideas have made it to the retail floor and can be seen any day of the week at a Starbucks near you. The volunteer program, refillable cold cups, and even the menu items themselves have all been driven by My Starbucks Idea. In the first two years following launch, Starbucks received about 80,000 customer ideas. It sent out notes to participants and Starbucks card holders when they’d implemented the 100th idea. Do the math: 100 ideas in just over two years is about one new, customer-driven idea showing up at retail every week. That’s huge. Starbucks has rekindled strong brand loyalty, and its share prices show it.

This works for more than big consumer brands, and it works at all levels. Check out this veterinarian’s implementation of a very simple idea exchange: as smart tips are found, they are posted for the benefit of other vets. Taking the next step – adding the ability for people reading the tips provided starts the journey from idea sharing to idea co-creation. As another example, consider National Instruments and its LabView innovation community. (Disclosure: I am VP, social strategy for Lithium, the provider of the platform on which the NI LabView community is built.)

Start Small, Go Big

Take a look at the ideas being presented in these communities: the majority are small, incremental improvements that are well within reach for a tapped-in product development and marketing organization. Think about your own smartphone. For example, I’ve got an HTC with a physical keyboard, and the keyboard has backlit keys. Backlit keys are a welcome relief, especially as the smartphone population ages. Yes, I know, everyone hates that I just said that…but it’s true. On the HTC, I can adjust the brightness on the screen, but I cannot set the backlighting to “Always come on when the keyboard is open.” So instead, I have a piece of electrical tape covering the ambient light sensor so that I can always see my keyboard. Seriously, how hard would that be to be fix?

The fact is that businesses choosing to actively connect are seeing the new value hierarchy in social interaction: from support to sales to innovation. When customers help innovate, the “ownership” factor they feel goes way up, and loyalty climbs right along with it. Verizon’s ideation community is core to its business strategy: building on the success of its online peer-based support communities, Verizon expanded its platform to encourage direct customer participation in driving new ideas. From customer service to co-creation, the program is now connected across the organization. You can read the full case in this Forrester Research report.

As you build your social customer experience strategy, be thinking about the value hierarchy and the role of innovation in building loyalty. As with any business effort, start with a strategy that reaches across teams and ties everything you do to your fundamental business objectives. Nurture your customers and they move from content consumers to co-creators. Teach them how to contribute and show them that you listen, respond, and value what they’ve offered. The good news is that it’s easier than it seems: the tools you need are available and if you just stick to the little things you’ll find plenty of ideas you can actually implement. Think about that: build customer loyalty, one simple idea at a time.

Customers image on home page via Shutterstock.

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