Dell and Starbucks are showing serious commitment to online customer involvement a core part of their business—promoting the feature in their stores, on their websites, and through their employees. Starbucks has even added “idea partners”—48 specially trained employees who act as hosts of the discussion. Without them, Bruzzo (Starbuck’s Chief Technology Officer) argues, the conversation could intimidate newcomers. “These are the people at a dinner party who make sure everyone is having a good time.”

Here are a few quotes from a recent BusinessWeek article:

You could say this is nothing but a fancy suggestion box. Benioff (CEO of Salesforce.com, which provides the software to Starbucks and Dell) argues no. “The dead-end suggestion box and the auto reply are symbols of corporate indifference and are no longer tolerated,” he says. In this age of nonstop, immediate communication in blogs, wikis, Twitter, and YouTube, he says, “your customers are having a conversation about your products and practices. The question every company has to ask is: ‘Do I want to be part of this conversation? Do I want to learn from it? Am I willing to innovate on the basis of it?’ The idea partners also act as advocates for customers’ suggestions back at their departments, so that “customers would have a seat at the table when product decisions are being made,” Bruzzo says. “To close that loop in an authentic way,” he argues, the company must make a commitment to “building those ideas together with customers…. We’re truly going to adopt it into our business process, into product development, experience development, and store design.””

Bruzzo advises other companies to follow Starbucks’ example in using Ideas. “Don’t underinvest in adopting it into your business process,” he implores. “See it as an important part of how you run your business.” He also says it’s O.K. to make mistakes. “Your community is incredibly forgiving, actually, if you show a real interest in listening and responding.”

A very important takeaway from this article is the commitment Starbucks has made to online social media and customer involvement. For them it is not just a gimmick or a “try and see,” but a new part of their business process. For small businesses, the specifics of the commitment to social media like BigTreetop.com will be different, of course (most small businesses cannot hire full-time “idea partners”), but the importance of that commitment will be the same – or perhaps greater, as they seek to find the unique advantages that they can use to compete with larger organizations. We’ve already seen that, with just a little bit of effort and a platform built for their purposes, small businesses can innovate rapidly and effectively with the help of their customers. I believe that the next generation of really successful small businesses will be the ones that band together to make customer outreach, involvement and innovation both in-person and online as much a part of their business philosophy and process as any other function.

Note: Here is another article about MyStarbucksIdea.com

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