Customers for Hire

Embracing the humanity of your customers has another distinct advantage — customers can also help you run your business. Companies that recognize that their customers are thinking/feeling/doing human beings often learn to work effectively with them to operate and improve organizations.  This has cost advantages, of course, but it also opens up new opportunities for increased quality and differentiation.

Intuit is a great example of a company that leverages their customers as contributors.  Intuit actively engages customers in everything from coming up with new product ideas to answering service questions from other customers.  Employees still do the bulk of the work at Intuit, but customers improve their work at almost every step in the value chain. Threadless, the fast- growing T-shirt company, takes this customer operating role a step further by using customers to create the vast majority of new product designs.  At Threadless, employees improve the work done by customers.

Customer insight and creativity is among the most underutilized assets in organizations today. Particularly in our current economic climate, it’s worth it for most companies to explore ways that their customers can play a more active role in creating the products and services they consume.

2 Responses to Customers for Hire

  1. Brandon Cole says:

    I had never heard about Threadless shirts so I had to go take a look and they make some great clothing. Thank you very much for recommendation. On the other hand I’m all too familiar with Intuit as are most people that file their taxes electronically. There’s no doubt that companies have to listen to their customers to stay competitive and provide the solutions and products their customers need, but when customers provide the ideas and content I would be very curious to know what you think companies should be willing to do to show appreciation for this valuable feedback loop.
    This is an issue I’m pretty passionate about, because I work in the software industry and this is an issue that is always on the minds of software companies. Great ideas cannot be generated by simply increasing payroll or going on creativity retreats. Great ideas are rare and special and companies hope that when an idea happens that’s relevant to their business model they become the lucky recipient of it. Almost every software company Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Intuit and others don’t merely ask for customer feedback, but practically beg for customer feedback and ideas to generate new product lines, increased revenues and renewed prosperity.

    So how should companies recognize great ideas from their customers? Are ideas that improve upon an existing product line less valuable than those that create a new product line? What are the ethics that companies should abide by when running with a customer suggestion, and as the customer why should I give them my ideas?

  2. Frances Frei says:

    It’s a great question. In my experience tapping into norms – customers’ genuine interest in being helpful, in this case – works better than financial rewards. Most customers want the service they experience to be better. And for the most part, they are honored to be part of the improvement process, as long as it’s a genuine invitation.

    Unfortunately, most attempts by companies to involve customers don’t feel genuine. The yellowing comment card at the checkout desk is only one example. Few people believe that the investment in filling out a card will be dignified by thoughtful consideration by people with true decision rights. But imagine the opposite – imagine that your ideas were heard and deliberated by people with the power to change things. In industry across industry we see customers respond energetically to this invitation. And it rarely requires financial rewards – indeed paying for ideas can often diminish our goodwill towards the process.

    As an illustration of this, consider the results of a recent study by Dan Ariely: people were asked to help a stranger move a couch. People were less inclined to help when money was offered as an incentive.

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