If you don't make it easy for your customers to offer ideas about how your company can improve its services, they may just give those ideas to your competitors.
The column you are about to read is true. It was inspired - provoked, actually - by my online interactions with a brand-conscious global financial services giant whose charge card I carry in my wallet. The name of this company is not important: I would prefer that readers focus on the point I'm trying to make rather than on the company I'm using to make it.
So, here I am on American Express's Web site, banging away on my laptop, doing the thing I most despise doing as a consultant: expenses. I hate — no, loathe — expense reports. Even though expense reports are the most remunerative writing I do, they're a pain, and keeping and tracking paper receipts is a nuisance. I remain desperately eager for easy and frictionless ways to get swiftly reimbursed for the hotels, taxis and other financial effluvia of my nomadic existence.
As I try in vain to define and cut and paste my airfare from a particular date (and my hotel receipt and taxi rides from the same date) from my online account into a Word document that will soon double as a digital expense form, it hits me: There's a better, smarter and easier way of doing this. Much better. Much smarter. Much easier. I feel the happy tingle of hair rising on the back of my neck that physiologically signals: good idea!
As a fast-calculating idiot savant with an entrepreneurial bent, I do a quick back-of-the-mental-envelope number-crunch and figure that this is, conservatively, a $50 million-a-year idea for my charge card company. That's real money.
But because I'm the kind of guy who will cheerfully give away a $50 million idea if it will make my life easier, I immediately stop doing my expenses online and draft a 650-word e-mail telling Amex how it could design, prototype, test and deploy this scheme.
In a moment, I'll explain the idea and justify its multimillion-dollar valuation. But the real reason I'm writing this column is not to tout my idea's brilliance but to declare my frustration. My charge card company - and I've been a member in excellent standing for over 15 years - simply would not let me submit my memo either online or via the phone.
You want to talk CRM? You want to talk about sustainable sources of strategic advantage? Let me emphatically state: If you don't have infrastructures or apps that make it easy for your best and most profitable customers to give you - give you - ideas about how you can do better and be better, you need to rethink what digital networks can and should mean in your organization.
Any company that sells products or services online needs to provide the means to encourage customers not just to whine and complain but also to suggest and enhance. That's not hard technically. Alas, what's technically easy all too often means nothing to the cultural, organizational and managerial resistance that defies cost-effective implementation. If you want smart feedback, you have to design for it. Even a little respect goes a long way.
Ideas for Free
Unfortunately my charge card company's feedback button linked to an annoying questionnaire and no conceivable way to send any kind of meaningful e-mail or memo. Thus began my quixotic effort to give away a $50 million idea.
First I picked up the phone and called customer service. I politely explained that I had an interesting - and potentially important - idea for the company's Web site that could be worth tens of millions of dollars. I asked how I could send my e-mail.
The equally polite customer service rep (everyone was polite and professional) explained that there was no customer service e-mailbox where it could be sent. She transferred me to the interactive services group. The lady there first referred me to the site's feedback button but agreed its interface was inadequate for my kind of feedback. I asked for an alternate e-mail address. She said she didn't have one to give.
I explained (politely) that I wrote a column for CIO, worked at MIT and was someone who paid my (rather large) charge card bills on time. Surely someone in her group would be interested in this idea. Moreover, I was a valued customer. Didn't she have some sort of e-mailbox for valued customers? The answer was a very polite but very firm "no".
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