A crowd - not necessarily a wise oneAsking your customers for suggestions seems like a great way to improve your services or products. Two recent items I came across suggest it’s not something you should do without clearly thinking through what you are trying to achieve.

Report 103 is an excellent newsletter from Jeffrey Baumgartner on applied creativity and ideas in business and this week’s edition follows on nicely from my previous post about feedback. If you buy the idea that customer feedback is a rich source of service improvement ideas then proactively soliciting ideas from your customers (and non-customers) seems like an even better idea.

However this approach isn’t without its pitfalls: cast too wide a net and every customer who sends you a carefully crafted piece of advice is likely to be annoyed if you don’t appear to act on it. Jeffrey highlights Dell’s IdeaStorm as suffering from this potential pitfall – one of the forum threads queries whether Dell will act on the suggestions.

A refinement of the open-ended approach is to run what Jeffrey calls campaigns – guiding creativity around a specific creative challenge. His company sells a system called Jenni that formalises this approach and he has now added Jenni to the raft of applications on Facebook.

This is an interesting approach to open innovation: as Facebook users will know there are an apparently endless number of discussion groups and fora but few that actually direct the discussion in the way that Jenni does.

In trying out Jenni I came across creative thinker Katie Konrath who proposes a different approach to getting customers to contribute ideas on her blog. She highlights some of the limitations of the open approach, recognising that sometimes customers don’t know what they want until they see it, and that the best way to get ideas from customers is to observe them in the act of using your product or service.

In a customer service environment this is where asking front-line staff or observing their interactions can be highly instructive. Front line staff are – as I have said before – a much under-utilised resource (ask yourself: when was the last time front-line staff were engaged in creative thinking about what they do).

Going back to customers’ contributions, my Facebook/Jenni experience reminds me that interactions around ideas are likely to build a community of contributors so an additional benefit of soliciting ideas from anywhere is that you can build a (fan) club for your product or service – including those people who are not yet your customers.

But to get the best out of the wide approach think through what it is that you want people to creatively solve first.