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They Want to Talk – Do You Want to Listen? How to Learn from Customers

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Does your business have a mechanism for collecting and considering customers’ insights? A good, old fashioned suggestion box or perhaps something more sophisticated? What do you do with customer input that comes your way?

Principle 5 in my latest book, Leading the Starbucks Way, challenges businesses to both cherish and challenge their legacy. Honoring the past, for instance – the core competencies that have built your business’ reputation, has value. But a prudent leader will consider at what point those very strengths that have been instrumental to success might be inadvertently becoming traps that could constrain future growth. To avoid eroding the integrity of something that has been central to their success, businesses sometimes never work to improve their offerings for fear of alienating their customers or causing confusion. The result can be a product, system or methodology that becomes an anchor…tethering your business to the past while holding you back from the future.

Starbucks gathers and analyzes feedback from customers about suggested improvements and innovations through its MyStarbucksIdea.com website. While many people have offered their opinions concerning the differences between an invention and an innovation, I have always favored the view that an invention is a new creation and an innovation is a new solution that attracts a customer. In essence, innovation is an applied and marketable phenomenon. It involves taking an invention and/or an existing product or service and improving on it in a way that makes it more valuable to those you serve. What is one of the key ways to do this? Listen to those you serve! Execute your customers’ innovations for your business.

MyStarbucksIdea is powered by loyal Starbucks customers who login to submit ideas and “vote” on ideas submitted by others. The site is then updated to reflect which ideas have been launched, which will be coming soon, which are under review, etc. For example, the long-beloved holiday cups are now available for iced beverages in warmer-weather parts of the United States for the first time, thanks to customer requests. Braille gift cards are now available year around, another customer-submitted idea. After much feedback about the loss of the personal touch in the drive thru, Starbucks’ next generation of drive thru locations will feature a screen where you can see and better interact with the barista taking your order. This opportunity to make a human connection was proving difficult to pull off with the old metal speaker boxes found in most drive thrus. All of this momentum stemmed from setting up a mechanism for receiving feedback, considering the feasibility of the suggestions, and acting where leadership believed it was strategic to do so. Those who were loyal customers before now have a heightened degree of investment because they literally see themselves now reflected in the brand.

Traditionally, marketers talk about lifestyle brands as those that connect with customers’ personal identity. They are brands that “promote a lifestyle” customers value or to which they aspire. Starbucks is certainly a business that has all the traditional aspects of lifestyle branding, as its leaders have stewarded the brand to authentically project an image of product passion, concern for the human connection, and community values. However, Starbucks leaders have also taken their value proposition up a level to something I refer to as an “advanced lifestyle” brand. Not only does Starbucks “project a lifestyle,” but it enters the lifestyle of its customers.  It does this in part by soliciting ways to do and be better from loyal customers and then…actually does them!  The hazelnut macchiato exists and more whole grains are found in Starbucks food options because customers spoke up.  Change, when it comes from your core audience, can provide a wonderful platform from which to usher in future growth.

Cherish and challenge your legacy by inviting your customers into the conversation!

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