It seems like a simple question: “What do you want?” Yet companies routinely struggle to find effective ways to ask the question of their customers, and more important, to understand the answers. Fortunately, there is life after focus groups and the written survey.

For example, technology is pushing feedback further. Online customer research firm Hotspex provides a customer research service dubbed “Ideaspex.” Users submit product development ideas into an ongoing contest for approval by their peers. Ideas rated highly by other users bubble up to the top of the list, providing submitters with notoriety as well as reward incentives. Sponsoring corporate marketers can take the highest-potential ideas into their own product development process. “The client’s marketing team is empowered with thousands of scored ideas, which they can then move into more traditional research methods,” says Shane Skillen, president of Hotspex.

New technologies like this may elicit more realistic feedback than traditional focus groups or surveys might. “You don’t necessarily reach a different customer, but you do get a different response from a customer at 3 a.m. in their underwear than you would if they were in a room with eight other people,” Skillen says. So far results have been impressive. One CPG client gathered more than 9,000 peer-rated names for a new product package within 24 hours of posting the product’s image and description and putting out a call for input, Skillen says.

A picture is worth a thousand comment cards

New ideas in customer feedback don’t have to be purely technological, however. Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration recently conducted a “photo-elicitation” program. Operating at the Statler Hotel, the university’s on-site hotel, Cornell researchers provided guests with a disposable camera and asked them to photograph elements of the hotel that made a strong impression on them, good or bad. The results were developed, copies of the photos given to the guests, and then the impressions discussed in a follow-up interview. Results were strong. Nearly four of every five customers approached for the study turned in a camera with at least one picture on it. Those pictures revealed both minor details that might not have appeared on a comment card in time to take action (such as damage to bedding), as well as broader endorsements of the hotel’s comforts. Stephani Robson, a Cornell senior lecturer who worked on the project, says a customer’s visual feedback is important to learn about what can’t be seen on paper. “There is a common perception that designers know about this stuff, but they don’t,” she says. “[Hotels are] designed by people who think about what looks cool, but may not think about what works.”

What We Think

Photo elicitation is a great technique, one with legs especially when combined with camera phones.  Researchers have long known that behaviors are far more telling than what people say.  Pictures can likewise give market researchers insight into what really matters to consumers.  Look for services that combine photo elicitation with the ability to submit photos online from your mobile phone via one click using a free (at least for now) webservice such as <a href="http://www.shozu.com/portal/" .  According to Jason Compton, at 1to1 Media:  “These new, more involved customer feedback activities are part of a trend that independent trend firm Trendwatching.com calls “Customer Made.”

Customer Made

  The phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services, and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in (and rewarding them for) what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed.

This goes beyond basic feedback without company responses, customization, or even personalization, as all of these actions take place after companies have decided what the basics are, says Reinier Evers, founder of Trendwatching.com.

“Consumers have always been eager to give feedback, but companies rarely listened,” Evers says. “Then came the Web, and consumers could publish their feedback for all to read. So the long expected conversation was finally possible, but it became a conversation mainly between consumers. Now organizations are finally joining in.”

Evers notes that once feedback takes this next step, it could be a Pandora’s Box if not managed correctly by the enterprise. “Once they become accustomed to Customer-Made being an option, consumers will take even less kindly to corporations who don’t communicate, who don’t respond to feedback, who don’t use open source, who don’t act on suggestions, who keep throwing new stuff over the wall, hoping someone will like it. It’s time to open up.”

1 to 1 Media Newsletter May 22, 2006
As reported by Jason Compton