Chris Quigley, Delib - Empower, or lose power

In the era of democratic consumerism, smart companies listen - and act on what they hear.

Getting feedback from your customers is not enough any more. Nor is it acceptable to let your staff have their say, merely as a token gesture. Customers, employees and citizens do not just want to be heard; they want to be involved - or at least be given the opportunity to be involved. And if you don't provide that opportunity, they will do it themselves - and make a noise doing it.

So, say hello to the new era of 'democratic consumerism'.

In the past few years, there has been a fundamental shift in power from the organisation to the individual, driven by technology and amplified by social media. The good news for organisations - whether business or government - is that this power shift is an opportunity rather than a threat.

The empowered consumer provides the opportunity to improve and innovate. They are not interested in second-rate service or products that are 'good enough' - they want the best. They are there, keeping an eye on your frontline staff; feeding back on how your service and products perform; coming up with ideas on how to improve what you do: 'Have you thought of using organic-only ingredients?', 'How about providing a discount for military personnel?', 'What about offering open-source software as standard on new computers?'

The empowered consumer is also there as a mouthpiece for your business, an advocate spreading the good word. On the flip side, they are there to criticise you when you get things wrong.

What many organisations find most frightening about this new phenomenon is that most of the participation happens in public, with people sharing their thoughts and experiences across blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The public nature of this is naturally quite a challenge for most organisations. However, it is something that cannot be stopped, so the best option is to embrace it rather than ignore it.

Good examples of companies making the most of empowered consumers are still not as common as they should be. In the US, Starbucks and Dell are the poster boys. Both run similar customer collaboration services - Dell with 'Ideastorm' and Starbucks with 'My Starbucks Idea' - where customers are invited to share their ideas on how to improve products and services.

The key to the success of these online communities is they are not just talking shops; they effect real service change and product innovation. To date, Dell's Ideastorm community has generated more than 12,000 ideas, 386 of which Dell has implemented. That is 386 improvements to Dell's business, instigated and mandated democratically by its own customers for free - for FREE. And it is not only the value of these ideas that is important; it is also the value of the process itself.

The fact that Dell not only listens, but also acts, is truly empowering to its customers and changes the customer/company relationship model. In short, it is creating a truly participative company - a company that has a unique relationship with its customers.

In the UK, a good example of a company starting to dip its toe into this field is Asda with its 'Your Asda' scheme - an online community that is given a say on future purchasing decisions.

The best example of a business wholly embracing the empowered consumer is the peer-to-peer loan company zopa.com. Its whole business model is based around customer participation.

So why are more companies not embracing democratic consumerism? Because it requires a significant culture shift and many executives are afraid of that level of change. But with research showing 98 per cent of consumers would definitely buy a product they had helped evolve, more businesses could soon be embracing the empowered consumer.

- Chris Quigley is managing director of Delib.

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